For more than 15 years, Melba Wilson has brought a little taste of South Carolina to Harlem at her eponymous restaurant Melba’s.
On Sept. 25, as part of the Bookmarks Festival of Books, Wilson will be in Winston-Salem to talk about her restaurant, love of food and her cookbook, “Melba’s American Comfort” (Atria Books, 2016).
Wilson is “born, bred and buttered” in Harlem as she likes to say. But her culinary roots stem mostly from South Carolina and the family visits she made there summer after summer as a child.
“My paternal grandmother was from Hemingway, S.C.,” she said. “She really developed my love of using food as a conduit for bringing people together. Every summer I would go down South. As soon as school was over, we would go down to South Carolina until August.
“It was totally not what we were used to on 144th Street in New York — but that was where I got to see where food came from.”
Wilson’s restaurant career took a roundabout route — she co-owned a Rent-A-Chauffeur business at one point — but in 1987 she got a job at Sylvia’s famed soul-food restaurant in Harlem, and she knew she was where she was meant to be.
“I just fell in love with the restaurant business. It didn’t feel like work,” Wilson said in her book.
She ended up staying at Sylvia’s for 11 years, notably launching Sylvia’s famous Gospel Sunday Brunch. Then came stints with Rosa Mexicano and Windows on the World before opening Melba’s in Harlem in 2005.
Melba’s reflects Wilson’s two worlds — South Carolina and Harlem — with a menu that is essentially Southern comfort food “with a dash of extra spice, a little urban edge, a taste of the melting pot, and a few ‘dee-lish’ twists,” she wrote in the book.
Wilson said in a telephone interview that the book represents both where she came from and where she is now. It includes the first cake she ever made for her uncle Roy, an applesauce spice cake, and her mother’s recipe for candied yams.
It’s filled with such Southern favorites as fried chicken, meatloaf, mac ‘n’ cheese, pineapple baked ham, cornbread, sweet potato pie and peach cobbler. But it also has some dishes that borrow from other eras or cultures, including vegetable spring rolls, slow-roasted adobo turkey and sautéed kale and mushrooms.
“My mac ‘n’ cheese is amazing,” Wilson said. “But it’s really hard to choose a favorite recipe. It’s like choosing a favorite child. My collard greens are no joke. But my fried chicken, my smothered pork chops, my shrimp and grits, my peach cobbler — mmm.”
If there is one dish that Melba’s is known for, it’s probably her fried chicken and eggnog waffles, partly because it’s a recipe that helped her beat Bobby Flay in competition on “Bobby Flay’s Throwdown” on the Food Network.
Her waffles start with a traditional raw-egg eggnog (with optional bourbon), and she likes to top them with strawberry butter or sliced strawberries.
“Melba’s American Comfort” includes four recipes for fried chicken. There’s the “Throwdown” that she serves with the waffles in the restaurant. There’s another buttermilk fried chicken with different seasoning, there’s an oven-fried version and a gluten-free version. Wilson said she spent a year perfecting the latter and highly recommends it for anyone avoiding wheat.
Wilson said that food has always been about bringing people together — something she learned years ago from watching her grandmother Amelia.
Wilson has relied on that power of food more than ever the last year and a half as the coronavirus pandemic has taken Melba’s and every other restaurant in the country on a roller-coaster ride that often had a lot more downs than ups. In her hometown of New York City — where more than 8 million people are crammed in about 300 square miles — survival, she said, came from restaurants sticking together, working together and learning how to adapt.
“The mom and pops, particularly, really felt it,” Wilson said of the pandemic. “But in a lot of ways, it has been galvanizing for us as a community. It showed us what we’re made of. As president of the Hospitality Alliance, I saw people working together — people looking for new options, people who had never done takeout before. People had to learn quickly to adapt. And through the Alliance, they had a way to pick up the phone and ask for advice.”
Wilson still worries about the future. “Business is booming right now. But we’re concerned about the upcoming months as it gets cold. People have to be vaccinated to dine inside (per New York City policy).”
She hopes that everyone from government leaders to even occasional diners recognizes what she has known for years.
“Restaurants are the lifelines of our communities,” she said. “They are the first jobs for many youngsters. When people are looking to fundraise, they come to restaurants for help. The restaurant industry is one of the largest private employers in the country. We are vital parts of the communities. When restaurants shut down, it’s not just that location that’s affected. It’s the produce market. It’s the fishmonger. It’s the truck driver who delivers the food. It’s a whole ecosystem.”