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Naomieh Jovin

For Honeysuckle Projects, This Is Only the Beginning

After two years of preparations and anticipation, Omar Tate and Cybille St.Aude-Tate’s grocery store and community center is getting ready to open in West Philly this September

On a very hot day in June, six chefs stood around a butcher block prep table in a kitchen on South 48th Street, talking over a tray of English muffins and loaves of sweet potato bread. It was only three months out from the opening of Honeysuckle Provisions — a grocery store and takeout spot founded by chefs Cybille St.Aude-Tate and Omar Tate — and while the staff was still waiting on some key kitchen equipment, and the research and development stage was still ongoing, the menu was, by then, largely set. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner were enthusiastically listed on a dry-erase board above a sink: In big capital letters under “lunch,” a sense of joy jumped out in a word: HOAGIE!

A group of six people stands around a table assessing loaves of bread and English muffins.
The chefs at Honeysuckle Provisions.

“I’m always going to be most excited about things that I grew up eating but [that] people would never pull out as a Black ingredient or a Black dish,” Tate says, while talking through the Honeysuckle menu. “The hoagie I’m really excited about because that’s incorporating the West African benne seeds and the turkey that’s being raised by Kyle [Smith of Smith Poultry]. But also, when I was growing up, you could buy a hoagie for $1 in the hood.” A hoagie at Honeysuckle will be more in the $8 to $10 range — inflation and all — but it’ll contain the essence of Tate’s childhood, ingredients from Black farmers, and influence from Black foodways all at the same time. For Tate, that’s priceless.

When it opens in the Walnut Hill neighborhood of West Philly in late September, Honeysuckle Provisions will be the first part of a long-anticipated dream come true for both founding chefs, with a much bigger second community center to come two years down the line. (All of this will operate under the larger umbrella of Honeysuckle Projects.) Part market and part takeout counter, the Honeysuckle Provisions shop will sell grocery staples — meat, eggs, bread, cheese, produce — alongside a takeout menu for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The mission is what matters the most to married couple St.Aude-Tate and Tate: Almost everything at Honeysuckle can be traced back, in some form, to a lineage of Black food.

A tray of beef patties and veggie patties lined up in a row.
Honeysuckle Provisons’ veggie and beef patties.
A tray of golden biscuits.
Biscuits made with whole wheat pastry flour and einkorn flour, for Honeysuckle’s breakfast menu.

“People have said [we’re like] DiBruno Bros. but Black,” Tate says, noting that it’s a correlation he dislikes. “But there really is no comparison for what we’re doing.”

Like the hoagie, everything at Honeysuckle comes with a story. The Honeysuckle market will sell black-eyed pea vegan scrapple with extra flavor from black-eyed pea miso, or “peaso,” fermented in-house by Jamaar Julal of JamBrü Ferments. The turkey will be sourced from Smith Poultry, a Black-owned farm in Williamstown, New Jersey. The BLACKEnglish muffins, named with a nod to a James Baldwin essay, will be made with flour from dehydrated sweet potatoes grown on Plowshare Farms in Bucks County. Why sweet potatoes? Because George Washington Carver — a Black scientist and inventor whose agricultural research was some of the most important of the 20th century — generated more than a hundred ways to use the Southern crop. Carver’s research influenced Honeysuckle’s menu as well as its logo — if you look closely, you’ll spot the sweet potato.

“We’ve been playing around with the idea of rotating [the veggie patty filling] with what we have and what’s going to be growing on the farm,” says Aya Iwatani, Honeysuckle’s lead pastry chef. The turmeric-tinted half-moon veggie patties — which that morning lay on a tray in the kitchen, crimped and tidy — are delicate, flaky, and savory. (There will be a traditional beef version, too.) “This filling is actually made with cowpeas that we grew on the farm last summer, and Haitian pikliz.” The Haitian spicy pickle condiment was a contribution from St.Aude-Tate, who wants to inject her Haitian heritage into Honeysuckle recipes wherever it makes sense. “As a Black Haitian American woman, I still feel like Haitian food isn’t at the forefront in food media,” she says. “And there are other cultures and other countries that need to be really represented just as equally.” Down the line, Honeysuckle will sell djon djon bagels, made from the dehydrated black trumpet mushrooms that are prominent in Haitian cuisine.

Honeysuckle is intent on foregrounding those overlooked food legacies for anyone who walks through its doors. To accomplish at least part of that goal, St.Aude-Tate and Tate had to hire cooks who wanted to do the same. When interviewing candidates, they asked slightly less traditional questions — What do you like to do? What was your fondest food memory? What is your relationship like to food? — with the intention of finding chefs who saw food as an outlet for narrative and history as well as sustenance. In the end, they brought on lead baker Sterling Pope, lead savory chef Edwin De La Rosa, pastry chef Iwatani, and fermentation specialist Julal.

