Chef Spotlight: Melba Wilson
Melba's Restaurant, the eponymous soul food eatery from Melba Wilson, has been a Harlem staple since it first opened its doors in 2005. "With its colorful spirit and lineup of Southern classics, this comfortable spot—as charming and lovely as its namesake owner, born-and-bred Harlemite Melba Wilson—is a perfect reflection of the neighborhood’s flavor, culture and past," state Michelin inspectors.
Wilson grew up in her grandmother Amelia's kitchen, which is where her love for food and hospitality first began to blossom. She got her first taste of the restaurant industry as a young adult at Sylvia's Restaurant owned by her aunt Sylvia Woods, working her way from cashier to hostess to assistant manager. Wilson left the family business to work at Rosa Mexicano and then Windows on the World until it was destroyed by the September 11 terrorist attacks.
It then became time for Wilson to venture out and stand on her own two feet, showing others that she could succeed—particularly as an African-American woman in the industry—and they could too. "It was important for me to lead by example and show that we have the power to be the change we seek," she shares. "I want to provide opportunities in my community and show that we can achieve our dreams if we take a chance on ourselves and rid oneself of fear." Melba's Restaurant opened in 2005—funded by her own savings as she was unable to garner a bank loan—and has become an institution in the neighborhood.
As for the neighborhood, "Since signing my lease in 2004, the fabric of Harlem has changed tremendously," says Wilson. "Some of the changes have been good and some have not." Gentrification has contributed to the demolition of a number of landmarks—such as Renaissance Theatre & Ballroom and Lenox Lounge—in the historically Black community ("it breaks my spirit") and forever altered the birthplace of the Harlem Renaissance. "As someone who was born in Harlem, to me it is important to keep our core values, the very essence of the culture that makes Harlem, Harlem!"
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Yet through it all, the restaurant has evolved—and thrived—over time. "We have gone from a true 'adventure' of being the first sit-down restaurant to open on Frederick Douglass Boulevard (along what is now known as Restaurant Row), to a destination spot, and, dare I say, iconic dining experience with people coming from around the world."
Those guests include local Harlemites, furloughed government workers enjoying a free meal during the recent government shutdown, politicians, world-famous celebrities, activists and all other walks of life. Some of the more high-profile diners to walk into Melba's include Harry Belafonte ("Time stood still."), Smokey Robinson ("His grace and kindness is unparalleled!"), Dapper Dan ("A fashion icon waaaayyyy before the term was coined!"), DJ Khaled ("Khaled inspires and encourages me."), A$AP Ferg ("He doesn’t just talk about it, he walks the walk!") and Katy Perry ("A really humble and cool conversation.").
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Famous or not, Wilson strives to treat everyone that walks through her door as if she's welcoming them into her home for dinner. However, "My commitment to our seniors is never ending," she shares, "as I can only imagine what their eyes have seen in the years they have lived."
Throughout the restaurant's 15 year tenure, "We've evolved . . . while keeping to my stated objective of hiring from the neighborhood and giving people a chance that might not otherwise be afforded to them. We have doubled the size of the restaurant while still maintaining the close family-friendly feel," which Wilson hopes to preserve as her business continues to grow even larger. As for what's next, "We will expand our brand awareness by venturing into merchandise and food products."
Wilson's mission in life is much larger than just her own success—she wants to see her community prosper as well as the restaurant industry at large. (She was recently elected president of the NYC Hospitality Alliance.) "I'd like to see our industry continue to support small entrepreneurial individuals who are not afraid to go for their dreams. I want to see our industry continue to encourage diversity in food establishments as well as the emergence of new chefs and creative minds in the industry, while continuing to always be mindful of the fact that we are here to serve the public."
Photo courtesy of Melba's Restaurant.
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