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Mumble Sauce is a summer 2019 column about how DMV Black communities uplift healing and creativity in the face of gentrification, displacement, policing, and incarceration. This is installment six of 10.
It’s hard to get proper crispy home fries in D.C. Trust that I’ve tried. As someone who’s obsessed with potatoes in all their forms, trust that I’ve tried more than I should.
I didn’t have to tell the server at Provost my potato preferences when I ate there for the first time on a hot Sunday afternoon. Each piece came out brown and crispy on the outside, and warm, golden, and soft at the core. A glass of freshly made raspberry juice washed it down.
Ask the folks at Provost how they do it, and they say they just got it like that.
Provost is Nina Gilchrist’s creative child. The D.C. born-and-raised restaurateur and bartender decided in 1998, when she was still a teenager, that she would one day own a restaurant. She enrolled in culinary classes like pastry making and hors d’oeuvres at Prince George’s Community College and trained under chefs through the Roosevelt S.T.A.Y program, a DC Public Schools academy that caters to 16 to 24-year-old people.
After years of training, envisioning, and exploring alternate career paths—Gilchrist also used to be a teacher and a Realtor—Provost had its soft launch this summer.
Nina Gilchrist has always been about her business. “I’m the middle child, but a lot of my siblings call me big sister,” Gilchrist says. She grew up in Michigan Park and Rock Creek Park with her mother, father, and three siblings, and often helped her parents at night with housekeeping and getting her siblings ready for school the next day.
She enjoys being part of the balance in her family. And her family rolls deep. When I went to Provost to eat and talk with Gilchrist, I also ended up meeting her mother, father, multiple nieces and nephews, and cousins. The younger family members sat in booths with their noses in their phones and tablets. Other family members were working at the restaurant, and some came to laugh and hang out.
“I’m a nurturer,” says Gilchrist. Soft-spoken with golden locs, her gentle and nurturing nature is present both in conversation and in the restaurant she’s created. Provost offers vegan, vegetarian, and organic food options, as well as off-menu items for children, people who are gluten-free, and people with a variety of other dietary needs. “I believe in organic food, in animals living a certain life and being a part of certain habitats,” Gilchrist says. “And I wanted to open an establishment that caters to the needs of many people. We want you to come and eat and feel satisfied.”
Gilchrist credits her background in early childhood education as one of the reasons why she takes such a caring approach to food. She used to work with 6-week-old to 3-year-old children as a teacher in Maryland. This path felt natural to her. Her mother ran a child care center, and many of her other family members are teachers. This commitment to education is one of the inspirations behind Provost’s name.
It’s a fitting name, given that the building Provost is in has a lot of history waiting to be learned. The restaurant sits on Rhode Island Ave NE in a small red brick building flanked by a Black beauty supply store and salon on one side and her father’s realty business on the other. The restaurant’s design is a mixture of modern and rustic, taking advantage of the integrity and beauty of the building’s older parts. The walls alternate between old crimson brick and sleek modern overlays.
The building used to be a dry cleaners. Irvin Gilchrist, Nina Gilchrist’s father who has lived in D.C. since his elementary school days, tells me that a Black seamstress opened the dry cleaning business at the property sometime in the 1960s and ran it as Colbert’s Cleaners for years. A few decades later, that property came into the hands of the Gilchrists. This section of Rhode Island Ave NE is a rare sliver of D.C. where multiple spaces are owned by and cater to Black people.
Keeping the spirit of local Black communities alive is what the Gilchrist family is all about. Many local, young Black chefs are getting their start through Provost. The restaurant’s pastry chef was trained at Prince George’s Community College and makes a mean bread pudding. Gilchrist’s niece, who fills multiple roles at the restaurant, is a current student. The head chef, Chef Taye—the person responsible for the perfection of my hash browns—grew up in Prince George’s County.
Nina Gilchrist feels honored to be surrounded by so many Black people with a passion for food, and investing in their success is important to her. “My goal is to do things right within my reach,” Gilchrist says, her hands politely folded across her lap.
She is grounded. While the excitement of the restaurant finally being open continues to brew, Gilchrist is focused on what she needs to do next. It was a long road to the restaurant’s first day of serving customers, and she knows more journeys lie ahead. “Many people who know me when I was trying to open the restaurant, they know it was like I didn’t even want to talk about it anymore because it was so challenging,” Gilchrist says. “But now I’ve reached my goal, and there’s many more action steps to take.” Among those action steps: applying to be a certified organic restaurant and throwing a grand opening sometime in the fall.
In the meantime, Gilchrist is devoted to learning how to make Provost a creative space for the community. She grew up with D.C.-based photographer Beverly Price (who I interviewed for this column previously) and went to one of Price’s parties at House of Secrets. Inspired by the art there and reminiscing about her former days as a singer and dancer, Gilchrist knew that live performances and creativity would be an important aspect of Provost’s culture.
“The way they vibrated and connected with each other at House of Secrets,” Gilchrist says, “that’s the kind of vibe we want.”
Gilchrist’s vision for Provost is bigger than she lets on. She leads me to the restaurant’s upstairs rooftop, a patio with colorful floor cushions and lush greenery overlooking Northeast. On this Sunday, I linger between the rooftop and Provost’s main floor until well past sundown, laughing with Nina Gilchrist’s relatives and eating bread pudding until my belly is stretched past its capacity. Meanwhile, Gilchrist made her way back behind the bar, mixing drinks and making sure all of her guests feel welcome.
“In D.C., we have so many talented people who aren’t recognized. I’d like for this to be a place where people can shine and grow,” Gilchrist says slowly, tasting the potential in her words, taking her time to savor each one. “I would like for this to be a space where people can be creative and free.”
Provost; 2129 Rhode Island Ave. NE; provostdc.com