In anticipation of our upcoming evening celebrating the memory of Chef Neville Forsythe, here’s a vivid and loving profile of the Chef from this week’s Pulse. Follow this link, or read on below.
Those who experienced the local Jamaican restaurant Mrs. B’s Reggae Cafe—run by the husband/wife team of Neville and Marilyn Forsythe and named after Marilyn’s late mother Frances Brown—knew it as an oasis of Caribbean escapism, offering authentic, exotic flavors in meticulously prepared, inventive dishes and a welcoming, easygoing atmosphere.
Shortly after celebrating the restaurant’s 5th anniversary last summer, Neville passed away in a car accident, and although Mrs. B’s Reggae Cafe has closed, Neville’s legacy will be celebrated at a special event on February 1st at Barking Legs Theater, with all proceeds going to the Neville Osmond Forsythe, Sr. Scholarship Fund.
The event will feature performances from local band Fresh Mind and the 4th Ward Afro-Klezmer Orchestra from Atlanta then end with a dance party led by DJ Hubbs, spinning some of Neville’s favorites. Neville’s favorite cocktail, Voodoo Rhum Punch, will be served by its inventor, tiki enthusiast Evan Lipson, who ran the Voodoo Bar within Mrs. B’s Reggae Cafe.
With the word “reggae” in the restaurant’s name, and warm Jamaican music always playing in the background, it was apparent that music was important to Chef Neville and Marilyn.
This writer recalls talking with Neville about his favorite Jamaican music, including reggae singer John Holt, from when he lived in Jamaica before joining the U.S. Navy and then putting down roots in Chattanooga.
“Neville loved all types of music—blues, jazz, rock, reggae,” said Marilyn. “He loved music by James Brown, Chaka Khan, Bobby Womack, to mention a few.”
What might not be well known is Neville’s part in both Chattanooga’s restaurant and music history.
Starting in the early ‘90s, Neville and Marilyn ran one of Chattanooga first fine-dining restaurants, Chef’s Underground Cafe, which hosted a remarkable run of music-based events in conjunction with the arts non-profit organization The Shaking Ray Levi Society.
“Chef’s Underground Cafe was a rare safe place for innovation, improvisation and life,” said Bob Stagner (co-founder of The Shaking Ray Levi Society).
“Everything from his world was made with excellence, care, and heart,” said Stagner. “He recognized our work coming from the same place—totally self-sufficient, driven and original.”
Among the performers at Chef’s Underground Cafe were the legendary avant-garde jazz violinist Leroy Jenkins, the Dutch prog/art-rock band Blast, the organ-groove dance explosion Quintron, the insane theatrics of Melted Men, and the acclaimed, adventurous jazz unit Gold Sparkle Band.
Trumpeter Roger Ruzow of the 4th Ward Afro-Klezmer Orchestra—an eight-piece jazz orchestra that mixes West African rhythms with Eastern European klezmer music—recalled playing Chef’s Underground Cafe as a member of Gold Sparkle Band.
“We played a pretty far-out set for a dinner crowd, and the Chattanooga folks that night had big ears, for most of them stayed for the second set,” said Ruzow. “Chef was a gracious host, and I remember after we finished our sets, the band sat with Chef, eating, drinking, and talking about the connections of music and food and the relation these things have to the soul.”
“My memory of Chef’s Underground Cafe is standing on the steps in front of the dessert display, lip-syncing Mary J. Blige after closing time,” said Loni Richards, one of the Forsythes’ daughters, when asked about a favorite musical memory at the restaurant.
Mrs. B’s Reggae Cafe has special significance for Fresh Mind—a genre-mixing rock group with reggae roots and rhythms—which got its start playing there. James Snider, the front man of Fresh Mind, was born and raised in Mandeville, Jamaica, where he grew up playing music at church and school.
“For a while, I’d drive past Mrs. B’s Reggae Cafe, and then finally one day I stopped by,” said Snider. “Marilyn noticed my Jamaican accent and said, ‘Wait, where are you from?’ and had to tell Chef Neville.”
After the introduction and a friendly conversation, Fresh Mind was invited to play the 3-year anniversary celebration of Mrs. B’s Reggae Cafe in 2017.
Talking with the Forsythes’ children, it became clear how Neville’s passion for food was an extension of his love, with fond memories—daughter Nicole recalling him pouring his heart into preparing the food for her wedding, son Neville Jr. bonding with his father during summer food runs for the restaurant, and son Sam learning Neville’s technique to make his signature Lollipop Jerk Wings.
The February 1st tribute and celebration for Neville will honor his passion through music and flavors—a loving, generous visionary who nurtured and inspired many, beyond the culinary community.
“Neville reminded me that all the little bees who first learned to make honey from his hive are now building their own hives,” said Stagner. “A giving soul, a real friend, and a true artist.”
Chef Neville Forsythe: An Eclectic Celebration
Saturday, Feb. 1, 7:30 p.m.
Barking Legs Theater
1307 Dodds Ave.