💌 Do you like Philly? Sign up for Billy Penn’s free newsletter to get everything you need to know about Philadelphia, every day.
Husband-and-wife chefs Omar Tate and Cybille St. Aude-Tate realized something funny as they got closer to launching Honeysuckle Projects, their effort that conveys “black aesthetics, philosophy and ideology” to many ways, but mostly through food.
“Cybille and I hardly cook anymore,” said Tate, a West Philly native who has achieved national fame for his cooking.
St. Aude-Tate couldn’t help but laugh, and Tate laughed with her. As Honeysuckle’s physical locations continue to expand, the two chefs have spent less time in the kitchen, but they’re not crazy about it. “That’s actually a good thing,” Tate said.
In the works since 2020, Honeysuckle will manifest itself in a few projects still in the works – a cafe in Walnut Hill and a larger grocery space on 52nd and Market that doubles as a cultural center – and one you can taste now: seasonal boxes of breakfast which can be ordered online and picked up weekly. As the footprint grows, the team grows.
Elaine Holton manages the Honeysuckle Farm which spans 46th and Market. Sterling Pope and Aya Iwatani work on the farm and have taken on many responsibilities in the kitchen. The budding fermentologist Jamaar Julal puts his talents at the service of their recipes.
The idea that ties it all together is to create community while ensuring community.
“The whole project is really about providing an alternative for people in the neighborhood,” St. Aude-Tate explained, so West Philly residents don’t have to venture too far or spend too much “to get nutrient-dense foods, to get meals made by chefs and people who actually care about where your food comes from.
The cafe at 48th and Spruce is scheduled to fully open in June. In addition to counter service, it will feature a grocery wall featuring produce from black farmers in the tri-state area.
Honeysuckle’s intention is to grow with its grower network as the farm grows more and more cooking ingredients. The promotion and support of autonomy — whether within a network or within an organization — is a key element of the project.
The ability to sustain the land and strengthen black communities was a critical focus in the artwork of George Washington Carverwhose experiments with sweet potatoes inspired this season’s breakfast box items.
Inside the box is whipped sweet potato butter that goes well with BLACK English muffins — the name refers a 1979 essay by James Baldwin – made with einkorn sweet potato flour.
An item called the BLACKeyed pea scrapple isn’t just delicious, it also embodies “the convergence of cultural touchpoints,” Tate said, referring to black people who introduced the black-eyed pea to Americathe influence of Pennsylvania Dutch branded breakfast invention, and the prevalence of West Philadelphians who avoid the pigs when they dine.
To do this, cornmeal, peas and oats – all grown by honeysuckle – are combined with a black-eyed pea miso fermented by Julal, giving the end result a surprising tasty umami for foods made from plants.
Fry it next to a farm fresh egg, top it with a slice of cheese and place it on top of the muffin for a fantastic breakfast sandwich.
The pea cull was one of many formed in a deeply collaborative process, one that far exceeded the level of input and interaction farmers Iwatani and Pope were used to from previous food concerts.
“It’s very intentional and purposeful in a way that I think is absent from a lot of restaurants and cuisines in general,” Pope said.
From the jump, it was easy to talk with Tate and St. Aude-Tate, Iwatani said, “and be candid about how I felt about the industry’s situation amid the pandemic and the difficulties in reaching make ends meet and operate in an industry that wasn’t really supportive.
She noted a key difference with the management of Honeysuckle: “All ideas are considered in this company.”
Both Iwatani and Pope were compelled to join the team due to conversations with the founders of Honeysuckle that convinced them they could leave a deeper imprint on the community in which they find themselves.
“I’ve done a lot of self-help, and self-help is great, but it doesn’t pay off,” Pope said. “So if I have to choose between going to work and helping someone, this job feels like I don’t really have to make that choice.”
Tates cares about the intimacy of a home-cooked meal and the importance of feeling at home, and want to cultivate that spirit in their spaces beyond the dishes they serve.
“We’re going to create product lines that aren’t food, make artistic engagements that connect food, art, culture and literature,” Tate said, outlining what lies ahead for the location of 52nd street.
St. Aude-Tate mentioned having artwork on the walls, a space to work and meet, and a library as some of the ways Honeysuckle aims to assure customers they don’t have to “to worry about being in an undesirable or dangerous space”.
Safety and security, especially in a community setting, weighed heavily on the Honeysuckle hive mindset, a shift the Tates attributed to the company being born in the COVID era.
An example of this focus is a deeper sense of spirituality that has permeated their work since the start of the pandemic.
During Tate 2021 Residency at the famous Blue Hill in Stone Barns, the duo erected an altar commemorating their families. As a form of ancestor veneration, they said permeates black diaspora culture from voodoo to hoodoo—that is, from St. Aude-Tate’s Haitian origins to Tate’s Southern Carolinian roots—these altars will continue to feature in their work.
“The practice of giving respect, of keeping space for our ancestors and the people who paved the way for us, has become a necessity that we have put into practice and are doing more intentionally in our spaces,” said St. Aude-Tate. The sanctity of the family, for her, is fundamental in life and in her work: “Dining with us means that you are dining with our family.”
As they get closer to opening their storefront doors, Honeysuckle’s work reaches a new level of connection, both inward and outward.
“It’s almost like we’re creating this huge defensive wall, you can’t really penetrate it, you know?” Tate said, emphasizing the importance of networking and collaborating to break through that wall and connect with those around you. “I think black people have been doing this since we came here, because we’ve always had to do this to survive.”