Dream Team of Black Food and Wine Pros to Make History with Asante
By Milford Prewitt
ATLANTA – Early in their careers, journalists learn to avoid using such phrases and words as “never before,” “first-time ever,” “unprecedented,” or “historic.”
Wise editors warn that the minute one of those superlatives is heard or read, some listener or reader will be on the phone or send an email with an example to refute the claim, forcing the journalist to eat crow with a correction.
SlitelyChilled is boldly going to break with that time-honored warning to report:
For the first-time ever, in an unprecedented development for the full-service, fine-dining side of the restaurant industry, a highly accomplished and celebrated group of Black foodservice professionals – indeed, some of the top individuals in their fields – are fusing their talent, experience, energy and spirit under one roof to launch a new restaurant, bound to become a destination.
The place is Asante in Atlanta and its menu will feature and celebrate the foods and culinary traditions of the Black diaspora, from the Caribbean, West Indies and South America to North America and Africa.
It’s set to open in early November.
The Dream Team behind this ambitious project includes:
• Executive chef, owner, and chief recruiter of talent Marvin Woods, a celebrity chef, television cooking-show host, cookbook author and public speaker whose “Dropping Knowledge” lecture circuit teaches healthy eating and ways to fight diabetes through good nutrition. Woods may be long remembered in New York City dining circles for his collaboration with Alexander Smalls in the hugely popular but long-departed Café Beulah, which introduced the low-country cuisine of South Carolina, in the Flatiron District in the late 1990s.
• Andre Mack, a master sommelier who is the first African American to win the title of Best Young Sommelier in America (2003), runner-up for the title of Best Sommelier in America (2004) and who is best known for his years shepherding and promoting the award-winning, 2,500-bottle selection at Thomas Keller’s Per Se restaurant in Manhattan (once the most expensive restaurant in the United States). At Asante, Mack will oversee a 900-bottle cellar.
• General Manager David Espin, who earned his stripes opening some of Las Vegas's and Florida's hottest resorts and celebrity-named chains and dining establishments. Espin says he was “brought up in fine dining” working for Wolfgang Puck. He has also worked in New York City and Boston. But it was Las Vegas where he came to prominence, particularly in the opening of the Voodoo Steakhouse in the Rio Hotel and Prince’s 3121 supper club and live entertainment venue where the prickly entertainer often performed.
• Beverage Director Lonn Coupel-Coward, who worked for three years as the master mixologist and bon vivant at Marcus Samuelsson’s Red Rooster in Harlem. But his resume also includes such distinguished ports of call as the Standard Hotels, Privè Lounge in New York, and Fusha West.
• Making it somewhat of a family business is chef Woods sister, Ellen Woods, who will be the assistant general manager at Asante. She was the opening lounge manager at Red Rooster.
Slated to open later this year in a condo building in Atlanta’s Centennial Park – where the summer Olympics were held in 1996 – Asante is also novel from a menu perspective.
“The whole concept is coastal soul,” explains Woods, “defined by me as food and cooking influenced by the African diaspora. We are talking about ingredients, flavorings, cooking techniques from the southern part of the U.S., to the Caribbean, to South America to Africa.
“In addition to the seafood, though, we will have quail, duck, pheasant, pork and chicken.”
In keeping with his commitment to serve healthy foods, Woods says a number of menu items will be gluten free, sugar free, vegetarian and vegan.
Woods says he expects such dishes as the piri-piri (large African queen prawns some 10-inches long); coconut saffron seafood gumbo (a bouillabaisse type dish); and the eight-to-nine-hours roasted pork shoulder with garlic and lemon – better known as Pernil in Puerto Rican gastronomic circles –– could emerge as house signature dishes.
Rum will feature prominently in the spirits selections, Woods says. “We had to have rum. That was one of the main commodities of trade during the Middle Passage.”
Asante will also feature beer from Harlem Brewing, created by African-American brew master Celeste Beatty.
Asante is a two-floor space that takes over a site formerly occupied by a restaurant.
“It’s really a unique space,” Woods beams. “It reminds me of what a big city restaurant should look like, but with a warmer ambience.”
It features 150 seats in the dining room, a chef’s table for very important guests, an open kitchen and a first-floor bar/lounge area that can seat 30-to-40 diners.
White is the dominating color and an exotic African wood called Bubinga from Cameroon will provide the bar top and other accents, Woods points out.
Although Woods says he is keenly aware that nothing like Asante, in terms of its talent pool, has ever been tried before, his focus is superb customer service and employee satisfaction.
“This is what I have always dreamed about,” Woods says. “This is not the same old restaurant where a chef found a bunch of investors, a few friends and said let’s go.
“We are going to change some folks ideas about dining out. We are about the restoration of old school hospitality: where the guests are treated like family and where employees are happy to come to a work environment where they are treated well. In turn this translates into a win-win-win.
“And that’s what it’s all about.”