I was once told that hospitality is a hug. The best way to receive a hug is to give one first. There are plenty of restaurants which offer diverse menus and good ambiance; or, exquisite food and exemplary service. The truly great restaurants deliver in every category, providing guests with unsurpassed service, impeccable fare and memorable surroundings. Minton’s–the newest offering from restaurateur Alexander Smalls–delivers on all fronts, leaving guests feeling downright “warm and tingly” from all the love.
Occupying the restored space of famed 1940’s jazz club Minton’s Playhouse, guests are greeted by colorful murals boasting spirited images of jazz greats. The experience at the intimate 70-seat dining room is enhanced by the intoxicating melodies of the venue's house band–many of whose members played at the original Minton's Playhouse many years ago. This standout addition to the Harlem restaurant scene reinforces all the buzz around the neighborhood's burgeoning reputation as a Mecca for nightlife and dining. Chef de Cuisine Banks White is responsible for the multitude of ornate dishes on the menu that combine traditional ingredients found in southern cuisine with unique gourmet touches. We caught up with Banks and got him to dish on his journey to Harlem's newest hot spot.
EBONY: How did you approach the task of creating the menu for Minton’s?
BANKS: Alexander Smalls brought me in from California–where I had been working at a couple of Michelin Star restaurants–to be a part of the restoration of this legendary jazz club. The food is rooted in "Low Country" cuisine, which is a southern regional cuisine coming from the Gullah Islands of South Carolina and Georgia. A lot of the food is kind of wild game, seafood specific. But what we wanted to do with the menu was to update this brand of "Low Country" cuisine to parallel with traditional white tablecloth fine dining. Our goal was to elevate the food and also the dining experience to something that was completely unique for Harlem.
EBONY: It’s very interesting how you bring the two worlds together.
BANKS: We wanted to be comfortable and familiar, but we also wanted to deliver food that you probably wouldn’t be able to create at home. Pairing luxury items like seared Hudson Valley foie gras and matching it with your grandmother’s recipe for buttermilk pecan biscuits, topped with vidalia marmalade to tie in the southern regional flair that we wanted to get across for the menu.
EBONY: So what are some of the more popular dishes at the restaurant?
BANKS: Well, I’m from Texas,so I have a lot of smoked items on the menu. One of those items is our Berkshire Pork Chop, which we smoke over apple wood for 90 minutes. It’s served over a yam hominy grit cake and braised collard greens with house-smoked bacon. So the smoked pork is definitely our #1 seller. I think our shrimp and lobster grits come in second The foie gras is also a favorite on the menu–we see those in pretty heavy rotation constantly.
EBONY: In regards to the recent boom of new restaurants opening up in Harlem, what is the impact Minton’s has had on the local community?
BANKS: Harlem restaurants have had a little bit of a bad rap as far as delivering higher end product & service. I think with the addition of Cecil our sister restaurant, and Minton’s we're just trying to serve great food and amazing service–providing an experience that you wouldn’t find in Manhattan, let alone Harlem. We're very happy with the support we’ve gotten in the community. We are big on community outreach donating meals to the community for holidays and just doing our part to make sure that the community tie-in is there.
EBONY: If you had to use three words to describe your style of cooking, what would they be?
BANKS: Simple, elegant, and comforting.
EBONY: Nice! As all great food should be right?
BANKS: Yes, definitely comforting. The food has to look beautiful, but bottom line it has to taste good and provide a sense of comfort.
EBONY: If you had to name four must-have ingredients in your kitchen, what would they be?
BANKS: Wow, well for me it’s about balance so I need sweet, salty, bitter and crunchy. So I would have to have roasted garlic puree, acid of some sort (vinegar or citrus), salt and something sweet, maybe cane syrup, which I love. Those four things definitely.
EBONY: What made you decide to become a chef?
BANKS: I love cooking; it’s one of those things that give me great joy. Especially when I’m able to go out in the dining room and talk to people. Just to hear people not just giving lip service, but giving honest feedback on what they love about the food. That’s what got me into cooking. I started cooking for family and friends, which led to choosing it as a career, then moving my career throughout that path up to here.
EBONY: What were some of the experiences or difficulties that you faced along the way to becoming head chef at Minton’s?
BANKS: I feel like my steps have been measured, typically choosing unique properties to work at. Then just following the steps of line cook, to lead line cook, to sous chef and then getting the opportunity to become an executive sous chef in San Francisco. New York was still on my culinary bucket list as a chef, then I got the opportunity with Minton’s and here I am.
EBONY: What advice would you give to young chefs?
BANKS: Definitely put your time in at each restaurant you work at. Don’t do anything for less than a year, so you can learn. Bouncing around too much is an automatic turnoff in the hiring process. Take the time to understand the craft and get the most you can get out of each establishment you work at.
EBONY: Have you had any specific challenges as a Black chef?
BANKS: Just shattering the stereotype that if you are a Black chef, you cook soul food and that’s all you can cook. The reality is that my entire career has in been French, Italian and so much more than that. Soul food is not a negative connotation and I would never disrespect that. But being blanketed under just soul food has been most challenging in changing people's minds.
EBONY: If you could make a meal for one special person, who would it be?
BANKS: Cooking for the president would be a dream for me
EBONY: What is the greatest compliment you can receive as a chef?
BANKS: The greatest compliment I’ve received was from a chef that I worked with in the past, who once told me that my food is consistent. "It’s consistent even when you’re not here," he said. That means you are developing your cooks everyday and instilling consistency and excellence into your kitchen.
Minton's is located at 206 West 118th Street, New York, NY 10026. Please call 212-243-2222 or visit mintonsharlem.com for more information.