It’s the start of the Aspen Ideas Festival, a gathering of great minds in Colorado to discuss incredible innovations and the most pressing issues of the present. I’m extremely excited to hear some of these amazing thinkers and leaders speak (you can see the all-star line up here) and am even more humbled to have been asked to be a presenter.
The title of my talk is “Cooking and Eating Your Way to a New Community.” For those with tickets, you can come hear me live bright and early on Saturday morning! For those without, I thought I would briefly share a few of my thoughts beforehand.
People often ask me why my restaurant Red Rooster Harlem has chop suey on the menu. They can understand the berbere spiced cocktails from my personal life story or the Fried Yard Bird and Mac & Greens from the surrounding soul food influence of the Harlem neighborhood, but chop suey? My answer is always “because that’s how I can best savor Harlem, through meatballs, mac & greens, and chop suey.”
Red Rooster Harlem is meant to reflect the vibrant neighborhood that surrounds it. Food is the best way to understand the soul of a place and I wanted this menu to reflect everything I had absorbed in the years spent living here, cooking and eating everything delicious this neighborhood had to offer. These dishes included not only chop suey from a growing Chinese population in the east, but also the delicacies of the Senegalese, West Indian, and Latin American communities that overlap on these few city blocks.
As I cooked myself into this new place, I also knew I had to give Harlem back everything it had given me. Luckily, food has that power as well. Through cooking and eating, one can shape a neighborhood, improving the well being of the people and businesses that it is comprised of. