Raymon Simpson believes that his new carryout The Crestlyn Kitchen fills a restaurant void near his alma mater. Morgan State University in Northeast Baltimore, and can potentially help save African Americans’ lives.
The restaurateur witnessed the underlying health concerns such as diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease that were exposed in Black communities by the deadly COVID-19.
“At the end of the day, healthier options need to be given to the Black community,” said Simpson, 39, a Gaithersburg resident. “I want to help. I’m here to serve the needs of the community.”
The 2010 graduate remembers a lack of food options at and near the university that led to his unhealthy eating habits and a 50-pound weight gain.
After he graduated, he says he began to modify how he prepared some of his favorite foods using a healthier approach. He eliminated his sugar and iodized salt intake. Then he used his own weight loss success to inspire his approach at the restaurant.
Simpson opened the carryout in October with a focus on customizing meals to address underlying health concerns of many Black Marylanders — an idea advocated by health experts. He allows customers to make special dietary requests when ordering. The carryout’s open kitchen allows customers to monitor how their food is made.
He also hired a head chef with experience cooking in an assisted-living facility where he picked up the skills necessary to create healthier meals while maintaining the tastes associated with soul food cuisine.
“That’s my main mission: restaurant-quality food at a takeout location,” Simpson said of the 1,000-square-foot space located in a mini strip mall on its namesake street off The Alameda. “That has always been my mission for the community, so they don’t have to drive out of Baltimore City limits to get a good meal. They don’t have to drive out there to get a healthy meal.”
For instance, when it comes to lowering sodium, which is linked to high blood pressure and hypertension, the restaurant opts for garlic or other herbs instead of iodized salt.
Also, customers can request that their food be prepared with reduced amounts of processed sugar to help thwart diabetes. Fruit purees and agave are used instead. Vegan, vegetarian and ketogenic (a diet consisting of protein, high-fat, and low-carbohydrate intake) options with lower sodium seasonings are available.
The restaurant also pushes turkey burgers instead of beef. Chicken is baked instead of deep fried. And various fishes are the preferred protein and featured as the catch of the day.
Dr. Stacy Garrett-Ray, vice president and medical director of Population Health at the University of Maryland Medical System, says she supports such restaurants that give people access to healthier food.
Simpson’s business is a “fantastic idea and concept for a restaurant to create a menu that is customer-centric and really thinks about their health,” Garrett-Ray said.
Garrett-Ray, who is also a family physician, stressed a healthier approach to cooking particularly for African Americans who have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19 when it comes to diagnosis, hospitalizations and deaths. Co-factors like diabetes, hypertension and high blood pressure have been linked to those who are more vulnerable to the coronavirus.
“At the end of the day, food and our nutrition is the most important way that we can manage our chronic conditions such as diabetes and hypertension,” she said.“Giving customers that choice helps customers think healthier and be healthier.”
The upstart carryout has already caught the eye of Therese Nelson, a Brooklyn-based chef and food historian, who calls The Crestlyn Kitchen a smart business that reflects the soul food tradition of “being uniquely tied to the communities they serve. They reflect the niche communities they are in.”
Nelson said that this concept of offering customized foods to address the health of the customer is a rare concept from a national perspective.
“I think it’s so dope,” she said. “I want to see what happens in a year. The more customizable model just makes sense.”
Eric Carr, the head chef for The Crestlyn Kitchen, brings line order cook experience with two years of skills he picked up cooking at an assisted-living home in New Jersey. It was at this facility that he realized that “people’s diets were tethering them to mortality.”
Carr promises he can come up with healthier versions of almost every item on the menu — except for the chicken and waffles dishes.
“[Customers] get the experience of personalized items that they can eat from us,”he said. “We’re normalizing making healthier versions of all of the greasy spoon takeout classics. We do a lot of grilling and broiling.”
Hiring a chef with Carr’s background is an asset for the business, according to Garrett-Ray.
“With his experience working in the nursing systems, he sees what can happen at the end. If he can help to be an intervention in the community and make a change, he can help people with their daily preparations too,” Garrett-Ray said.
Simone Phillips, who runs the 20K Instagram account @charmcitytable, heard about the carryout in December when one of her Twitter followers told her about it. She checked it out the next day.
Phillips was sold on making customers’ health a priority.
“I think that is super important because I feel like Black folks really like options when they go out to eat. Food is really important to us, and we like it made a certain way,” she said. Making those small tweaks possible and not making a big deal, is huge. You aren’t feeling like you are being annoying. That’s really big.”
Kenya Mack, a Halthorpe resident, estimates that she has frequented the restaurant at least twice a month since first visiting in October. Mack said the eatery’s approach is fresh and needed — particularly for African Americans.
“They have options that aren’t always available at other places,” she said. “I think that it does good for the Black community. A lot of us are heading to healthier eating. It’s a benefit to anyone who is patronizing the restaurant.”
Simpson plans to expand this healthier foods approach this summer with the opening of 9five Kitchen and Bar, an 8,000-square-foot, 350-seat restaurant in Linthicum. That restaurant will follow the same customized menu approach.