father, who threw fashion show fundraisers in their hometown of Montclair, New Jersey, for the local NAACP. “He would transform our lawn into a long runway, and all the cars would stop, and these gorgeous black women were strutting on the runway. I just thought it was so fabulous,” Darden says.
After graduating from Sarah Lawrence College, Darden appeared on the pages of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar and walked the runways of New York, Paris, Milan, and London during her seven-year career. She worked the fashion show at Versailles in 1973, where black designer Stephen Burrows sent a group of black models down the runway during the battle between French and American designers — a breakthrough in the history of black models.
Darden’s career was cut short around 1975, when she was hospitalized with acute peritonitis, an abdominal infection. “My father said ‘I don’t think there’s much future in running up and down the streets in an evening gown.’ I said, ‘You’re right. I have to do something else.’ I didn’t know what that something else was going to be,” Darden says. “And that’s when the book came along.”
At the suggestion of an editor she met at a party, Darden and her sister, Carole, co-wrote Spoonbread and Strawberry Wine (Harlem Moon; $18.95), which was compiled following an extensive trip down South to collect old family recipes. As a result, the Darden sisters were often asked by friends to bring food to gatherings. On one such occasion, a producer for a local television network tasted their quiche and offered them a catering job. “That one party spawned six more parties. And that was the beginning of the business. We were doing it for a year before we even thought of ourselves as caterers,” she says.
Darden likes to say she started Spoonbread Catering (www.spoonbreadinc.com) with a $6 investment — the amount spent on the quiche — and that it was profitable from Day 1. But she didn’t realize at first that she needed a commercial kitchen and a license tolegally sell food. Darden learned on the job, took a class at the New York Restaurant School, and incorporated Harlem-based Spoonbread in 1983.
Her entrepreneurial path continued to evolve through happenstance. When Darden objected to her landlord’s plan to rent the adjoining store to another caterer, he offered her the space. She took over the lease and opened her first restaurant, Miss Mamie’s Spoonbread Too, named after her mother, in 1997. This posed a new set of challenges. “The restaurant business was hard because I couldn’t gauge how much to cook or how much not to cook. Finally we figured it out, and now we can tell that Monday and Tuesday are slow, that Friday and Saturday are going to be great, and that Sunday is going to be packed,” she says. “Now we know the rhythm of the restaurant. But just like everything else I’ve done, I had to stumble along.”