Local alternative soul act Sam Houston & Blk Odyssy had just finished a national tour and was booked for an official SXSW showcase when the global pandemic started rearing its head in Austin, a snowballing scenario that would ultimately cancel the international festival and halt their live music gigs. For a self-described "grandiose thinker" like frontman Houston, nights off from performing turned into more time and space for a project combining what he's always had a passion for: soul food and community.
"[Working in the food space] has always been a goal or aspiration, but we simply didn't have the time," said Houston. "I'm 23 now and I started doing this around 2017; things really started to bubble up in 2018, so really, from there until now, I didn't have time to do anything besides music. 2020 was going to be even worse. [When the pandemic started] we'd just signed with a big agency and were talking to record labels and different producers, so things would have by no means slowed down. We wouldn't have been able to get a footprint in this [food] industry for another 5-6 years, so I suppose it was a blessing in disguise – in some odd crazy twisted way, shape, or form."
The idea for Soul House, a new delivery-based soul food kitchen, was born. But while food has always played background in their personal lives, jumping into Austin's fray was not an instant hit with the band. "I brought [the idea for a food business] to my brother and guitar player. My bro knows me, and knows I've always been serious about food, so he was game ... [guitarist] Alejandro [Rios], not so much – it is a weird thing for us to jump into out of nowhere."
But the pieces started to fall into place. They'd already saved earnings from a monthlong tour intended to become a European tour before COVID-19 hit, and they'd been posting step-by-step cooking videos of dishes like five-cheese mac & cheese, to get through the quarantine times. Their audience loved it: "We'd get hundreds of replies and shares, so we're like, 'Why don't we legitimize this and make it a business and put our message behind it?'
"I've always been a very grandiose thinker – which sometimes bit me in the ass and other times worked out pretty well – so I don't have a problem with failing. I don't have an issue with that. If it goes really well, I'd be ecstatic, and if it doesn't, I'd be okay with the fact that I had a cool idea. But I really have confidence that this will go well, and we're getting a lot of positive reception already. I look forward to sharing our story with people – actually letting people in on the story behind us."
With constantly evolving pandemic restrictions for restaurants, and live music slow to regain its momentum, the group decided to hold off on a brick-and-mortar and roll with a business model that could more easily implement social distance guidelines and food business regulations. On Monday, June 8, the pre-order delivery system launched and will run through June 21. On June 22, the first round of meals (the soft launch, you might say) will be delivered in time for a release of their brand new music video. Houston, in fact, returned late last week – just before the protests in Austin – from Nashville, where the band has been working on their upcoming album. "We pushed back the release because of the whole COVID thing and we're actually working with Leon Bridges' team. The themes to the album are pretty much the same, but we're making amendments to the music. It's very rich in social justice stories and issues and talks about equality and a plethora of things that actually happen in society. So that's always been a big thing for me as a writer.
"We want people to have a full-body experience of what we're brewing up."
Playing this duet of music and food is nothing new for these guys: Houston's training stems from splitting college studies between audio engineering and culinary arts and cooking at restaurants all over the local scene; Rios has an extensive background in the service industry, including Home Slice Pizza, where he bartends at the North Loop location; and Jay Houston's been Blk Odyssy's acting tour and business manager. Their skills transferred over to the new venture: "We've basically shifted our positions in the band to this." So Sam does most of the cooking (along with some local chefs he knows from his days behind the line); Alejandro is handling customer service and front of the house, and Jay deals with business development. But Houston says his interest in food, and different cuisines, started as a child. "While my brothers were watching sports, I was watching the Food Network."
Growing up in a big family meant food was a big deal, with his mom, a teacher, cooking for five boys and his father, a pro basketball player turned businessman in the tech sector. Houston said, "My mom loved cooking for us up until high school. She was like, 'Alright, I'm done cooking every morning and night,' and [now] I appreciate it: She was worn out. So I always took a particular interest in cooking and re-creating my favorite dishes. I always loved soul food and the culture that came with it – there's some of the best soul food places I've ever had in Harlem. And I spent a lot of time there – I lived about 10-15 minutes outside the city. Eating that food of the world early on, I was exposed to so many different types of cuisines – Italian (especially), soul food, Korean cuisine. And my [family's] roots are from St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands, so a lot of our music, as well as some of our food, has [those] tastes."
The Soul House menu is offered as both single meals and Family Plans (that feed 4-6), and their specialty is chicken and waffles seasoned "with a blend of six different seasonings, marinated for 12 hours, and brushed with a hot honey glaze after coming out the fryer." Paired with heartwarming sides like honey butter cornbread, five-cheese mac & cheese, garlic green beans, and candied yams, the menu intentionally riffs off of the food born during times not so dissimilar from now — national civil unrest.
