What we know as southern soul food, which was primarily survival food for a lot of black people in the US, has now become pricey. If you go to Sylvia’s in Harlem, the chances are it will be filled to the brim with tourists from Australia and Japan. Pretty much the exact meal we had as a family decades ago in Philadelphia now has a bill of $300-$400. Meanwhile, there’s a generation of the inner-city poor who survive pretty much on take-out Chinese now.
Our biggest family meal was Thanksgiving. The process always started on a Thursday, when my aunts used to soak the dessert in brandy or sherry for three days. On Friday they’d do the meats and on Saturday the vegetables. I’d snap the beans while watching Soul Train, or National Geographic, with my Uncle Jim. On Sunday it was church. Then, at 4pm, 16 of us could start having the feast. The problem was how obedient me and my cousin were in the run-up to it. How you didn’t fight over licking the leftover cake batter or frosting off grandmother’s spoon and never touched the pies or cobbler. If you were going to sneak a scoop of ice cream from the refrigerator you’d better pray no one saw you.
To get the prize – the little toy – in a cereal box at my grandmother’s house, I’d be up and dressed early. She would say: “Don’t ever put your hands in the cereal box.” If she wasn’t looking, you’d put your hands in briefly, but otherwise you’d be thinking strategically – being third or fourth in line, so that at least by the time half of the cereal box was poured, the toy might be in sight.
I was eight years old, we were staying in an airport Sheraton out west and I liked the band Kiss. I woke up wanting a drink and my sister said: “Go take some money from the dresser and get yourself a soda.” I went down and got a soda and then the lift door opened and inside, in full costume, stood Kiss. I screamed, dropped the soda and ran away.
I once asked my mother to buy Peanut Butter Captain Crunch but she said: “We won’t get that this week. We’ll get this no-frills cereal.” That week, in church, members of the congregation were giving testimonials, like “I want to say that God is good, because I got a job as a bus driver this week” or “I broke my leg in a car accident but I’m alive” and everyone cheered: “Praise the Lord!” I was 11 years old and I stood up and said: “I just want people to pray for my family. We went shopping but we couldn’t afford everything.” It turned out that they had an emergency church pantry and they gave me a lift home with six free bags of food. My mother was highly embarrassed and returned everything – except the Jiffy Pop popcorn – and apologised profusely. That is one time I misinterpreted, “Oh God, I can’t have Peanut Butter Captain Crunch” as “We’re real poor.”
It’s weird how nowadays chefs are experimenting with sweet and salty, because I felt like a pioneer as a child. Whenever I’d make my oatmeal, with honey and butter, I’d also put salt in, to offset. I always believed that salt teaches your tastebuds how sweet your honey is. Salted caramel is now a norm, but I pioneered. Back in those days, people looked at me like I was crazy.
I used to go to record stores in West Philly with my father and there were two food options afterwards – Sunray drugstore, a bit like your Boots but with a countertop where they’d serve cheeseburgers and fries. The second and my preferred option was a soul food restaurant called Broadway’s which had an awesome jukebox. Back then my choices were often based on how good the jukebox was in a restaurant. And the crucial element for me, when at Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts, was that right next door to the school was Philadelphia International Records. When they were red hot. Practically every day you’d be sighting Teddy Pendergrass, or members of the O’Jays, the Jacksons, the Three Degrees or the Jones Girls. The Wawa store nearby wasn’t as corporate as 7-11 but made good local deli sandwiches, so nine times out of 10 I’d go to Wawa, hoping to God I’d see a celebrity.
Between 1993 and 1998, which was the more starving period of my band the Roots, I had my base in London, in Kentish Town. We’d go off and play France for two weeks, or Germany for a month or Italy for three weeks. In between we’d have our hub in Kentish Town, above the fish and chip shop. During Thanksgiving we only had £22 to feed the entire group. The answer was right below us. For £22 you could get 12 pieces of cod and a mess of French fries and have change. So, my manager went to the shop across the street and got a whole bunch of cheese and tomato sauce. Then Tariq, my partner in the Roots spent the last pennies on a stick of butter and he got a pan, melted it, took all the chips, fine-chopped them until they were like a mashed paste, laid the cheese on top, then the tomato sauce, then the cod on top. We had a kind of tomato, cheese, fish and chip souffle that looked like a big lasagne. And it was like, “Wow!”
