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East Harlem Chef Treats Customers Like Family

By Gustavo Solis | February 11, 2015 2:29pm
 A small restaurant on First Avenue has become an extension of people's kitchens. 
SpaHa Soul
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EAST HARLEM — When you walk into SpaHa Soul — a small, 17-seater restaurant on First Avenue — you’ll be greeted by Artist Thornton.

He will show you to your seat, take you order, prepare it, serve it to you, and clean up once your finished. If any deliveries come in, he takes care of those too.

"I just ask, 'does anyone need anything?,' and then run out," said Thornton, 48, who opened the restaurant on 2270 First Ave. about a year and a half ago.

Until a couple of weeks ago, when he hired two young chefs to help out, Thornton was the owner, head chef, waiter, bus boy, delivery boy, host, accountant, manager and architect. He still fulfills all of those duties with a little help from the two new employees — both local chefs passionate about food, he said.

Their goal is to making people feel at home in his restaurant.

“I tell myself every night that this is a dinner party I'm going to meet interesting people,“ he said.

Every meal is prepared for a specific person. If you are trying to cut back on salt he will use a little less on his recipe. If you like spicy but not too spicy he will find the perfect balance. If you like the way his pork is prepared but want chicken instead, he will make it happen.

Most nights, Thornton will sit down with a customer and ask what kind of flavors they like. After about 10 minutes, he will go into the kitchen, look through his pantry and prepare something based on their conversation.

“He cooks for his customers like he is cooking for family,” said Laurena Torres, who lives a couple of blocks away from SpaHa.

Torres will often call Thornton and just ask him to put something together for her. He knows which flavors she likes and which she will stay away from, she said.

The menu is Thornton’s take on soul food which he learned from his Louisiana-born grandmother and developed while traveling abroad by borrowing flavors from different cultures. Entrees, which are between $10 and $15, consist of Buttermilk fried chicken, stuffed pork chops, catfish and collards, coconut curry, gumbo, and veggie loaf.

He also offers a four-course tasting menu for $35. 

Because the kitchen's pantry is small, Thornton buys fresh ingredients every couple of days. The meat comes from a local butcher on East 116th Street and the produce from a family-owned market nearby, he said.

Thornton is no stranger to the restaurant business. SpaHa Soul is the seventh restaurant he’s opened. He’s had one in California, where he was born, and five in Mexico City, where he has lived on and off for the last few decades after a modeling gig landed him south of the border, he said.

“My first experience in a professional kitchen was in Mexico City,” he said. “So when I came back I couldn’t say certain things because I only knew the words in Spanish.”

For example, he said, he didn’t know how to say cumin, tongs, or flattop when he worked in his first restaurant in the states, in Phoenix, Arizona, where he lived for at time. He’d ask the Mexican staff to translate for him, Thornton said.

A job offer in 2009 brought him to New York City. He had bought a one-way ticket from Mexico City to New York expecting to take the job. But when he met with the partners, he realized it wasn’t what he was looking for. The pay was too low and the work was not what he was interested in.

“I had some shots of tequila and walked around Central Park after the interview,” he said. “Then I started singing, ‘Start spreading the news,” and nobody looked at me. In fact one lady, I guess I was walking too slow, brushed past me. Then I did a little dance on top of a rock and still nobody looked at me. I went back to the hotel and decided to stay.”

He moved to East Harlem and worked for a couple of restaurants but missed running the show. In 2013 he decided to open his own.

Now, after a year and a half, he is ready to grow. Part of the reason he finally hired two employees is to help with the expansion, he said, adding that he's training them to be as dedicated to personal service as he is. They already talk to every customer that eats their food, he said.

It adds an element of accountability, Thornton said. There is no hiding behind a server or a kitchen.

Next, he plans to convert an empty storefront next door to SpaHa into a neighborhood pub/Mexico City-style tequileria that serves high-end tequila, he said. The two spaces would share a kitchen, he said.

If all goes well, he’d like to create four more restaurants with the same attention to customer service as SpaHa — where customers can expect personal, know-the-person-cooking-your-food service, he said.

"People like being involved in the process," he said. "I think they come in for the personal touch, they know the person cooking their food. They enjoy the fact that each plate is prepared specifically for them."