Cybille St. Aude-Tate on Honeysuckle Provisions and Supporting Black Farmers
The Philly-based Haitian American chef and her husband, Omar Tate, are on a mission to redesign our food system — one sweet potato at a time.
Behind the Line is Foobooz’s interview series with the people who make up Philly’s dynamic bar and restaurant scene. For the complete archives, go here.
If you ever get the chance to talk with Cybille St. Aude-Tate, she’ll weave together her life’s anecdotes like she’s the executive producer on her own E! True Hollywood Story. One minute you’re in a Long Island Catholic school eating fish and rice in the cafeteria, the next you’re at the James Beard House, and the next you’re in West Philly. With Cybille, the listening is easy. A breezy pleasure, in fact. But you can tell that her thinking — her language, her ideas about identity and community — comes from a place of considered research.
Cybille is a Philly-based Haitian American chef, social entrepreneur, and children’s book author. She and her husband, Omar Tate, make up the duo behind Honeysuckle Projects, a system of community spaces centering Black and Afrocentric ideologies and lineage through nourishment. In late September of 2022, they’ll open their first brick-and-mortar business: Honeysuckle Provisions will be an Afrocentric grocer and cafe on 48th Street between Pine and Spruce in West Philly.
I meet Cybille at the almost-ready cafe, where she’s unpacking boxes on a Tuesday afternoon in August. She hands me a 16-ounce deli container of cowpea coffee — Honeysuckle’s nutrient-rich spin on cold brew that tastes about twenty notches earthier than what you might get at your corner spot but electrifies your system nonetheless. Here’s what we talked about:
I grew up in … Long Island as the youngest of four. My family’s from Haiti and I was the only one born in the States.
My parents came from Haiti to America … In the mid-’80s. My dad came first in ’83 and then my mom came with my siblings in ’85. They were escaping the dictatorship of Jean-Claude Duvalier and they moved to Queens Village [NY], which held and still houses a huge Haitian population. My mom was actually culinarily trained in Haiti. When she came to the States, she became a nurse’s aid. But she kept her culinary tradition by starting up her own business with a friend of hers. She would make cakes for communions, baptisms, parties, weddings … and her friends would decorate. So I grew up around food and this spirit of entrepreneurship. My mom would work two jobs because on the weekends she’d be baking cakes. Yeah, for money, but also because she loved it.
My grandfather was … A voodoo practitioner. As a result, my mom overcorrected. So much so that I was an altar girl. There’s a thing about Haiti where it’s like 100 percent Roman Catholic, 90 percent voodoo. It’s a very religious country. But then there are still people who practice voodoo and other African spiritualities.
Going to Catholic school on Long Island was … A pretty wild ride. You know, a lot of the other minority kids were from the Caribbean or Latin America. So we had similarities in that, but it was still really awkward because we’d go to school and have lunch, and my lunch would be like rice and beans, and fish and all these things, and the other kids are eating sandwiches. It was always this push and pull between not being American enough and not being Haitian enough, right? I think I had this moment, especially when I was a teenager, of just really trying to figure out who the hell am I? That translated into what I do with my cooking now.
The plan was to become … A professor. I went to college because I wanted to study African American Studies. I went to the University of Maryland.
But what actually happened was … I graduated, I came home, and I needed to pay off my student loan debt. So I started working in a restaurant. I had a friend who was a chef at a Chinese restaurant. He was Jamaican and Italian, and so we were always talking about food, like food was always around us. One day, he was like, “You know a lot about food — come into the kitchen, give it a shot.”
When I told my mom I was going to work in kitchens, she said … ”I don’t like it.” But what was she going to do? So I started at the bottom and became an apprentice with the famous John Csere, who’s a really great chef in Florida now. He was teaching me all of these French techniques and terms, but then we’re still also in a Chinese American restaurant exploring another culture. And there was like this little moment of like, “Why aren’t we exploring our own cultures?”
After I got back from a trip in Haiti in 2012 … I wrote a children’s book. I saw a call for submissions for children’s books surrounding or regarding Haiti from this independent publisher called One More Book out of Brooklyn, the founder and president is an author named Wayétu Moore. It was a series of eight or nine books and one of the other authors was Edwidge Danticat, who is probably one of the most prominent Haitian authors of our time. She’s written so many life-altering books about growing up in Haiti and then assimilating to American culture. It was really affirming to be on this list of authors, to be doing this thing that focused on the identity I struggled with most of my life. After that I was, like, fully in a zone. Everything was a research project.
Omar and I met … March 5, 2020, right before everything shut down. We kind of knew of each other, since we had mutual friends in the city. Everyone was like, “Oh you gotta meet Omar,” “Oh you gotta meet Cybille,” but it never happened. Then we were booked to do a dinner for the Charleston Wine + Food festival. The head chef that was doing it was BJ Dennis, who is like the cultural bearer, historian, philosopher chef of Gullah Geechee cuisine right now. He’s a very good friend of ours. And he put us on this dinner, which was talking about the connections within the African diaspora.
My first impression of him was … I kid you not, it was like love at first sight. I didn’t believe in that until it was the end of the festival and we were like, “Okay, how do we rearrange our lives so we can be together?” We got engaged in June of 2020, and married in August 2020. Yep.
Honeysuckle started as … A pop-up series that Omar was doing mainly in New York. Then it transitioned into Provisions once the pandemic hit. Omar was living in New York — he had been there for eight or nine years. His mom was living at 42nd and Parrish and he came back and he was like, “There are no grocery stores in this immediate area.”
