Fifty years ago, South Carolina natives Herbert and Sylvia Woods opened Sylvia’s Restaurant in the heart of Harlem on 127th and Lenox Avenue. Harlem would not be Harlem without Sylvia’s. It will not be Harlem without Sylvia Woods, who passed away last Thursday.
Sylvia Woods’ name has become synonymous with soul food, southern cuisine that comforts and is steeped in tradition in both its varied preparations and its reputation. Residents of Harlem knew her and the name of her restaurant as did countless tourists from around the globe. She was, after all, dubbed “The Queen of Soul Food.”
One of our favorite chefs and elder statesmen, Joe Randall, says “Sylvia Woods was a groundbreaking culinarian who proudly shared with the world delicious foods from her upbringing in Sumter, S.C. Her legacy will live on as we take this time to appreciate the great memories created while dining at Sylvia’s. We have lost an icon, but can appreciate her undeniable era of quality African American cuisine forever.”
Chef Joe is absolutely right. It is without question that Sylvia paved the way for Cuisine Noir and the many black culinarians we have featured over the years, and will continue to feature. Her food and her presence gave many of us much to talk about and if we were lucky, we would discuss it over her candied sweet potatoes and collard greens.
New York born and raised chef Marvin Woods cut his culinary eye teeth on Sylvia’s. Chef Woods says, “It was a black chef’s rite of passage to sojourn to Sylvia’s to meet the Queen and taste her fare. She has left an indelible mark on many of our lives, especially mine. New York and the culinary world will not be the same without her.”
No doubt Harlem will mourn one of its legends, but the rest of us will mourn her too. Sylvia Woods set the bar high with a successful restaurant, food products in stores all over the country and a reputation worth its weight in gold.
Consultant Wilbert Jones also shares history with Woods and says, “My future trips to NYC will not be the same. I’ll miss seeing Mrs. Sylvia Woods’ smiling face and pleasant personality at her restaurant. Twenty years ago, Mrs. Woods and her son Van Woods, gave me an opportunity to work on their food retail product line, as a consultant. They were my very first client in 1992.”
It is an honor to share the history of Sylvia Woods with our readers. Her foresight, tenacity and contributions to the culinary and restaurant industries will forever leave a footprint for future generations to come. And every time we profile some emerging talent or talk about the evolution of “soul food,” Sylvia’s fingerprint will be smudged in the margins.
Thank you, Queen Sylvia.