Who is Lawrence Page? Maybe he's the flashy figure in a sequined sport jacket, chef's coat, and perfectly trimmed beard of WE TV's Hustle & Soul. Perhaps he's the frazzled toque who couldn't quite beat a strong competitor in New Times' Iron Fork competition last year. Or how about the guy who lived for a stretch in his Mercedes?
This Friday, May 25, South Florida will officially find out who Page is when Pink Teacup Villa opens at 1542 Washington Ave. in Miami Beach, right in the middle of the city's Memorial Day weekend celebration.
Though he hails from Brooklyn, Page is familiar with the Beach's three-day street party. "I definitely wanted to open it with all those people coming in," he says. "A lot of my fans will be coming down as well, and it gives me a chance to make people aware of Pink Teacup. You can't buy that kind of advertisement."
Page understands the City of Miami Beach's contentious attitude toward those who come for Urban Beach Week. The 35-year-old chef recalls when, as a 19-year-old visiting South Beach, he was part of an altercation with police. He and a friend were trying to buy beer without proper ID. The friend threw money down on a store counter and ran off with the goods. The gun-wielding shop owner called the police and chased the young men down the street. "I couldn't believe I was in the middle of this situation," he recalls. "You just see how something goes wrong so fast. It turns into the wild, wild West."
Pink Teacup Villa will serve favorites such as chicken and waffles in a new 300-seat, two-story location decorated in purple neon and tables gleaming with freshly minted copper pennies varnished onto the tops. A closer look reveals that some tables also bear the likeness of slave-turned-Tuskegee Institute founder Booker T. Washington. "They say I have the biggest restaurant on the strip," Page says with the combined braggadocio of P.T. Barnum and Kanye West. The first floor of his place, he says, will offer upscale takes on traditional soul-food dishes such as candied yams and fried chicken. There will also be Kobe beef burgers and even seafood paella. The upstairs room will offer dessert and cocktails.
It's a long way from the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn where he grew up. When the young chef was 5, his father walked out on his mother, Annie Pearl, and Page's three siblings. His mom applied for welfare to make ends meet and then took a job as a janitor. Wanting more for her children, Annie Pearl moved the family to Far Rockaway, a seaside neighborhood in Queens best known for its defunct amusement park and Ramones song.
Page learned three things from his Alabama-born mother: cooking, Southern hospitality, and resilience. After school, he got into movies and found modest success writing and directing. His biggest hit, the 2006 thriller Confessions of a Call Girl, starred Tamala Jones, Lynn Whitfield, and Bokeem Woodbine. "I wanted to tell amazing stories on camera," he says.
In early 2009, he purchased the Pink Tea Cup, a 55-year-old Greenwich Village soul-food spot that had closed several months earlier. Page was confident he could resurrect the business and turned to Annie Pearl for her recipes. "She told me to figure it out myself and, when I did, to let her know," he recalls. "She's from a different time and a different place. In the South, you don't open a business and you don't give out the family recipes."
He recalls a tow truck hauling the car away while he was still in it. "It hurts when you're sleeping on the streets," he says. "I know what it's like."
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Page says that although his mother offered him a place to live, he didn't take her up on it. Eventually, he cleared his head and started over. He reopened a more modest version of the Pink Tea Cup — this time in Brooklyn's Fort Greene. He met his fiancée, Anastasia "Ana"
Seven years after losing everything, the chef is riding high. His reality show is in its second season, and he's working on a project with comedian Steve Harvey for a new dining app. Page and his family have moved to Miami to make a go of a new life and a new restaurant.
Though some business owners on the Beach are nervous about Memorial Day weekend, Page is not. "Sure, there are a few bad apples in a large crowd, but I don't think there's a need to close your doors to African-Americans," he says. "When you do that, you've financially crippled your business and your lifestyle."
Page hopes his reality show builds a customer base, but bigger names, such as Geoffrey Zakarian and Emeril Lagasse, have opened eateries in Miami Beach and failed to achieve lasting success. Page insists he's unique. "You're going to get good food," he says, "and you're going to get my story."