Originally we thought the restaurant would be … A fine dining spot in Center City, somewhere with an art gallery. That was the plan. And we started thinking about access to food, and all these people that were without it. And it was like, man, it would make so much more of an impact if we shifted and we put this in West — to make it a place that felt safe and felt like it was what the neighbors deserve. The crazy part is, Lancaster is like just down the road, so to speak. There are so many farms and so much fresh food and ingredients, and yet, people in this neighborhood are still struggling to find access to these things.
Our work at Honeysuckle is informed by … Oh man, so many people. Dr. Jessica B. Harris is one of those pioneers who we should still be giving flowers to, because she’s still alive today. She’s done the groundwork, the research, the traveling. She has said, “Here, guys, this is what foodways are, this is what they could be and here’s the proof. Take it and make it your own thing.” Edna Lewis is another matriarch of Black foodways who has done that. Edwidge Danticat has done that with Haitian culture and creativity, thinking about being an immigrant artist, and all of the things that come with not really being able to talk about Haiti the way we want to because of persecution from the government.
The thing you might not know about George Washington Carver is … He also had a plethora of crops that he focused on other than the peanut. What he really did was revolutionize the way that Black farmers thought about cash crops or other crops. And so he wrote a text that gives hundreds of different applications of things like sweet potatoes and cowpeas. A lot of our work at Honeysuckle is inspired by him, and we developed two of our products that we’re going to be selling here [based on Carver’s text]. One is our bread program, which we make with sweet potato flour. We’re working with Plowshare Farms in Pipersville to grow our sweet potatoes. We dry them out in the back and grind them down to a flour. So we’re literally taking what Dr. George Washington Carver wrote down, and adapting it and putting it into processes now.
When you walk into Honeysuckle, you’ll see … Two open-air merchandisers full of produce that we’re sourcing from local farmers, local Black farmers in the area. There will be a lot of dry produce hanging out, a lot of plants and merch and books and magazines. We’re making condiments in house. Some of the flours we use we’ll package and sell. Also we’re going to support other artisans who make food products — we’ll have those on our shelves. And then we’ll have a breakfast, lunch and dinner hot-food menu. So you can order your scrapple, egg and cheese. You can order your hoagie with turkey that we make in house on a roll that we make ourselves with Sonoran flour. We’ll have sandwich bread, too. Anything that you would be able to buy at your local grocery store, we’ll offer here. But also dinner, salad bowls, and pastries like plantain upside-down cake.
We’re trying to be as close to zero-waste as possible by using … Whatever is dying in grocery cases and turning it into a special or something on the menu.
The cold brew at Honeysuckle will be … Cowpea coffee. It’s coffee made from the beans. So it’s two-part cowpea and one-part coffee from Kenya. And the beauty of it is you kind of get that energy from the caffeine but you’re not, like, cracked out. It’s super nutrient-dense, because it’s cowpea.
When someone tells me, “Oh this is not going to work, people don’t want healthy food,” I say … That’s not true. We did a market study, which was really cool. In our one-mile radius in West Philly, people are leaving this community to go find fresh, healthy food somewhere else. That’s so much money that’s pouring out of our community that should be invested within it. So why not open it here? People want to be connected to their food. They want to be connected to their stories and they want to learn more about their culture and Black foodways. This is essentially their one-stop-shop for that. If there’s a vegetable you’ve never heard of before, we’re going to tell you about it.
One of the things I’m most excited to sell at Honeysuckle Provisions is … A Black farmer CSA box, which is going to be basically all the produce we gather from Black farmers. There are two legacy Black farmers that we’ll be working with in South Jersey. It’s crazy because, one of the farms called K&J Organic Farms in Elmer, this is an entire family of folks growing on 60 acres of land who are still struggling to sell their products. The main farmer, Mr. Bartee, he was born a sharecropper. When we first met him, he was telling Omar that they go to auction and they can’t get rid of their products because they’re the only Black farmers at the auction and their products just die. They’re growing because they need it for their livelihood but also they have land, this is what they were born to do is to grow this land. They need a way to get it out, for people to buy it. So it’s really our mission to put farmers like that on the map.
One challenge for us is … The push-and-pull of being a Black-owned business and having high prices for Black food. There’s this undervaluing of Black food that’s been like, historical and monumental throughout time. For us, the challenge is trying to get folks to justify why this food is worth it, why they should spend money on Black food. People can go anywhere else in the city and buy any other thing and spend like $40 a plate, and not even bat an eye. But to come in and pay $12 for a hoagie with ingredients grown and raised by a Black farmer, the turkey was processed here …
If there could be four clones of Omar and Cybille … One of those people would be in charge of distribution. We would essentially have this distribution network that supported farmers all along the East Coast. Eventually we’re going to get to that. Actually we’re already going to be supporting our farmer friends in South Carolina. Marvin Ross at Peculiar Pig Farm is a great friend of ours and he has these wonderful hogs. Whenever we get a chance, we drive down to South Carolina and bring a cooler of stuff back. And that’s cute. But our little Toyota Matrix can’t handle that regularly.
The Haitian dish I hated as kid but love now is … Mayi moulen. It’s similar to polenta or grits. It’s yellow cornmeal that’s ground down, not super fine. It’s still very grainy. And it’s typically cooked with coconut milk. Sometimes people will add meat or spinach, beans, whatever. But it’s essentially a big pot of corn porridge. I hated it as a child and my dad hated it as a child. And it was one of those things that, when my mom would make it, my dad and I would be like, “What is she doing?” But nowadays, the appreciation I have for it is so intense. It’s such a good meal. It’s so good for you, it’s so filling. And the way I kind of came around to enjoying it was by enjoying polenta and grits. It was so wild to me, because I’m like, this is essentially the same thing. The flavors might be a little different, but we’re literally all eating the same thing.