|Vivián Joiner and Stephanie Tyson at Sweet Potatoes.|
There was a time when Stephanie Tyson felt like her hometown of Winston-Salem was too small for her big vision. The civil rights movement provoked national headlines at a now-famous lunch counter in nearby Greensboro when she was a baby, but change was coming too slowly for a black female entrepreneur with an evolving dream.
“I just had to get out,” Tyson recalls during a recent phone call from Sweet Potatoes, the popular arts district restaurant she opened in 2003 with partner Vivián Joiner. “At the time, I never imagined being here today, having this place with such a great vibe and so many regulars.”Convinced her destiny was waiting on a stage in New York City, Tyson left home in the late 1970s for theater school and the Great White Way – which at the time was not entirely hospitable to dark-skinned, starry-eyed Southerners. Particularly a full-figured woman with a lisp.
Frustrated after years of playing mostly mammy roles, she decided to start over in Washington, D.C. It was there that she met Joiner, another seeker who had a knack for corporate management. Tyson enrolled in culinary school to learn how to maximize the kitchen secrets she learned from her beloved grandmother and four older sisters. Then, together, they worked in restaurants around the country – Virginia and South Carolina, and later Florida, Arizona and Maryland – mastering diverse cuisines and learning what it takes to own and operate your own business.“We talked about coming back to Winston-Salem quite a bit, but we also talked about how the timing wasn’t right,” Tyson says. “At some point, I just said I was tired and wanted to come home. My parents were getting older.”
They set about converting a former rooming house in the arts district into what became Sweet Potatoes. Though civic leaders initially discouraged their efforts, they quickly found a grateful audience of satisfied customers. The grand opening provided bittersweet, however, when Tyson’s father died only days before.
“The people of Winston-Salem surprised me,” Tyson says of the instant and enduring support. “It had been so staid. It was like a lot of large cities that went downhill with the malls opening in the suburbs, but they were embracing change. It worked.”A good location with a hip décor was one thing. Convincing diners to have a night on the town and pay for food their grandma used to fix was another.
“There weren’t a lot of restaurants that did real Southern food at the time,” Tyson says. “You could get Chinese food here, and plenty of Mexican food. In the last few years, Southern has become more legit.”Tyson’s award-winning cooking and Joiner’s deft management combine to feed both the bellies and souls of loyal customers. The place offered them a fresh start, along with some hard-luck employees who were given the structured support to overcome bad habits. Word of mouth and solid online reviews have made the 55-seat Sweet Potatoes a destination dining spot.
“I just can’t believe how fortunate we are that we get to do what we like, where we’re at, and be successful at it,” Tyson says. “I’m very proud of the food we do and the atmosphere. It’s the music, the feel of the restaurant, the diversity of our customer base. It’s reflective of everything we’ve always wanted in a restaurant.“It’s kind of an extension of our home. Even if it wasn’t my place, I would go there,” she adds with a laugh. “It really does have a good vibe.”
And it remains busy even though Tyson shared recipes for many of the most-requested dishes in her cookbook, Well, Shut My Mouth! (Blair Publishing) in 2011. The title is taken from a message on a folk portrait painted by a customer that hangs in the restaurant.
Playing off the motto, “Life is short; eat dessert first,” the book amusingly addresses desserts in its first chapter. “I’m not much of a baker but I like banana pudding,” Tyson admits of the recipe shared below, which opens the book. “I make the cookies, too, so it takes a little longer, but I enjoy that. I can focus on that and it gives me a moment to settle down and think.”
Not all menu items have Southern roots, but regional influences do season many of the dishes. “It’s not fusion cuisine, but I can’t ignore the things I learned before I got here,” says Tyson, noting the Gullah and Creole specialties she learned while cooking in Charleston and Joiner’s paternal Geechee roots.Among the recipes included in the book is V. V.’s Mamma’s Meatloaf with Wild Mushroom Gravy, Credited to Joiner’s mother, it is described as a budget-friendly, crowd-feeding meal. “We sell a lot of meatloaf, which is really great,” Tyson says. “It doesn’t have the cornflakes anymore, but Vivián’s sister says it still tastes good.”
Cost is important to Tyson, who features local products when feasible but makes no pretense of being a locavore.“I like to keep the meals consistent, and that’s either very expensive or impossible if you only use local ingredients,” she says. “To keep it reasonable, I may get strawberries from California. And I don’t buy local grass-fed beef because nobody who comes here wants to pay $30 for a steak.”
There is one thing that Tyson always sources locally, and that’s their namesake starch.“North Carolina has the best sweet potatoes in the country,” she says with pride. “The food we serve is prepared well, with a great deal of love. It’s not organic – but it’s from me organically.”
Tyson enjoys sharing her passion about food and is grateful to have such a strong operation that she and Joiner can step away from the restaurant now and then to promote their book or just take a break.“Every day it’s like mounting a show,” she says, drawing an analogy to her theater days. “We’re always behind the scenes getting things set. And we’re not done until the curtain falls.
“Everyone has to be ‘on’ all the time. It’s a production every day,” she says with a sigh. “Fortunately, we enjoy the production.”
This recipe is reprinted by permission of Blair Publishing from “Well, Shut My Mouth” by Stephanie Tyson (© 2011).
In the restaurant, we make these in individual serving cups. My grandmother would make one individual serving in a big ole bowl (which explains my hips)!
Serves 8 to 10
2 egg yolks
1 cup sugar
2 tablespoons flour
2 cups whole milk
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
Approximately 1 pound ripe bananas, peeled and sliced
Vanilla cookies (see recipe below)
In a medium-sized bowl, beat the eggs and yolks well and add the sugar and flour. Pour in the milk and place over a pan of boiling water; the pan should be just wide enough to hold the bowl without it being submerged in the water. Cook for 20 minutes, stirring constantly, until the pudding starts to thicken. Remove from heat and stir in butter and vanilla extract.In a 9x13-inch casserole (or your favorite bowl), layer sliced bananas. Top with vanilla cookies. Repeat for an additional two layers, ending with a layer of bananas. Pour the pudding over the bananas and wafers, then top with a final layer of cookies. Chill and top with whipped cream.
Vanilla Cookies1/3 cup butter
1 cup sugar
1 large egg, beaten
¼ cup milk
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
2 teaspoons almond extract
½ teaspoon salt
2 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
Cream the butter and sugar. Stir in the beaten egg and milk. Stir in the vanilla and almond extracts and the salt. In a separate bowl, sift the flour and baking powder. Add the dry ingredients to the wet and mix until smooth. Refrigerate for ½ hour.Roll the dough into small balls (1 teaspoon) and place about 2 inches apart on a greased sheet tray. Bake at 350 degrees for 10 minutes or until cookies are lightly browned. Remove to a wire rack and allow to cool.