Published May 17, 2019 by the James Beard Foundation
When we say the James Beard Foundation is about good food for good, it’s not limited to sustainable agriculture, the Farm Bill, or reducing food waste. Another important aspect of our mission is highlighting the myriad hands that have helped to shape American cuisine. Below, Brad Johnson shares the story of Alberta Wright, chef and proprietor of New York City hot spot Jezebel, who rose from Lowcountry roots in the Jim Crow South to the heights of New York nightlife, and in the process helped to redefine our conception of Soul Food.
How does a Black teenager from rural South Carolina, daughter of sharecroppers and on the heels of Jim Crow, find the gumption to believe New York City in 1947 was her destiny? To know the answer is to uncover the magic of Alberta Wright. This remarkable woman blazed a trail, became a legend, and changed the way New Yorkers experienced Soul Food.
Alberta was the owner and operator of Jezebel, located on the outskirts of the city’s theater district. Not only an enigma and force of nature, she was a female African-American proprietor in a major urban market, simultaneously overseeing the kitchen while actively working the room on a nightly basis, a rare art form then and now. Her influence can be seen today across the country in places like Beard Award winner Marcus Samuelsson’s Red Rooster in Harlem and my restaurant, Post & Beam, in South Los Angeles.
Union Heights, South Carolina, a swampy stretch of land, is considered one of the earliest predominately African-American communities settled post-slavery. Alberta spent her childhood in nearby Swamp Fox, next to the Santee River. Her mother, Annie, worked as a domestic for wealthy white families in Charleston, and her father, Edmund, augmented the family business of sharecropping with hunting and fishing. According to Alberta’s beloved son, the actor Michael Wright, Edmund also had a side hustle. “Edmund kept a still deep in the swamp where he manufactured his own corn liquor which he sold and drank during the Depression,” Michael says. At 16 years old, Alberta packed her belongings and headed to New York City.
Early on, Alberta worked as a salesperson and buyer for various women’s clothiers. In the decades that followed, Alberta moved through several well-known design houses before opening her first shop on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. The second floor location, aptly named “Look Up,” sold a mix of clothes and collectibles. Her reputation gained steam among the fashion crowd and bold-face names took notice. Yoko Ono, an early fan of Alberta’s store, became a friend of the family. Many others from Lauren Hutton to Lee Strasberg were drawn to Alberta’s unique sense of style, attending the parties she hosted and cooked for in her small apartment. These famous friends would soon create the initial buzz for her restaurant.
One day, while walking down Ninth Avenue, she noticed a vacant corner space on 45th Street. Alberta liked the grittiness of the neighborhood and envisioned creating an oasis within the chaos of Hell’s Kitchen. The name Jezebel was chosen (a nickname given to Alberta by her boyfriend at the time) and the restaurant opened in 1983. The New York Times’s food critic Bryan Miller awarded Jezebel two stars, calling the restaurant “one of the most intriguing settings in New York City.” One would be hard-pressed to identify a Black-owned and -operated restaurant that had previously even been reviewed by the Times, much less awarded stars. (JBF Award–winning chef Patrick Clark received two stars from the Times in 1980; however, he was the chef at Keith McNally’s Odeon, not its proprietor.)
At Jezebel, Warhol prints hung next to handpicked fabrics, fancy shawls, and Baccarat crystal chandeliers. A swing meant for two became one of the most-requested seats in the house. The soundtrack was a mix of standards and jazz classics played by guest pianists. An eclectic staff, featuring several employees from Africa, delivered plates of fried chicken. African red bell pepper was a common ingredient in Alberta’s signature dishes, and her take on banana pudding was legendary.
Unquestionably, Alberta was the star every night. A civil rights advocate (she was in the room when Malcom X was assassinated) and frequent traveler to Africa and Europe, she would always return with art and stories. Every night in her presence was stimulus for all of the senses.
A group of young, aspiring actors—Denzel, Wesley, and Laurence—found second homes at Jezebel. Alberta was Mom away from home. Soon the restaurant was bursting at the seams with stars from stage, screen, sports, and fashion. Jezebel eventually expanded to three times its original size.
The years move on, and so did the crowds—restaurants rarely go out with a bang. Jezebel closed in 2007 after a 24-year run. A couple of follow-ups were attempted, but Alberta, then in her mid-70s, was tired and those places did not last. The last time I saw Alberta, a few months before she passed, the wicked gleam, though a bit further away, was still there in her eye. It was as if she knew something the rest of us did not. It had always been this way. I gave her a hug and told her I loved her. After a few beats, not sure I’d get response, her voice called as I reached the door—“I love you more.”
Brad Johnson, president of Post & Beam Hospitality Group, is a 40-year veteran of the industry.