May 2015 saw the first annual Harlem EatUp!, “a celebration of food, culture, and spirit.” Spanning four days and taking place all over upper Manhattan, the festival spotlighted the exciting restaurants, arts venues, and youth programs in that historic New York neighborhood.
The co-founder and poster child of the festival was Marcus Samuelsson, an Ethiopian-born, Sweden-raised chef and owner of two acclaimed Harlem restaurants, Red Rooster and Streetbird Rotisserie. At the astonishingly early age of 23, he received a three-star review from the New York Times while the chef at famed restaurant Aquavit. He also won the coveted Rising Star award from the James Beard Foundation. Samuelsson has emerged as an energetic cheerleader for Harlem, hiring local youth and supporting other chefs, artists, and neighborhood organizations.
At Harlem EatUp!, Samuelsson was a constant presence – doing cooking demonstrations, introducing other chefs, bantering with the audience. He also cooked at two of the “Dine In Harlem” events, in which guest chefs from around the globe prepared special meals at some of Harlem’s iconic venues, accompanied by local musicians.
At Harlem’s innovative Studio Museum, there were panel discussions on topics such as “24 Hours: A Day in the Life of a Chef” and “How to Serve the Community.” Culinary demonstrations and cook-offs also took place during the festival, featuring celebrity chefs such as Daniel Boulud, Scott Conant, and Sean Husk.
In addition to the Museum, the weekend events occurred at Morningside Park, where numerous tents were erected for food, music, dance, and other cultural expressions. Saturday, May 16, featured The Stroll: A Grand Tasting Experience, consisting of two parts. Admission was free to The Avenue, where participants could purchase food from various booths and trucks and view cooking demonstrations. At The Experience, patrons paid admission, which entitled them to unlimited food and drinks from numerous local restaurants, as well as performances by musicians and dancers.
The Culinary Demonstration tent saw an unannounced visitor Saturday afternoon. President Bill Clinton was an early supporter of Harlem EatUp!, writing in the program that he had first come to Harlem 50 years ago and had opened his post-presidential office there. On Saturday, he took the stage to welcome people to the festival and enthuse about the “success, passion, and artistry of the neighborhood.”
As Clinton mentioned, proceeds from the festival were donated to two groups, Citymeals-on-Wheels, which delivers meals to 18,000 poor and elderly city residents, and Harlem Park to Park, a small-business-oriented community development network.
In addition, one of the purveyors on The Avenue was the food truck Snowday, a project of the nonprofit Drive Change, which hired and trains formerly incarcerated youth.
The final day of the festival was termed A Sunday Afternoon in Harlem, with various restaurants, including Harlem Shake, Sisters Caribbean Cuisine, and BLVD Bistro, selling samples of their cuisine. Among other groups, a gospel choir entertained, while a Sports Zone was sponsored by the New York Knicks and New York Red Bulls.
Harlem EatUp! provided a showcase for the energy and innovation of that community. The second edition next year should be even better.