From Cashier to Culinary Connoisseur: A Conversation with Chef Melba Wilson

Melba Wilson specializes in comfort food served with a side of hometown hospitality. Born and raised in Harlem, Melba spent countless hours in her Grandmother Amelia’s kitchen soaking up her passion for delectable meals, impeccable service, and good company. Melba’s official initiation into the restaurant business occurred in her early teens when she began working at the world famous Sylvia’s Restaurant. There she discovered her knack for making meaningful connections with customers and her ability to fulfill multiple roles. Whether it be chef, cashier, or dishwasher, Melba has certainly done it all!

Inspired by the mentorship of other restaurant owners and the desire to improve her community, Melba took a leap of faith and opened Melba’s Restaurant in 2005. The atmosphere of Melba’s is both cozy and elegant. On Tuesday evenings a live band serenades guests while they experience the robust flavors of dishes like pecan crusted tilapia and southern fried chicken with eggnog waffles. People come from near and far to taste the down home cooking and bask in the warm, inviting ambiance provided by the personable staff. Almost all of Melba’s employees are local Harlem residents, an important aspect of her overall business plan.

Melba’s impeccable taste, generous heart, and undeniably delicious food have not gone unnoticed. Her restaurant has attracted rave reviews from many notable publications, including Time Out Magazine, The New Yorker, and The Daily News. In addition to the restaurant, Melba runs a successful catering business, which serves high profile clients like Nike, Time Warner, and Bank of America. She has also been featured on several television programs, including the Food Network’s popular show Throwdown! with Bobby Flay. Although her burgeoning career makes for a very busy schedule, Melba’s first priority is always her son, Salif. Family roots run deep for this accomplished, fun-loving gal.

Today Melba shares her story about starting her own business, her devotion to Harlem, and the source of her tenacious spirit. Dig in, ladies!

Full name: Melba Wilson
Age: 40’s
Educational background: PhD in Restaurant Business
Current title/company: Owner of Melba’s Restaurant, Melba’s 125 and Melba’s Catering; also dishwasher, bookkeeper, porter, chef and Mom.

Can you tell us about your first experience in the food industry working at Sylvia’s Restaurant?
My first experience in the food and beverage industry was at the world renowned Sylvia’s restaurant in Harlem. My Aunt Sylvia asked me to plan her 25th Anniversary. I originally thought I was going to be “on the committee”; however, I quickly found out that “I was the committee.” I planned a three day event complete with music, food, fun, games and a black tie gala for over 900 guests. I then worked as a cashier at Sylvia’s and held a host of jobs there before honing my skills at other establishments.

Where did your love and passion for hospitality and feeding others come from?
It came from my family roots in South Carolina. As a little girl, I LOVED sitting in the kitchen and was often mesmerized as I watched my Grandma Amelia cook three meals a day with love and passion for her family of nine children, her husband, and anyone else who stopped by. Family and friends alike got so much joy and excitement talking and sharing family stories over Grandma’s delectable meals. I adored my grandparents and wanted to emulate my grandma by providing the same warmth and loving experience through food and service as she did.

What inspired you to open Melba’s, and has your vision for the restaurant stayed the same since opening?
My inspiration for Melba’s came from looking within my community and seeing a need for comfort food at affordable prices in a fun, relaxing environment. I was born and raised in Harlem and want to inspire others to open businesses in our community. In order to do so, I had to lead by example and open my business in Harlem and provide jobs for locals.  All three of my businesses are in Harlem, with a fourth to open this winter; 96% of my employees reside in the neighborhood. My vision for Melba’s has changed and will continue to evolve to meet the needs of our growing community.

How did you learn the ins and outs of running a business? Budgeting, filing taxes, marketing, web development, store planning, etc.?
I was blessed to work at the age of 13 with my dear friend and mentor, Ophelia DeVore. I took finishing courses at Ophelia DeVore’s Charm School and sold cosmetics at the Beauty Bar every Saturday after class. I secretly competed with the adults and would set a personal goal to out sell the adult next to me. Closing included tallying up receipts and inventory.

I have surrounded myself with older, wiser people who remind me that in the midst of a storm, “this too shall pass!”

I would also arrive early and assist with thousands of weekly mailings and phone calls. In addition, I helped my grandfather in the summers at his general store and filling station. He was a wise and resourceful businessman, so I learned valuable lessons there. I also partnered with Drew Nieporent and Robert DeNiro from the TriBeca Grill and Nobu Empire, and even though the restaurant did not come to fruition, it was a two-and-a-half year course, which proved to be invaluable.

When the late Artie Cutler, Michael Ronis, Mr. Wong and Godfrey Polistina of the Carmines, Ollie’s, Docks, etc., enlisted me to partner with them in a venture originally slated to be Melba’s BBQ (it’s now Virgil’s Real BBQ), we spent 18 months on a BBQ Safari, and I gained a wealth of knowledge and experience. Working for my former employers and friends Doug Griebel, Dan Hickey and the late Josefina Howard from Rosa Mexicano taught me to never be afraid to step out of my comfort zone and try new things. I read loads of trade magazines to keep me informed of the trends and became an active member of the Black Culinary Alliance and National Restaurant Association, which provided a Rolodex of information. All of this, coupled with my years at Sylvia’s, was great preparation for starting my own business. However, with all of my experience, I’ve still had many trials and errors.  Being able to sustain oneself “in spite of and regardless to” is a test of time. I have surrounded myself with older, wiser people who remind me that in the midst of a storm, “this too shall pass!”

