Melba’s American Comfort
By Melba Wilson
Suzy Chase: Welcome to the Cookery by the Book podcast with me, Suzy Chase.
Melba Wilson: I'm Melba Wilson and my cookbook is Melba's American Comfort.
Suzy Chase: There are so many things I want to talk to you about. First, you were born, bred, and buttered in Harlem. How as the culinary landscape changed over the years?
Melba Wilson: Back in the '40s and '50s, the culinary landscape in Harlem was extremely rich and vibrant. You had restaurants such as the Savoy, which had great food. Minton's Playhouse had amazing, amazing jazz, but they also had a cook there by the name of Miss Adele who could really, really throw down. Joe Louis, the boxer, had a place and he was very known for his salmon croquettes. Of course, there was the famous Sylvia's as well as the man himself who started chicken and waffles, Mr. Wells. Throughout, I guess, the '70s and '80s, the culinary scene died down quite a bit and within the last, I would say, 10 years it's revived. It's like we've gotten a shot in the arm and you see everything from Ethiopian to Italian to Japanese spots and of course American comfort.
Suzy Chase: Cooking in your kitchen was a privilege that had to be earned. How did your South Carolina family influence you?
Melba Wilson: When I think about South Carolina, I really think about hospitality. The southerners have a way of presenting everything with a lot of warmth and a lot of love. Even though I was born, bred, and buttered in Harlem, every summer I spent in South Carolina or North Carolina. Just being around that warm, that hospitality, that true farm to table where everything came from the garden and went on the table really had a huge influence on me. It's pretty much all I knew. I would say that it's the basis where I come from and also the basis of my cooking.
Suzy Chase: Let's fast forward to 1987 and your aunt calls and she asks you to coordinate the 25th anniversary of her restaurant, the world renowned Sylvia's in Harlem. Was that a pivotal moment in your career?
Melba Wilson: I had no idea that it would catapult me and really be the blueprint of my love of the culinary industry. The short answer, definitely, it was the pivotal moment in my career and in my life.
Suzy Chase: Then after that, you ran into Pavarotti or was it?
Melba Wilson: That's such a great story and even years later, it still brings a great smile to my face and warmth to my heart. I was representing Sylvia's Restaurant at an event at Gracie Mansion and it's where the mayor honors a film legend as well as an onscreen television legend. This year, they were honoring Robert De Niro. They bring about some of the city's top restaurants in to provide the food for the event. We're all go around the table and everybody's talking about what they're going to bring. They get to me and I say I'm going to bring fried chicken and collard greens. I look across the room and there is this guy and he looks so much like Pavarotti to me, with a beard and the warmth. I was like "Wow, what's Pavarotti doing here?"
He says to me "Why don't you bring sweet potato pie?" Being from Harlem, I definitely had a little bit sass. I took my neck and went from side to side and I said "Why don't you bring sweet potato pie?" Everybody laughed because here I was this young girl who hadn't had a clue and it was quite obvious. The event rolls around some eight weeks later and in comes this Pavarotti guy and he taps me on the shoulder. He extends his hand to me and he has this wonderful box. I open the box and there were a dozen sweet potato mousse tarts. Can I tell you ...
Suzy Chase: Oh my gosh ...
Melba Wilson: ... When I bit into them, Suzy, it was like biting into Heaven.
Suzy Chase: I bet.
Melba Wilson: That was my introduction to Drew Nieporent, who is the king of the restaurant industry.
Suzy Chase: The king. I used to go to Dylan Prime all the time. I can still taste his mini Beef Wellington in my head today.
Melba Wilson: Amazing.
Suzy Chase: They were so good.
Melba Wilson: Amazing.
Suzy Chase: Then, you move on and you met Josefina Howard. How did that come about?
Melba Wilson: I was at a birthday party for Drew Nieporent and Mrs. Howard was there and she just said "Why don't you come and work for me?" We struck up a conversation and of course I'd heard of Rosa Mexicano. She goes "Why don't you come in and work for me?" I said "No. No, I'm opening my own restaurant." She goes "Well, why don't you just come work a few days?" I said "Well, let me come to dinner and we'll talk about it." We did and Mrs. Howard, her personality, her vision. She's such a visionary. She was such a visionary and just exchanging conversation with her was enlightening and empowering. To see a female who was at the head of her game in the food and beverage industry was, it totally, totally inspired me and I knew I wanted to be closer to her and around her.
I said yes. I worked at Rosa Mexicano on Sunday, Monday, and Tuesdays. I started out in the kitchen and it was phenomenal. I fell in love with the Mole and with the [lacoche 00:05:53] and oh my God and of course with the chipotle peppers. Again, I'm like this is Heaven. I've died and gone to Heaven with the spicings and the seasonings and then I moved to the front of the house. This is where I had most of my experience at Sylvia's. It was great. I love people. It showed. When I worked at Sylvia's, I worked in a dining room that sat 350 people and we didn't have a computer at the time. I would do everything by pen and paper. All three rooms by myself with pen and paper.
