A yr later: Chef Oliver Saye celebrates African diaspora meals by take-away, supply | eat
In a good year, working in any aspect of food is a leap of faith – that people actually show up, spend money, and love what you brew, bake, grow, plate, pour, serve, or fling so much that they keep coming back come back. For someone out there to understand your vision and tell all their friends about it so that you can keep the light on and keep the faith alive. In a good year it’s a delicate dance, or maybe an interpretive dance, and if you’ve ever worked in the food business, basically you know that the industry is not your choice. it chooses you.
As we all painfully know, the past year was anything but good. The pandemic has gutted both the hospitality industry and businesses that rely on their success, such as small family businesses. Research by the Lancaster County Workforce Development Board found that employment in the food services and drinking space – which includes bars, restaurants, caterers, dining rooms, school and workplace cafeterias – declined 52% from March 2020 to April 2020. That is 8,700 workers lost their jobs.
However, this pandemic is not about statistics or crisp numbers. It’s about the people – 12 Lancastrians in particular – who held down their respective forts to keep the food going and endured extraordinary personal and professional difficulties. It’s about the ups and downs since March 2020, the insights that arise from reflection and the occasional glimmer of hope. What follows are their stories, in their own words.
Publisher’s Note: The following interviews were conducted both by phone and email and have been edited for length and clarity. All subjects were asked the same four questions. Italics indicate notes by Kim O’Donnel.
We spoke to 12 Lancaster County food industry professionals about living and working in a pandemic and how the past year has impacted them both professionally and personally.
From chefs and restaurateurs to farmers and bakers: here is the first part of the series of stories. First boss Oliver Saye.
Meet Oliver Saye, Homage’s Chef.
I first met Saye in December 2019, overhearing a conversation he was having with his daughter. We sat next to them on a busy Callaloo night, and yes the topic was food. Saye doesn’t cook full-time as a cook in the Boys and Girls Club, but as the head-owner of Homage, a catering company that serves the cooking traditions and dishes of the African diaspora.
I was in Pittsburgh (where she lives) with my fiancé. It was the weekend before St. Patrick’s Day and the Pittsburgh Mayor was starting to turn everything off. When I got back to Lancaster that Monday – and I’d probably already had 40 events planned for the year – all of these things were canceled. Before the pandemic, festivals and events were the main part of my business. I watched in front of my eyes as my source of income was turned off. As I lay in bed and looked at the ceiling, I knew I had something to think about. As you know, I sold my line of prepared foods on the Lemon Street Market. I decided to take this out on the street and turn it into a delivery service, with a weekly menu that I would post on social media. And within a few weeks it really started. It’s crazy because while other food companies have closed, the pandemic has exacerbated mine. 2020 was my best business year.
I also thought of the people who couldn’t afford meals. I started a GoFundMe Pay-it-Forward page in mid-April, and in a few months we raised $ 6,000. Through HOPE International we were able to feed a few families per week, plus another 200 meals in the women’s and children’s home of the YWCA and in the emergency home for domestic violence at CAP.
I was part of the 2019 Baldwin Fellows class (an 18-month program run by the Lancaster County Community Foundation). My project was about eating through the lens of the African diaspora, so my plan was to travel from Charleston, SC, and the Carolina coast (home of the Gullah community) to Savannah and New Orleans. But COVID-19 turned it all off. I planned to return to Liberia last August but that was of course canceled. It really hurt. There were so many things I wanted to do. Fortunately, the foundation lets fellows use unspent grants when we can. Africa will happen when we can travel freely again.
My business was previously named by Chef Oliver Culinary Services. Well I took the pandemic to change the name to Homage. My mother is Liberian and my father is Guinean and when we came here it was all about assimilation for them. I was really separated. When I went to cooking school, we learned about French mother sauces. These things do not apply to us from the Caribbean and the African diaspora. We don’t need bechamel sauce! And yet we accept that as the standard of cooking. I really go home with the name Homage. I realized I missed that. this is who i am.
I’m looking forward to building my brand and looking for collaborations with other black and brown entrepreneurs in the food service. I really want to put the African diaspora in the foreground. I am definitely going there. People are starting to notice.
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