When Bill Clinton was in his twenties, he lived a few years in the United Kingdom. When he flew home, he would take a bus from the airport to Harlem and walk the length of 125th street. May 14 through 17 was Harlem’s inaugural Harlem EatUp! Festival, and no one in the crowd was expecting to see President Clinton return on Saturday May 16. Standing on the stage in Morningside Park, Clinton said, “Harlem is about music, the churches and the small businesses. But nothing characterizes this neighborhood more than the food.”
And he was right. There was a palpable sense of surprised delight from the planners and attendees.
It’s rare that a food event has so many different goals: Celebrate the community, attract chef and diner attention from other parts of the city, offer education and guidance to culinary students and small business owners, all while shining a spotlight on restaurants and vendors new to cooking for a five-hour ticketed tasting event. But stakeholders from all sides of he equation seemed satisfied with the turnout, the management and content of the events.
The price of Saturday’s major event, a tasting party called “The Stroll,” has been a point of contention. A $75 to $150 ticket is a tough hurdle for many neighborhood residents. But, for a full tasting experience including an entire tent of beer, wine and spirits vendors, the price tag looks kind. Compared to the price of similar events like the South Beach Food and Wine Festival (an inspiration for the event), it’s affordable.
Leslie Pitterson, a Harlem resident who stayed in the neighborhood after getting her master’s degree at Columbia, said that she thought the price for the Saturday’s tasting and drinks tents was a fair price. “For the selection at the tents, the cost was reasonable, “said Pitterson, “There were so many vendors there and I got to try a lot of the signature dishes from restaurants that I love and ones I haven’t checked out yet.”
Saturday’s culinary demos were free to the public as well as all activities on Sunday, though the food in the tents was for purchase instead of all included, with plates ranging from four to seven dollars.
The festival included seventeen dinners that brought guest chefs from other parts of New York and the US to cook with Harlem’s staple restaurant chefs at venues like The Cecil, Sylvia’s and Marcus Samuelsson’s newest joint Streetbird.
But the main attraction were Saturday and Sunday’s tasting tents. Standouts included shrimp and grits from Harlem Shake’s brunch menu, Samuelsson’s own jerk chicken tacos from Red Rooster, a refreshing spring pea soup shooter from the Sylvia Center, a prosciutto wrapped shaved asparagus salad from The Grange Bar & Eatery and the ceviche with plantain chips from Harlem Tavern.
Culinary demos too, were a big part of the weekend. Samuelsson performed a high energy demo with chef Aaron Sanchez, author of La Comida del Barrio, where Samuelsson was quite literally a cheerleader while shouting from the demo stage, “Would you rather eat uptown or downtown?” with crowd answering “Uptown!”
“Would you rather eat in Brooklyn or uptown?” he said — “Uptown!”
Sanchez, who made a salmon dish with the help of a young girl from the crowd said, “Harlem is a culinary mecca and you need to come up here and check it out.”
Saturday was not only a day of eating, but also a day of discussion. The Studio Museum in Harlem was the home of Harlem Talks: a panel discussions on a variety of topics from a day in the life of a chef to how food businesses can serve the community.
The panels were lightly attended, but the engagement between audience and speakers was enthusiastic and specific, with questioners coming in from the Bronx and Long Island.
At arguably the most star-studded panel “A Day in the Life of a Chef,” featuring Scott Conant, Alex Guarnaschelli, Joseph JJ Johnson, Michael White and Samuelsson, and hosted by Ted Allen, a young culinary student from the Bronx stood up and asked Samuelsson how to get onto the culinary scene at his level. He told her to come to Red Rooster at 9:30 a.m. on Monday morning and “stage,” or apprentice.
At the “How to Open a Restaurant” panel, the room was filled with a diverse group asking intelligent questions about trends in fast casual concepts and how to transition from catering to a brick and mortar restaurant.
At the “How to Serve Your Community” panel, Jessamyn Rodriguez, founder of Hot Bread Kitchen, said that most of the applicants for her training programs want to be Aliyyah Baylor of Make My Cake fame, who was also on the panel.
So the festival was a fairly uncontested hit. But when it comes to next year, organizers Nikoa Evans-Hendricks of Harlem Park to Park, an organizer and beneficiary of the festival, Marcus Samuelsson and business partner Herb Karlitz have a lot to talk about.
“This first year everything was a test. What works? Will people come?” said Evans-Hendricks. And to ask festival-goers, it seems like they passed with flying colors.
But there has been a bit of backlash from the community. On top of some disapproval of a neighborhood event with a pricetag out of range for many residents, the festival also reportedly did some damage to the park itself that could prove expensive.
“They may have to reseed the area. If they do, they have to close the area and if they don’t the park is going to look like crap for the rest of the season.” said Maurice Sessoms, a member of the Friends of Morningside Park to DNAinfo. He continued, “We don’t want the event not to be there. We just want them to respect the neighborhood.”
And the neighborhood has broader controversies to discuss than the grass in Morningside Park. Melba Wilson, of Melba’s Restaurant said that she knows of 64 black-owned businesses that have closed in the last few years. “The rent’s too damn high. It’s really sad… The people that were born and raised here can’t afford to live here.”
Growing pains are to be expected for a festival that wants to last a long time. But the fast-changing dynamics in Harlem’s business and residential communities will require this one to keep one ear to the ground if it is to stay an authentic part of the Harlem community.
“This is not for show. This is very real. This is our home. Harlem is a small town in a big city.” said Evans-Hendricks. “So for us, we’re raising our kids here, it matters to us what’s happening here.” With that kind of ethos, it seems unlikely that Harlem Eatup! will go the way of $300 tickets and tiny tasting portions, but we’ll just have to wait and see.
Photo credit: Brent Herrig