Food & Drink » Food & Wine

Soul Food From the Heart at Alcenia’s

Owner B.J. Chester-Tamayo offers takeout — sorry, no hugs — and stars in a YouTube show.


B.J. Chester-Tamayo is known for hugging customers who enter her restaurant, Alcenia’s.

She doesn’t do that anymore since she converted the restaurant to takeout only because of the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s “very hard” not to hug people, Chester-Tamayo says. “One of my girlfriends said, ‘If you can stop hugging, anybody can.’ And I have to catch myself. I just bump elbows. Bump, bump, bump. I don’t know how long it’ll be before we’ll ever be able to do that again.”

Her restaurant is open, but she won’t let people eat in the dining room. “This is too serious. People’s lives are too important. This is not over.” And, she says, “I can’t take a chance on my people and my employees’ lives.”
B.J. Chester-Tamayo
  • B.J. Chester-Tamayo

They can’t dine in, but fans can tune in to Chester-Tamayo on their phones or computers. She stars in her own cooking show, Alcenia’s Family With Southern Girl, which airs at 1 p.m. Sundays on YouTube Live.

She recently made her buttermilk pie on TODAY with Hoda & Jenna. “They loved it.”

That was the second time she appeared on the show, but her fourth time on NBC. She’s appeared twice on Sunday TODAY with Willie Geist.

Guy Fieri, host of Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives, gave Chester-Tamayo a shout-out on a CBS News segment on June 28th. Fieri, who visited the restaurant in 2008, referred to Alcenia’s as a “tasty little joint.” About the segment, Chester-Tamayo says, “That show probably has been the biggest impact on Alcenia’s.”

But people still want to be able to taste Chester-Tamayo’s cooking. She offers her complete menu, which includes her classic dishes, such as smothered pork chops and salmon croquettes, for takeout. And she’s selling her products, including her preserves and pies, online.

“What I’m trying to do is stay in business,” Chester-Tamayo says.

She’s in her restaurant’s kitchen Tuesdays through Saturdays. On one recent day, she made an array of desserts, smothered pork chops, yams, smothered chicken, baked tilapia, baked catfish, fried catfish, meatloaf, pinto beans, mashed potatoes with gravy, rice and gravy, lima beans, green beans, and cabbage.

And when she got home? Marie Callender’s frozen pot pie and some boiled corn because she was so tired. “You know, that’s a crying shame,” she says.

Some people are confused about the name of her restaurant, but Alcenia was Alcenia Clark- Chester, Chester-Tamayo’s mother, who died at age 98 on December 29th of last year. Her mother taught her to cook after Chester-Tamayo opened the restaurant on November 7, 1997. “She didn’t make me do anything growing up. I was an only child. I did not even boil water. I ate, but I didn’t cook anything.”
She got the idea to do the YouTube cooking show last year. “God gave me this idea 9, 10 months ago,” she says. Chester-Tamayo had her own ideas about how she wanted her to show to be. “I didn’t want a show just me standing up just cooking because that’s what everybody does.” She wanted to cook “with people in the home.”

The three or four people on her show are cooking along with her on YouTube from their homes across the country. They cook recipes from Chester-Tamayo’s cookbooks, Soul 2 Soul from Alcenia’s to the World, and Alcenia’s Healing the Soul Autobiography/Cookbook. As for the latter, she says, “My son, Will A. Tamayo III, would have been 46 years old May 6, 1974. That’s the book I wrote about dealing with his death.”

An episode, which she titled “The Brothers,” features four men who are cooking with her. “We cooked the vegetables together. We cooked fresh snap beans with white potatoes. We cooked Alcenia’s corn. It’s like fried corn. Bell pepper and celery. It’s a recipe I made up ‘cause I couldn’t do corn on the cob like my mom did. The old-fashioned way.”

Dessert was Strawberry Delight Cake, one of her mother’s recipes. “My mom always made it every Fourth of July in our house. It’s an angel food cake with Philadelphia cream cheese and sour cream or cream cheese frosting. And frozen strawberries and fresh strawberries.”

Chester-Tamayo has done shows featuring just herself.

In her first show, she made her oven-fried chicken. “I did it like you are going to fry it with flour and seasoning and everything, but we made a gravy so you could cook it in the oven. We wanted that fried effect, but instead of doing it on the stove, we did it in the oven. We did cabbage. We did hot water cornbread.”

On her “Breakfast, or Dinner, or Me” episode, she made salmon croquettes and fried green tomatoes. “Some people have salmon croquettes for breakfast, some people have salmon croquettes for dinner, some have salmon croquettes for both of them.”

She also made biscuit toast. “When you have biscuits left over, you take them and cut them in half and you put margarine or butter with cinnamon and toast them just like you would if you were making regular toast.”

Chester-Tamayo likes to make a complete dinner, so people who are watching the show and cooking with her will have a complete Sunday dinner when they’re finished. “One meat, bread, vegetable. I want to make sure they have a meal. I want it to taste good enough so they can sit down with their family and enjoy this meal.”

She has entertainment on her show. One episode featured her friend, Memphis Music Hall of Fame member Charlie Musselwhite. “I just asked him, ‘Will you be on my show?’” Musselwhite “made up an Alcenia’s song” that he played on guitar, she says. “I was hoping he’d do something with his harmonica, but he did an original song.”

Her friend, Dr. Darrell Murray, wrote her show’s theme song.

Another musician, Robert Sampson, told her he named his guitar “Alcenia” after her mother. “For somebody to tell you something like that, it just touches my heart. My mom would have been happy to hear that.”

Chester-Tamayo’s sense of humor shines through in the episodes. For her Easter show, she dolled herself up in her spring finery and made Gogo’s Pecan Pie, which was named after her late son. “I dressed up like I’d been to church. I have a big white hat on with my beads.”

She told her viewers she’d “been to Bedside Baptist with Pastor Pillow.” But what she meant was she had just gotten up from her bed and her pillow.
“People say, ‘Your last show, girl, you were just so funny.’ I just be me. I don’t know anybody else to be but me. I’ve always been the same way. If I like you, I deal with you. If I don’t like you, I don’t deal with you. God, forgive me, but that’s just the way it is.”

Chester-Tamayo does get serious on her show, too. “I told people I really needed their help. It was Easter Sunday. That I was not going to make it on takeout. I need people to support me through my cooking show and through my website, They can go subscribe and help me.”

God also gave her the idea to start shipping her products, she says. “I’m shipping pies, preserves, T-shirts, cookbooks, aprons. I have about 10 items. They have to order it from me. Apple butter, cha cha, pickled tomatoes. As the season goes on I try to let people know what I have. Peach preserves, pear preserves. People have just been awesome. That’s what’s keeping me in business right now. Ninety percent of my customers were out-of-towners.”

Her restaurant already was having problems because the renovation of Cook Convention Center made it difficult for people to get to her location, she says. “I already lost money because of that. Then COVID-19 comes in. I looked up and told God and my mom this morning, ‘Thank you. If I didn’t have these products, I’d probably be closed.’

“The only reason I’m still in business is God and the people he has put in my life. I didn’t cook growing up. No culinary skills. Strictly by the grace of God and people he has put in my life and people he’s keeping in my life.”

And, Chester-Tamayo says, “Once you come in my life any kind of way, you’re part of Alcenia’s family. I’ve got the world’s largest family.”

Alcenia’s is at 317 N. Main; (901) 523-0200.

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