"Our recipes are based on that Harlem-style soul food like Sylvia's in Harlem, which has been there for 50 years, and Wells Supper Club, Delta's. And all these places that came up during the Harlem Renaissance spoke specifically to the culture and really intertwined with what was going on at the time. I think that's why they called it soul food. It has Southern roots – it was the people that migrated from the Carolinas and Georgia and Mississippi and came to Harlem and re-created those meals – but then it took on its own character and turned into a different thing. You have Southern comfort food, which is one thing, but you have this Harlem-style soul food, which has alterations. And I took a particular liking to it because I love the music. Miles Davis and Stevie Wonder and Louis Armstrong, all these crazy Black musicians went to these places after their gigs and had dinner. To me, it's a nostalgic time that I wish I lived during, in some ways; I love it and I love the culture. And pretty much all walks of life consume that culture when it comes to music, so I want to bring [that food] here because I think there's some important lessons to learn from that culture."
It's that community spirit of the Harlem Renaissance that fuels Blk Odyssy's music and Soul House's food. The band utilizes Sam's big vocals and Rios' guitar chops to deliver elements of Seventies rock & roll, neo-soul, and funk, and their lyrics are full of powerful stories about real life – from love and introspection to devastating experiences, like the 2010 loss of their older brother as a result of police brutality. And they're bringing those big ideas to their new venture. Houston said, "The Soul House stems from a couple different ideas. There's a bit of a hole here in the market in Austin for soul food compared to other major markets like Phoenix, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago, and there's a common denominator: They all stem from Harlem-style soul food, specifically [modeled after] the Wells Supper Club, which is what we're basing our recipes off of." Houston explains that places like Lo-Lo's in Phoenix, Chicago's Waffle House in Chicago, Roscoe's in Los Angeles, or Sylvia's in Harlem, make thin waffles – not Belgian-style waffles. Much to the surprise of some brunch crowds, the roots of this waffle style are not just direct descendants of traditional Southern cuisine: They're a Harlem original dating back to Wells Restaurant in 1938.
In addition to the spices and flavors, some of the Soul House love is in the preparation. "We'll do a lot of grilling," Houston said. "We have this Rasta Pasta with oxtails, and we use the sauce from the oxtails and combine it in a sort of alfredo sauce, taking two different foods and combining them. It tastes really good. And it's like anything else, when you are merging cultures and bringing them together and it's like, 'Oh, they actually do work well together.' I think that theme goes throughout all aspects of what we're doing – the food, the music, just the culture in general that we're trying to deliver to people."
Houston noted the societal similarities between what happened during Harlem, beginning in the 1930s, and now, including police brutality particularly aimed at the Black community. "It's literally insane that we have to be here right now. Like, how do you act when people genuinely feel that the people who are supposed to be the protectors are the predators? How? I mean, this is how people felt at that time. And it called for businesses who had looked for protection from the police to [have to] say, "Hey, this is a safe haven from them,' and then things like that turn around. It all stems from poisoned roots – it stems from being kind of shitty from the start. It's crazy because history is actually repeating itself."
He continued, "I went [to the protest] the other day, last Sunday [May 31], and you know, it's just crazy. I don't want to be in a situation where I'm shot with a rubber bullet or tear gas, which I'm very prone to be if I'm down there. And I can't really see it getting better until there's some changes made and that's going to take some time. So I've just been trying to do my part in different ways, especially here in Austin, because I've been surprised by how police have handled things. When I moved to Austin it [seemed] like such a diverse, open, free space. I'm not sure, but with the economic development, the police force got a bit different, and it's not what I expected really. I left New Jersey [in 2015] to get away from stuff like this. It's definitely unsettling, but we're just trying to do our part to make the situation better because it's a tough situation. It's been happening for years, but now it's getting this crazy attention and I've just been wondering where this moral support has been for the last 20 years, you know?
"The only thing we can really do is tell people to get out there and vote to combat these [problems]. There are so many ways that gay people, Black people, Mexican people are being marginalized in this country – [we must] understand that this country was not built for [them]," Houston said. "Think about it: When you build something, you have a specific thing in mind, and that foundation is built for that purpose and that's what the building is going to cater to. This country was never meant to cater to anyone but white people, white Americans, and that's just the honest-to-God truth."
What Sam Houston and his band are building is one for everyone. "One thing I want to highlight about us is that we definitely are a Black-owned business and we're looking specifically to create an environment that speaks about harmony. [Some other places] are just not inclusive of other cultures – like a lot of white people don't go there, but when you go to Roscoe's or [Chicago] Waffle House, you see all kinds of people there. We don't want to seem like we're only for Black people. Inclusion is a big thing for us. We want to be very poignant and direct: We're looking to get people of all different walks of life to sit over a meal and share ideas on how we can make the world better."
That very act of sitting down to share a meal is critical to future success, said Houston. "It's like anything else, like music: It's sharing dreams. We need to focus on things that bring us together. I'm not even going to say that I don't want Trump supporters to come in, because if you support Trump – even though at this point, that's getting a little iffy – we want people to be able to have their own opinions and be respected and not hate a person for those opinions. Like I said, with Trump it's getting a little weird because there are some moral things going on, but just the same, we want people to respect each other and respect cultures. [Then] we'll start to see a change. I really do believe through music and food, that it will make a difference."
Find more information on Soul House pre-orders through their Instagram page, @soulhousefoods; and their music at www.samhoustonmusic.com.For some history of Harlem-style soul food,check out “Hungry for History: Chicken and Waffles” at www.ebony.com/life/food/hungry-for-history-chicken-and-waffles.
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