Anthony Bourdain and I got along famously. He was very instrumental in me getting a table at Sukiyabashi Jiro [a restaurant in Japan], so we became fast friends. I asked him: “Is it true that if you catch any of your staff playing Billy Joel in the kitchen they’re instantly fired? Because I don’t believe it.” He replied: “I’ve fired three already. They did it, so they’re gone. I won’t have Joel’s negative energy in my kitchen.” When I heard of Anthony’s death, I thought of the times he’d come on the Jimmy Fallon showand ask, “What are you playing as my intro?” and I’d say, “You’re going to love it, Anthony – it’ll be a great rocker”, but then we’d play him on to a Billy Joel. The day he died, the greatest tribute I thought I could give was to sort of troll him by creating the biggest Spotify account of music he absolutely hated.
The Roots’ fourth album,Things Fall Apart, came together because we added a chef to our budget. The Zanzibar Blue’s Terry was our favourite chef in Philly and we asked if he could cook for us every Friday for 15 weeks. He’d come to my apartment around 5pm and just cook up a storm. Word got around and practically the whole musician community showed up. My house could comfortably hold maybe 18 people, but 60 or came. Not just any 60 people – Jill Scott, Mos Def, Common, De La Soul, Eve, Floetry … With great food we enticed people to collaborate with us and as a result yielded our first Grammy.
Later I started throwing food salons and we carefully curated the guest list, almost as a social experiment. What if we put a doctor, this college professor and this upcoming model together? Or this lawyer, this actor and this comedian? Or Björk, Chris Rock and Bob Woodward? After each, a couple of weeks or a month later, I’d hear things about people who met at the salon and were working together. One joy is bringing different types of chefs together. Get Dominique Ansel, April Bloomfield and Daniel [Humm] from Eleven Madison Park in a room at the same time and they’re collaborating.
My last stop before I go to Heathrow, at the end of visiting London, involves adding on an extra two hours so I can head to Beigel Bake [in Brick Lane] where Amy Winehouse first took me when I met her, to get a salt beef and a peanut butter one. I was stood in line for 40 or 50 minutes. I’d go there before any high-end Michelin restaurant. I’m the complete opposite of someone who won’t let passengers have food and drink in my car. I still drive the Scion I got in 2004. My all-time favourite hobby is going to a cheesy drive-in movie in the Scion, even though drive-ins are few and far between now and you have to drive an hour and a half to find some run-down outdoor theatre. Recently we saw this weird Jaws-like film starring the daughters of both Sylvester Stallone and Jamie Foxx. We made a day of it, buying healthy popcorn, salami and cheese on the way and eating it throughout the film. My Scion is like my house, with a refrigerator in there. In fact, all my cars are like my house.
The last meal I had with my father before he died was on Father’s Day. Me, my dad and my sister went to a seafood restaurant to have crabs, and this was around the time that my father was about to meet his new son-in-law – my sister’s husband – for the first time and we made a family affair of it. It was a seafood crab festival, that’s what we call it here. You kind of have all the seafood you can eat.
I’ve been 260 days without any sugar. Although I gave myself time out during it. When I agreed to go sugarless for a year, I decided on four weeks in the middle as a lost weekend, like John Lennon. Two weeks before Christmas I was at my highest weight, 409 lbs. And thank God there’s always a person in life to give yourself completely to, to fix yourself, when you can’t fix it yourself. My personal chef, Adenia, is a life-saver.
My favourite things
I’m in a transitional period. Normally my default answer would be southern American soul food but I’ve adopted a healthier lifestyle, exploring different foods to love that aren’t detrimental to my health. My go-tos now are sushi, or just Japanese food in general.
When I handed in the manuscript for [my book] Something To Food About, I felt shame. That I knew all these high-level chefs making world class food but I didn’t know how to pair the wines and stuff. Mango mojito has long been my favourite cocktail, but let’s say ginger beer as all-time drink.
It’s a tie between EN Japanese Brasserie and Blue Ribbon in New York, which I guess you’d call high-level comfort food.
Mixtape Potluck Cookbook: A Dinner Party for Friends, Their Recipes, and the Songs They Inspire by Questlove (Abrams Image, £22.99)