Suzy Chase: Wow.
Melba Wilson: When I got to Rosa Mexicano, there was a computer system. I was like wow and I had two hostesses with me. I would sometimes triple their cover count the slower days of the week.
Suzy Chase: Rosa Mexicano was a trendsetter in the Mexican food restaurant scene in New York City.
Melba Wilson: It definitely was. Mrs. Howard serving really high end, gourmet, I would call it, Mexican cuisine long before everyone else jumped on the Mexican bandwagon. It was herself as well as her partners, Doug Griebel, and Dan Hickey, who I'm still very, very close with to this day. As a matter fact, when I went to open Melba's, it was Doug Griebel and Dan Hickey who said to me "You know we just brought this restaurant and we're going to gut it out. Go and look and see if there's anything you can use in your restaurant." It saved me so much. They were so generous and so kind and very beneficial to me. To this day, he's one of the people, he along with Drew and Marcus Samuelsson are a few of the people that I call to seek out when I need help for advice.
Suzy Chase: You have such an interesting path that got you where you are today. I want to quickly touch on Chef Michael Lomonaco and Windows on the World. That was such a special place.
Melba Wilson: Windows on the World was indeed a very special part of my life. Windows on the World was a hit. Everybody Windows on the World. It was beautiful. You could overlook New York City, a skyline like no other. Sunday was the only day that they really weren't doing a lot of covers because of course on Sundays there weren't a lot of people in that area. Michael Lomonaco called me up and he said "I know you started the Gospel Brunch at Sylvia's, I'd love for you to come and do something on Sundays at Windows." Went down and I saw the space and I said "You know what, let's do a champagne gospel brunch." He goes "Whatever you want to do as long as you think it's going to be a hit." We started the Champagne Gospel Brunch. We went from they were doing when we started I think between 40 and 70 covers and we would do between four to 600 every Sunday.
It was a huge hit. September 9, we were there that Sunday. September 10, I had a meeting with Michael Lomonaco to renew my contract.
Suzy Chase: Wow.
Melba Wilson: Of course, September 11 was a day that none of us will ever forget. It changed all of our lives.
Suzy Chase: Tell us about your restaurants in Harlem.
Melba Wilson: Comfort food knows no religion. It knows no bank limits. It knows no ethnicities. It's all about food that makes you feel good. That's what I think the food at Melba's does. I think it makes our guests feel good. It reminds them of a little bit of home.
Suzy Chase: Speaking of comfort food, last night I made your country collard greens on page 172.
Melba Wilson: Yay.
Suzy Chase: Tell me about this recipe.
Melba Wilson: Well, collard greens are a staple in comfort food as well as soul food. Collard greens were the bitter greens. They were the garbage greens. We had to take them and make them taste amazing. What I do is I put a little bit of red pepper for a little spice and I use smoked turkey wings. A lot of times now people don't want to ... They really don't want to use ham or pork. What I do in the restaurant, even my grandmother on any given day, she wouldn't even have thought about smoked turkey wings. The ham hocks went in the pot, they boiled, you got the juices, all the flavor, the smokiness from them, and then the collard greens went in. Today, people are looking for different alternatives and smoked turkey is an amazing way to substitute.
One of the other things that we do with the collard greens is I take the juice from it and it's called pot liquor.
Suzy Chase: Yes. I saved mine from the ...
Melba Wilson: Yes ...
Suzy Chase: ... Dish last night. What can I do with it?
Melba Wilson: Oh my God, you can make an amazing dirty martini, but you can also take some cornbread and you can sop it. Now sop it or you can take a biscuit and sop it. Sop it is when you dip it in, you get that flavor and then you eat it. You can sop it and you can also use it as a broth.
Suzy Chase: How long will this last in my fridge?
Melba Wilson: Well, you can also freeze it.
Suzy Chase: Okay.
Melba Wilson: You can freeze it and it can last you a few weeks. Pot liquor is really good. Because remember, you have all the depth of the greens in there as well as a little bit of that spice and all the seasoning that just lays right in the bottom of the pot.
Suzy Chase: The hot sauce gave it a little kick.
Melba Wilson: It does. I'm big fan of Frank's hot sauce. When you get Frank's, it's not going to be overly salty, which sometimes hot sauce can be, and you're going to get just the right amount of kick and flavor. No one delivers it better than Frank's.
Suzy Chase: Where can we find you on the web?
Melba Wilson: On the web, you can find me at www.melbasrestaurant.com.
Suzy Chase: Thanks so much for coming on Cookery by the Book podcast.
Melba Wilson: Thank you, Suzy. Thanks for having me.