By Latoya Coleman
Edited By Madeline Blue Schussel
Photos By Nathan Heyward
Like it does for many of us, most mornings for Chef Darryl Burnette begin with him brewing a fresh cup of coffee.
Unlike it does for almost any of us, Darryl takes his cup of joe into the elevator of his Harlem condo and travels up to the communal rooftop garden…with a joint also in hand. Then, he tells me, he “plays around in the dirt,” picking fresh vegetables for the meals he’ll need at his 6 PM opening.
I’m referring to the daily hours of Darryl’s own tiny restaurant, Belle Harlem.
“Yeah, we’re lucky enough to live right down the block–we’re like three minutes away,” Darryl confesses. “A couple years ago, I approached the Super of my building and asked if I could plant some tomatoes and stuff–and then, that led to some green beans and mint, and now, we’re kind of taking over the rooftop.”
On this Thursday morning–1 PM his time–our 30-minute phone interview is quickly turning into a 60-minute chat. Through the sound waves, Darryl exemplifies welcoming comfort: he has a passionate but pleasant voice, with a Southern twang drizzled over words like “South” and “Grandma.”
“It’s a lot of fun to have vegetables grown in Harlem–like we’re really bringing them ‘down the block’ into the restaurant,” he adds.
Darryl’s out-of-the-box mindset helped him see the rooftop of his condo as a space to grow a building garden. That same mindset helped him transform a former 275-square-foot clothing boutique into an intimate, 12-seat, one-table restaurant. Among his innovations are the “Southern Chic” dishes that he serves, including in-house jalapeño truffle banana syrup atop the old standard Chicken and Waffles, his waffles thin and wafer like.
Like many chefs, opening his own New-York-City restaurant was Darryl’s dream. But here are some truly scary Manhattan statistics: according to a frequently-cited study by Ohio State University, 60% of restaurants close in their first year, and 80% of restaurants don’t make it past year four. It can be a seriously risky and costly venture to open a food service in the Big Apple. But when Darryl and his wife-and-business-partner, Melissa, saw this small space tucked between 138th and 139th Streets on Adam Clayton Powell, across the street from the historic Striver Row–they knew they had to have it. And as fans of HGTV’s hit show Tiny House, Big Living, they knew not only that they could transform 275 square feet into a small restaurant with big bold favors, but also, that they could afford to run it on their own–without the need for investors.
But it wasn’t a smooth transition, and things didn’t always work out as planned. After meeting with the property owners, Darryl and his wife tried to raise the funds they did need through Kickstarter. “And ya know what?” Darryl tells me, “the Kickstarter program didn’t work.” While someone else may have taken that as a failure, Darryl simply realized: “If it’s something that you really want to do and you really believe in, you have to keep looking for different ways to make it happen.” So they ditched the Kickstarter route, got a small loan from a local community bank, refinanced their apartment, and with all those funds combined, opened Belle Harlem in October 2016.
The challenges didn’t end there, though. When Belle Harlem first opened, Darryl knew that he couldn’t roll out a traditional big restaurant business plan, so he had to try different methods until he got it right. His original plan was to feed everyone the same meal. An idea inspired by a 2019 Michelin-Star-winner, Lazy Bear in San Francisco, the goal is to create a large dinner-party experience. Lazy Bear seats 40 people at two long, communal tables and serves them in a farm-to-table style. The key parts of the structure Darryl hoped to emulate were the unique communal service and the pre-sale tickets (people could buy their seats a month ahead of time). For around $175 per 6 or 8:30 PM dinner-seating, a pre-selected menu of 10 to 15 small plates would be delivered to the table on a careful schedule. After one night of service on this model, however, Darryl realized this wasn’t going to work him. Mainly, his Harlem crowd didn’t want to be told what to eat. So he and his wife went on to Plan B: 12 seats, reservations or walk-ins welcome, with a menu that changes seasonally–a hefty $75 dollar, 48-hour cancelation policy for reservations–and all things still made from scratch (from the pasta to the ice cream) with foods grown on his rooftop.
While Darryl is happy that this plan worked out, he admits they also had a Plan C. “I had in the back of my mind that, uh, if this second idea, this model didn’t work–I could still sell hotdogs…or something,” he laughs. “At the end of the day, it was just a space.”
Darryl’s architectural draftsman degree from Virginia Western Community College (VWCC) allows him to see the potential of spaces beyond their walls. Born and raised in South Virginia, Darryl doesn’t recall seeing a lot of People of Color in professional positions growing up. “This is totally my opinion–but for a Person of Color, [opportunity] was very limited. You didn’t see a lot of Black professionals or teachers or anything like that where I’m from. And I always knew I wanted something different.” Cooking beside his grandmother, helping her prep for Sunday dinners, sparked Darryl’s passion for making food. But it wasn’t until watching a segment on The Food Network about Ethiopian-Swedish chef Marcus Samuelsson that he thought to himself, “Wow, look at this Black chef, and he’s doing well!” It finally “struck” Darryl to think about cooking professionally. “Like, huh–I never really thought about the opportunity of becoming a chef, and I love to cook!” he adds with an audible smile.