A group of six people stands in front of a purple wall with an open window into a kitchen.
Chefs Edwin De La Rosa, Cybille St.Aude-Tate, Jamaar Julal, Omar Tate, Sterling Pope, and Aya Iwatani.

“These biscuits are good,” Iwatani says, gesturing to a tray of buttery, hearty biscuits that will be served on Honeysuckle’s breakfast menu. (They are.) “But what we’re trying to work on is a laminated biscuit — trying to recreate the biscuits you would get in a can at the grocery store.” That can be a challenge when working with less commercial flours like einkorn and whole wheat pastry flour, but it’s the kind of challenge Honeysuckle wants to tackle: Making the deceptively commonplace feel special. Adding depth where depth is due.

“A big part of our discussions are about the intention and the reason and the ethos behind the foods that we make,” Pope says. Nailing that ethos sometimes means trying infinite combinations in order to get the meaning right. “We come in [and it’s] five days a week of us running into a brick wall over and over again.” While we talk, Pope is dividing and shaping bread dough, and assessing the bake on his sweet potato loaf.

Testing recipes and ideas for any new restaurant is always a long process, which necessitates even the most experienced cooks to frequently return to the drawing board. But Honeysuckle’s chefs are hungry to make dishes that taste good while centering not just ingredients from the African diaspora but storytelling and sourcing, too. Operating outside of a hierarchical structure — “We do not have any prescribed titles for our team other than ‘chef,’” Tate explains — the staff has worked through iterations of everything they have on the menu, from sauces to sausages to breads to vinegars to large-format veggie dishes.

“They run this place,” Tate says, gesturing toward his eager chefs and laughing. “We just came here to take the pictures.”

A hand slices sausages on a butcher board.
Tate slices hot links that will be part of Honeysuckle’s sausage program.

When Omar and Cybille met, she says it was love at first sight. It was during the very early days of the pandemic, and the chefs were cooking at the Charleston Wine and Food Festival in South Carolina. They knew each other from Instagram and their respective projects — his Honeysuckle, hers Caona, both pop-up dinners that focused on food inspired by the African diaspora — and when they saw how well they worked together, they felt possibilities expanding.

Tate had been running his successful Honeysuckle pop-up dinners dedicated to the “narrative of Black existence” for four years in New York City when the first pandemic-related restaurant shutdown happened, barely a week after he and St.Aude-Tate met. With no bailout money for his project to continue, Tate moved back to Philly to live with his mom in the Mantua neighborhood of West Philly, where he grew up.

“Moving back home was definitely a shift. I spent nine years in New York, and those were some real formative and identity-solidifying years. So moving back to Philly kind of initially felt like an undoing,” Tate says. “And it took a while to grow into a space where I felt comfortable with all the selves that I’d become.” At the same time that Tate was posted up at his mom’s house in his old neighborhood, in a room with barely more than a mattress and a eucalyptus plant, he was being celebrated nationally for his Honeysuckle work. He was named Chef of the Year in 2020 by Esquire. He was part of the Time 100 in early 2021. All the while, he continued doing Honeysuckle dinners through a takeout operation at South Philly Barbacoa, while St.Aude-Tate came down to visit him from New York.

A glowing glass jar of honeysuckle vinegar with two hands gesturing.
Honeysuckle vinegar fermented by Jamaar Julal.
A white crock that says black eyed peaso on the front.
The famed black-eyed peaso, that becomes foundation for Honeysuckle’s vegan scrapple.

Running pop-ups was stressful for both chefs: “You’re unloading, you’re loading, you’re building the restaurant, you’re breaking it down,” St.Aude-Tate says. Pop-ups are nomadic, and rely on how much of a “warrior individual personality” you have, Tate adds. “You can have 50,000 followers on Instagram, but can’t sell 15 tickets at the pop-up.”

St.Aude-Tate and Tate have almost two decades of cooking experience between them, so it would not have been surprising if — even in summer 2020 — they began hatching a plan to open a brick-and-mortar restaurant in Philly.

“All the way up until March [2020], I wanted Honeysuckle to be this avant-garde restaurant dining concept art gallery thing,” Tate says, “But because the concept was about, and talking to, and inspired by Black people and Black folks, being in this richly Black neighborhood, the last thing that Mantua needed was what I was proposing.” When Tate noticed that the local grocery store in his mom’s neighborhood had closed, he began to dream up something different. Honeysuckle wasn’t destined to be a restaurant, after all. Rather, it was a grocery store, a takeout spot, a community center, and a neighborhood hub.