Tell us a little bit about the process of opening up Melba’s. After you decided you wanted to do it, what was the first step you took to make it happen? What were some of the biggest challenges, and how did you overcome them?
Melba’s is truly a labor of love. It’s one thing to have a vision, but to have it materialize is like “WHOA!” My first step was to WRITE IT DOWN! If I can see it, I can believe it, and I WILL achieve it! Putting together a business plan, securing a location (it’s true what they say: “location, location, location”), creating the menu, knowing your target market, identifying supply and demand and attending community board meetings to know what is happening in the neighborhood are all key ingredients for opening the right business in the right area at the right time. I often visited local businesses to see what I could do to make mine different and listen to the demands of my core audience. Some of my biggest challenges were taking on all of the responsibilities as a sole owner and a lack of cash flow.  Not having access to additional capital during unexpected occurrences can mean the end of your business. I overcame those obstacles by not giving up, praying, persevering, staying consistent and consulting others. I always remain humble and never hesitate to pick up the phone and call Drew, Sylvia, Doug or Marcus for advice.

I always remain humble and never hesitate to pick up the phone and call for advice.

How have you coped with the long hours that go hand in hand with entrepreneurship and being a single mother?
My son Salif undoubtedly comes first. Everything else is second. I am very visual, so I must have a daily typed checklist on which I prioritize everything. I also have a great team of family and friends who help with Salif, combined with a solid staff that is dependable, organized and keeps me on track.

What advice would you give to other aspiring business owners, especially those in the culinary industry?
Make sure you are passionate about this business. It is VERY hard and grueling work. Know the stakes and realize that owning your business and working for someone else are totally different experiences. Train with someone who has several restaurants, as well as with someone who is starting out to help avoid unnecessary pitfalls. Ask LOTS of questions, because the only silly question is the one not asked!

Take us through your average work day. What does a day in the life of Melba Wilson look like?
Wake up at 4:30am, pray, reflect on my day/life, meditate, set my daily goals, check emails, read the news online, call Melba’s 125 to check in, make a hot breakfast for Salif and prepare him for school, attempt to get on a treadmill (sometimes I make it, sometimes I don’t), and then my day really starts. 8:45 a.m. Check food at Melba’s 125, go to the office, respond to inquiries, check more emails, work on book, check invoices, sign checks, attend meetings (lawyers, accountants, potential ventures, clients, etc.), catering, work on the new place, meet Salif at 114, taste items on the menu for consistency, have fun at 114, attend evening meetings, have dinner, check in with Salif. Go home, walk the dog, shower, flip the channels to see what’s happening in the world. Lights out.

You have received amazing reviews from publications including New York Magazine, Time Out Magazine, The New Yorker, and Zagat and have been featured on Throwdown! with Bobby Flay. How have these features helped grow your brand and restaurant?
All the publicity has been great and brings exposure to the Melba’s brand. I’m always humbled and grateful when we are highlighted. It obviously helps fill the seats.

Travel through this journey of life tasting every experience like it’s your last. Enjoy everyone, every place and every thing. Remember, there’s a lesson in every bite!

In what ways would you still like to see Melba’s evolve?
I would love to see Melba’s expand our healthy food selections and produce a product line to include specialty cocktails.

Best moment of your career so far?
The best moment of my career so far has been being featured on Food Network’s Throwdown! with Bobby Flay, and the second best moment was beating Iron Chef Bobby Flay! BREAKER, BREAKER 1-9!!!  You see it on TV, but I never expected it to happen in real life to a brown-skinned, big-eyed girl from Harlem… ME!

What is the most rewarding part of owning such an esteemed restaurant?
Seeing the customers walk out with smiling faces, going above and beyond customer expectations, and reading the nice handwritten cards and letters we receive.

What is one piece of advice you would offer your 23-year-old self?
I would tell my 23-year-old self to travel through this journey of life tasting every experience like it’s your last. Enjoy everyone, every place and every thing. Remember, there’s a lesson in every BITE!

Melba Wilson is The Everygirl…

Favorite Guilty Pleasure?
Portuguese custard, Eggnog—did I say EGGNOG?

Favorite Dish?
Rice prepared any way! I am so geechie!

I wish I knew how to _______.
make the perfect martini.

If you could meet any women for lunch, who would it be and what would you order? 
I would meet Oprah and would order an appetizer full of promise, entree full of hope, and dessert full of inspiration. Or just a great steak and a beer & goat cheese salad. YUM!

Aidan or Big? 
Aidan for Sisters in the City who have sex in the city. BAD GIRL MELBA!