With the upcoming Harlem EatUp! festival on May 14–17, the neighborhood’s food and hospitality scene is about to get an injection of fame.
Festival founders and producers are chef Marcus Samuelsson (of Red Rooster and Streetbird Rotisserie) and Herb Karlitz, president of Karlitz & Company, an event marketing firm.
The two, who have known each other for 20 years, have long wanted to put Harlem on the map.
“Marcus and I were at South Beach [Wine & Food Festival] last year, and it was at one of the after parties,” he said. “We just looked at each other. I said to him, ‘It’s time’ and he just looked at me and said, ‘Yep.””
“It’s time we do something to bring the spotlight here [in Harlem], like what happened in Brooklyn for the last 10 years,” said Karlitz.
Tren’ness Woods-Black, a festival participant and the granddaughter of famed restaurateur Sylvia Woods, recalls her father telling her about Harlem back in the day. “I thought it was just Wilson’s, Sylvia’s but before us there was a whole slew of restaurants. When we opened in ’62, the man my grandmother bought the restaurant from, Mr. Johnson, he had four restaurants.”
She also grew up hearing stories of Harlem from her grandmother’s days, a time where “you had to be dressed up to the nines to walk down Seventh Avenue.”
“You had to be prim and proper—on any day,” she said. “That’s where all the hot spots were and all the clubs and the ballrooms were.”
The festival’s ties to Harlem’s past is evident.
In early April, the festival’s chefs and participants gathered to recreate a photo inspired by Art Kane’s 1958 photo “A Great Day in Harlem” featuring 27 jazz greats.
It was in front of a brownstone at 17 E. 126th St.
“The chef photo actually made me really emotional,” Woods-Black said, “because right before we took the picture, Marcus [Samuelsson] is like, ‘Tren’ness, the sun came out!’ He was like “Tren’ness, your grandmother, she sent the sun, she’s here. Can you imagine how happy she is?’ I said, “Marcus, don’t make me cry, we’re about to take a picture!” And I’m an ugly crier.”
Karlitz and Samuelsson knew they wanted to make their idea a reality in February 2014. Just three months later, they made the announcement that Harlem EatUp! was happening and publicly shared their vision, alongside Bill de Blasio and neighbor Bill Clinton, who is honorary chair of the festival.
For a first-year festival, it is huge, with 45 events over four days.
“This will put the national spotlight on Harlem and even internationally,” he said.
The event features participants and chefs from Harlem and elsewhere, as long as they have a tie to Harlem in some way.
“Everyone is owning it. … The energy is through the roof,” said Woods-Black.
Free events are planned as well, including culinary demonstrations on the afternoon on May 16 by the likes of Marcus Samuelsson, Aarón Sanchez, Alex Guarnaschelli, and Ludo Lefebvre.
“[The park] is where a lot of people take their kids, especially when the money is a little tight,” Woods-Black said. “And kids are really big into Food Network and celebrity chefs.”
For the full experience or “EatUp on stereoids,” as Karlitz calls it, get tickets to “The Stroll: A Grand Tasting Experience” in Morningside Park (May 16, $75–$150, includes tastings).
Other events include talks, as well as “Dine In Harlem,” an array of dinners held at different Harlem restaurants, matching a Harlem restaurant and chef with acclaimed chefs from NYC and the country.
Woods-Black has been especially excited about the dinner at Sylvia’s on May 15, featuring herself, chef Carlos Brown, and guest chef Michael White.
“I’m going to channel A’lelia Walker, Madam C.J. Walker’s daughter.” Woods-Black said. “She would throw these elaborate dinner parties with the Harlem Renaissance writers so everyone would be at her house. She would invite people like the Vanderbilts, people from downtown to experience a mix of champagne and chitlins.”
On the menu: spicy Calabrese chitlins with fried green tomatoes (with Sylvia’s cornbread incorporated into the coating of the tomatoes), fresh buffalo mozzarella; smooth Charleston-style shrimp and grits; banana pudding crème brûlée.
You could tell she was elsewhere as she recounted the menu items. “Yum yum yum yum,” she said.
As the dinners feature either visual artists or musicians, Charisa, who plays R&B, modern jazz, and funk—on a fuchsia guitar will be featured at the Woods-Black dinner.
One issue. The dinner is already sold out. Woods-Black has been getting calls about. “It’s not my fault, it’s Herb’s fault,” she said. “Call Herb.”
But Karlitz isn’t called a “wizard of marketing” for nothing. He recalled the old show biz axiom: “Leave them wanting more.”
Fortunately, not all dinners or events are sold out. For more on Harlem EatUp! visit HarlemEatUp.com Proceeds go to Citymeals-on-Wheels and Harlem Park to Park.