As his wife was completing her Fashion Merchandising degree, they packed up and moved to New York City. Darryl trained at The Culinary Institute of America, and after graduating, he worked for a plethora of chefs in the city, like at Bergdorf Goodman’s BG Restaurant and at Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Spice Market (which served about 600 people a night). These chefs, he says, really taught him how to cook, and they also introduced him to traditional French cuisine. More importantly, Darryl feels like they taught him about what he didn’t want to do. “[I learned] that I didn’t want someone else cooking my food,” he chuckles.
In his early days in the culinary world, Darryl “bounced around a lot.” “I had to,” he tells me. “I wasn’t able to financially afford to give five, ten years to, you know, some big-name chef in order for him to finally, you know, give me a tap on the shoulders to be his Executive Chef…So I had to go off and do my own thing.”
With the help of a few strong women in his life, he went off and did his own thing four years ago.
Belle Harlem was inspired by Darryl’s grandmother, who raised 17 kids and “made shit happen;” his aunts; his wife; and by the professional “badass and, in some cases, ballin’” ladies he witnessed as Executive Chef at Bergdorf Goodman’s. He named the place “Belle” as an ode to all of these women.
Every day, Darryl recreates a cozy-party dining experience you might similarly get if you walked into his and Melissa’s home. “I love that I’m in front of the customers creating food, serving wine, controlling the music,” Darryl explains, as he talks about the benefits of being in a tight space. “We decided that we’re going to make the work part of our life entertaining.” If Belle Harlem had followed the traditional restaurant structure, Darryl would have been behind a wall in the kitchen, or in some cases, tucked away in a dark office in the basement of his restaurant, with someone else serving an interpretation of his food. Yet he was able to create something uniquely intimate, a feeling he felt was lacking in the large restaurants he worked at. There would be servers taking your order, going around a revolving door all night, but not really paying attention to details like plating and wine pairing–or to how you were feeling about any of it.
You might assume Darryl would want to expand Belle quickly, but he tells me he actually enjoys the company of his select guests. It brings him back to his bartender days at Applebees, when life was fairly simple and social skills were the highest priority. While the intimacy is a unique benefit of Belle, Darryl also recognizes some of the challenges of being so up-close-and-personal–mainly, that he’s only an arm’s length away from any unhappy customer who might choose to express their dissatisfaction. He also notes that some customers now and then…might get a little rambunctiously drunk.
Another challenge Darryl is still trying to understand is the lack of diversity in Michelin Star reviews, a prestigious hotel-and-restaurant rating system that awards up to three stars for excellence. “You know,” he tells me, “at the top of every year, they do like the Top 50 Best Restaurants in the World? There’s no Black chefs on this list–if so, there are just, like, one or two throughout the years.” Since accolades like Michelin Stars can directly influence a chef’s bottom line, Darryl isn’t the only one to have noticed this issue. But more accurately, an analysis carried out by The Guardian in their Bias in Britain series found that out of 165 Michelin-rated UK restaurants, only 10 were led by Black and South Asian chefs. This is still a disappointing ratio. “I’m starting to think that maybe I should stop going to these restaurants, and maybe we should create our own thing,” Darryl tells me, with a little mischief in his voice.
If you walk into Belle Harlem today, Darryl and his wife will be there to welcome you. You will be presented with their 12-item menu for the evening, which is categorized by small plates, large plates, and desserts. Darryl’s Southern-Chic cuisine includes familiar comfort foods with special twists. And while Darryl feels that everything on his menu is really good and unexpected, I was able to convince him to tell me his favorites: He recommends starting with small plate items like the Mac & Cheese Spring Rolls, made with smoked gouda and a bacon marmalade (jam). He would suggest that you then try his “incredible brussel sprouts” paired with preserved lemon, cranberries, and fresh fruit from the rooftop. Lastly, he’d insist you try his signature dessert, The Trifling Ho-Ho, which is a fusion of an imitation HostessTM Ho-Ho and a traditional English dessert, served with a fruity and Turkish chilli-flakes called Urfa.
While Darryl is enjoying serving and creating his menus and nightly dinner parties at Belle, he is carefully working on his “secret next-door project,” Tipsy Belle, which would be a close-quarters wine shop or cocktail bar. He hopes to follow this act by opening up Sugar Belle, which would offer desserts, pastries, and coffee in a familial cafe setting.
At the moment, Darryl is changing Belle Harlem’s menu for winter. He is playing around with rare ingredients like frog legs, thinking about adding pig’s feet, and maybe trying a “Chitlins and Champagne Happy Hour.”
“I’m always, always trying to think of ways to make food comfort-chic. Familiar, but new and exciting,” Darryl boasts.