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Five Minutes With Melba Wilson
The Queen of Soul Food talks chicken, culture, and City Harvest
Melba Wilson is New York City restaurant royalty. The owner of Melba’s in Harlem is also a cookbook author and Food Network personality — not to mention the niece of Sylvia Woods, the founder of the iconic Sylvia’s Restaurant.
Wilson has been called the queen of soul food for her culinary skills — if you need any proof, Wilson’s chicken and waffles beat Bobby Flay’s and received a nod by none other than Dominique Ansel, who posted the classic dish on his Instagram page.
Wilson also believes in being part of the fabric of her community. She is the president of the board of directors for the NYC Hospitality Alliance and also serves on the board of City Harvest. Broken Palate caught up with Wilson to chat about cooking, culture, and giving back to her community.
Broken Palate: You’re known for your fried chicken (and your friend chicken and waffles beat Bobby Flay). What’s your secret?
Melba Wilson: I think the gospel to Southern fried chicken is starting out with great quality. We use vegetarian-fed chicken at Melba’s. I like to use about a three-and-a-half-pound bird. I want the meat to be tender, so I don’t go with w bigger bird.
BP: Brine? Rub? What’s the secret to your chicken success?
MW: To brine or not to brine - that is the question. I personally like to brine my chicken. My brine is lemon juice, garlic, rosemary, thyme, salt, sugar, fresh cracked pepper, and parsley. You’re going to get a moist and flavorful chicken.
I’m also big on rubs. I use a mix of flavors that I have in my cookbook. I love garlic powder, fresh black pepper, and paprika and I always like to let my chicken marinate.
Then, I always season my flour. That’s important to me. Chicken skins are a big thing and I want there to be taste on the outside. I want to see some black pepper on the chicken.
When I’m frying at home I like to put my flour in a brown paper bag. That way it gives a nice thin layer. When you put your chicken parts in and shake them up, the flour is going to be well distributed. It gives a nice, thin layer.
BP: I know when that platter of chicken gets placed in front of a table, everyone has their favorite piece. What’s yours?
MW: I am a thigh girl. That’s the part that has a little more fat and flavor. It’s all about flavor for me.
BP: What is your own soul food identity?
MW: I think that when you talk about comfort food and our soul food in Harlem, it’s about people who migrated from the south and brought their recipes. Although my parents weren’t a product of slaves, their grandparents were.
My family is from South Carolina. My dad came to New York when he was 15 years old and my mom came here when she was about 17. I learned to cook from my grandmother, who was from Hemingway, South Carolina — watching her literally create magic. My grandmother would greet me at the car with an apron and we would pick green beans, potatoes, and tomatoes. At the time, it was more of me watching because cooking was the job of the queen — and my grandmother was a queen.
When we came back home to Harlem, my mother was the queen. I watched and studied how they made yams, pies, and cobblers.
Everything in my family happened over food, whether it was the birth of a baby or when my grandmother turned 105 — we celebrated over a meal. It was the time to share culture and history and to continue the legacy. My Aunt Sylvia opened Sylvia’s in 1962, and I continue the legacy at my restaurants.
BP: Do you continue your grandmother’s and mother’s legacy of cooking at home and gathering the family around a meal?
MW: Being the sole owner of three businesses and sitting on three boards (and being the president of one), doesn’t allow me to cook all the time, but when I do it takes me back to my grandmother’s house in Hemingway, where my grandfather ran the general store. My grandmother, who was the mother of nine children, always had enough food to eat — and some more just in case the pastor came by. There was always enough food.
BP: Speaking of making sure there’s enough food on the table, you are on the board of City Harvest. What does that mean to you?
MW: I do sit on the board of City Harvest because food is a necessity and not a luxury. In a city of milk and honey, people should not go hungry. We rescue and deliver millions of pounds of food to people who would never have it. In this industry, it is our charge and duty to give back as much as we can — especially when it comes to food.
City Harvest is hosting its annual fall event, BID 2023: Drive-In on Wednesday, October 18 at the Glasshouse in New York City. Guests will sample food and drinks from more than 50 of New York City’s best chefs, restaurants, and mixologists as they’re immersed in the event’s drive-in theme. Melba Wilson will join chefs such as Eric Ripert, Richard Sandoval, Eitan Bernath, Daniel Boulud & Arther Dehaine, Marc Forgione, and more at the BID 2023: Drive-In. Visit cityharvest.org for more information and to purchase tickers.