Southern Soul Food Success at With Love, Savannah

“Try out this curry sauce.” Venus Likulumbi slides her spoon across the table, and I sample one of her favorite accompaniments, inspired by her time as a student line cook.

It’s a heady explosion of coconut milk and spices, and Venus smiles as I close my eyes and fall back against my seat at With Love, Savannah. She flags down the waiter: “Honey, bring me a tupperware. I’m going to wrap up some of this curry for our girl here.”

Venus first learned how to make this curry dish at the inaugural iteration of the With Love Restaurant called With Love, Pakistan. With Love is a one-of-a-kind enterprise: it is both a teaching restaurant, providing hands-on training for students in Onondaga Community College’s Food Service Management course, and a dynamic entrepreneur incubator.

With Love’s first ‘restaurateur in residence’ was Sarah Robin, a Pakistani refugee who incorporated the flavors of her native country to form With Love, Pakistan. As part of her comprehensive entrepreneurial training, Sarah taught all of the student line cooks how to properly prepare her dishes. Venus, a student line cook at the time, learned how to make various lentil dishes, chicken biryani, and the exceptional curry currently sitting in my takeout container.

The With Love restaurant is the brainchild of Adam Sudmann, the restaurant’s program manager and the founder of My Lucky Tummy. Adam’s dual passions for food and inclusive entrepreneurship led him to connect with Centerstate CEO, SBCD and Onondaga Community College. Together, they designed a workforce development strategy that leveraged Syracuse’s cultural vibrancy.

Nearly 10,000 refugees have resettled in Syracuse over the past ten years, primarily on the city’s Northside alongside historically African American and Puerto Rican communities. Analysts estimate that over 30 languages are spoken in the NorthSide.

Coupled with a dire need for skilled line cooks at area restaurants, With Love represented an opportunity to showcase the NorthSide’s global reach and provide meaningful vocational training. OCC received a $2.5 million US Department of Labor grant to support innovative workforce education programming, and With Love was born.

With Love, Pakistan opened at 435 N. Salina Street in December of 2016. After Sarah Robin, Nancy Aye served up her native Burmese food at With Love, Burma. Venus started her term as the ‘restaurateur in residence’ on January 18 of this year, and she will continue her training through June 29. Come July, With Love will transform itself again, and Venus will continue to receive wraparound assistance and support from CenterState CEO in launching her own business.

A successful With Love restaurateur is more than just a good cook. “Cooking is only about 20% of the job,” says Adam. Restaurateurs are responsible for keeping dining customers happy, working with students in the kitchen and out on the restaurant floor, developing and adapting the menum, and teaching students how to properly and consistently prepare their dishes.

“They have to be adept at project management, they have to have good time management skills, they have to be able to communicate well and know how to market themselves and their food,” notes Adam. “It can be difficult to identify the person that’s willing to take it all on.”

Adam laughs fondly as he reflects on interviewing Venus for the program back in 2016. While the two previous restaurateurs were both refugees, Venus is a Syracuse native. She has Congolese and Filipino ancestors on her mother’s side, and her stepfather hails from Savannah, Georgia. Growing up, Venus spent ample time with her stepfather’s family in Savannah. She eventually moved south herself, living in Charlotte for about 20 years.

Venus’ time in Savannah with her stepdad - an avid cook himself - instilled a rich love for home-cooked food. The city of Savannah boasts both Southern and Soul food influences, which Venus calls “two different pews in the same church”. She also enjoys preparing Filipino dishes, especially lumpia, a sort of Filipino spring roll that is currently featured on the With Love, Savannah menu.

Venus dabbled in catering while living in Charlotte, and heard about the OCC program when she moved back to Syracuse two years ago. Now, she says working at With Love “feels like I’m in my own kitchen”. She dreams of opening a hybrid restaurant and lodging business, where customers could stop in for a delicious, hearty meal and “sleep it off” if need be, says Venus with a laugh. Her warm, affectionate presence immediately sets customers at ease, and you can easily see her as the matriarch of her own establishment.

For my With Love, Savannah experience, my friend and I ordered the full sweep of entrees. Our waiter brought out sweet tea, and we watched student line cooks bustle around the kitchen through a window at the back of the restaurant.

Venus’ entrees include a crispy fried green tomato napoleon over fresh greens, a delicious black eyed pea stew with honey-sweet cornbread, and the most flavorful meatloaf I’ve had to date. It was my first exposure to Southern Soul Food cuisine, and I feel that I understand the hype - at least, when the food is in Venus’ expert hands.

Venus has loved working with Adam and her OCC peer students. “It’s a wonderful program”, she says sincerely. “It’s been the best part of this second phase of my life - I have my kids, and now I have this.”

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