A man holds half a loaf of sweet potato bread.
Pope and Tate assess the bake on the sweet potato loaf.
Strings of sausages hang over a piece of parchment paper.
Honeysuckle’s sausages.

The idea for a community space came to Tate because his grandfather, James Jamison, had run a community space of his own in South Philly in the 1970s, serving food to the neighborhood kids while promoting arts and education. A few months after his return to Philly, in July 2020, Tate started a GoFundMe to raise money for the new iteration of Honeysuckle: a forthcoming provisions store, which he described as the “Black Trader Joe’s.” The goal was to raise $250,000 to build a “multifaceted community center where Black food puts its flag on a plate and stakes a claim for space in America,” Tate wrote. “Because America won’t acknowledge and give it that space.”

The GoFundMe quickly raised $50,000 — a fifth of its goal — in under a month. Anyone who donated over $100 was sent a bean pie: Tate was raised Muslim and the bean pie was a reference to the staple that members of the Nation of Islam sold to raise money for the organization.

Tate and St.Aude-Tate got married in August and began looking for a space. They spent the better part of 2021 and 2022 working on infrastructure — starting the Honeysuckle farm, hiring chefs, doing R&D through CSA-style boxes packed with all the ingredients a family of four would need for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. All the while, the chefs say they continued to learn how to be bosses, how to impart knowledge onto their cooks, how to honor their ancestors, and, most importantly, how to see their vision through.

“We’re older kids, right? And so being on the line for 40 hours a week just don’t hit the same anymore,” St.Aude-Tate says, of the transition from cook to owner. “But learning these things about the business aspect of [Honeysuckle], learning about how these numbers work, and also just learning the social impact of the work that we’re doing, [that’s] far more fulfilling than just being a grunt on the line. So I’m happy.”

A group of chefs stand around a butcher block while one chef flexes his muscles and others laugh.

Back at the Provisions kitchen, the group devolves into laughter when a debate over Drake begins. Tate joke-flexes his muscles. Honeysuckle’s house-made ingredients, like Creole mustard, honeysuckle vinegar, einkorn biscuits, and black-eyed peaso, are scattered around the table. The banter between the six chefs, both the seasoned ones and their younger counterparts, is lively and familial. This is only part one of the Honeysuckle project — in two or so years, a 12,000-square-foot community center, fast-casual restaurant, teaching kitchen, library, and art gallery, more in line with Tate’s original idea, will open in West Philly with the help of private investors. Down the line, the chefs want to open Honeysuckles in other cities, like Baltimore, Wilmington, and Camden. But at least for now, in these early days, something is already growing.

In an earlier conversation, Tate and St.Aude-Tate had talked about how they had come to engage with their own histories — their apartment is overflowing with books on Black culture, Black cooking, and everything in between, St.Aude-Tate said. Their experiences in kitchens, running their own pop-ups, making art, and writing, as well as being parents — all of these things have influenced what Honeysuckle Projects is and what they want it to be.

Even now, they are continuing to learn. “I didn’t know about benne seeds until after I met [chef] BJ Dennis, and that was only a few years ago,” St.Aude-Tate says about the heirloom seed brought to the South Carolina lowcountry by enslaved people in the 18th century. “Every day we meet a Black person or a person of the diaspora that isn’t aware of certain ingredients.” St.Aude-Tate says they want to counteract the disservice done to Black people around their food histories. “Our priority is to make sure that more people that look like us can relate to this food because it is a part of theirs, as well.”

Honeysuckle wants to do for others what the chefs say others have done for them. “I love sitting around the kitchen with my mother-in-law and she’s telling stories about her father in Haiti, who used to go fishing and bring back oysters and fish. Or when I talk to my uncle about how his grandfather would walk him to the Italian market to buy oysters and just slurp them raw,” Tate recalls. “These are the stories that you hear about Black family and Black food that you can only get by talking to your elders.”

Tate continued, “We can read as much as we want in books and pull as much as we want from reference material, but if you’re not really connected to your people, then you’ll never get the full picture,” Tate says. “And I think the very special thing about Honeysuckle is that that full picture is coming to bloom in every single thing that we’re doing.”

A woman pours honey on a biscuit with apple butter.

Naomieh Jovin is a first-generation Haitian American and photographic artist based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Honeysuckle Provisions is located at 310 S 48th Street. It will be officially open in late September. Opening hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., and Sunday from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Website.

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