When it comes to soul food, one name has come to encompass the rich and flavorful taste of this celebrated cuisine, Sylvia Woods. Recognized internationally as the “Queen of Soul Food,” Woods began making her mark in 1962 when she opened Sylvia’s Restaurant in the historic neighborhood of Harlem.
Since then, the restaurant has evolved into a family-owned enterprise which consists of Sylvia’s Also lounge; a full-service catering hall, Sylvia’s Catering Corp.; a nationwide line of Sylvia’s Food Products; two cookbooks; and ATOC Inc., a real estate firm.
Next year, the restaurant will celebrate 50 years in Harlem, a rare and impressive achievement that inspired rolling out to head into the kitchen and discover some of the magic behind this establishment. To do so, we spoke with Woods’ daughter, Bedelia Woods, who carries on the legacy of the restaurant as the owner and chef. Woods shared with us how traveling influences her menu items and which foods to avoid abroad and even revealed the secret ingredient that makes Sylvia’s Restaurant so popular. –souleo
When you’re designing a complete meal, what factors do you take into account? How do you achieve harmony and balance?
I always consider my guests and event type, especially with catering. I want to make certain that I completely understand their needs and that I strive to exceed their expectations. It’s about the perfect blend of tradition, while adding an element of surprise through preparation and ingredients.
The look of a plate is as important as the taste. How do you build a plate that looks like a work of art?
Colors first and perfect placement of the items. Each item should compliment the other but have enough space on the plate to stand out on its on.
What would you like to add to your menu?
I would like to add a variety of seafood po’boy sandwiches to our summer sidewalk café menu.
How does travel influence your culinary creations?
When I travel, I love to explore and try all the native dishes. When I find something I really like, I think of how I can put my soulful twist on it, like adding a Southern ingredient like collard greens instead of spinach.
When traveling, what foods would you avoid for the sake of safety?
Avoid porks and undercooked meats.
What are five must-have ingredients from five different regions of the world?
Curry from the Caribbean, Sylvia’s Secret Seasoning from the states, Mediterranean sea salt, Italian extra virgin olive oil and cracked black pepper.
What ingredients should every home have in the cupboard or refrigerator?
Salt, pepper, garlic and Sylvia’s Secret Seasoning.
If I can invest in only five things for my kitchen, what should I buy as a home cook?
A smart fridge, Viking stove, dishwasher, wine cooler and indoor grill.
What would you consider as your “comfort meal?”
A plate of barbecue ribs!
Has the heightened interest in celebrity chefs and cooking, in general, been good or bad for the industry?
It has been a good thing. Watching the talented, home-trained cooks turn into chefs reminds me of how my mother started out on her journey. Just like in other fields, there is a lot of homegrown talent waiting to be recognized, one dish at a time.
What did you learn from your family that you still use in preparing food?
My mother’s main ingredient, which is love!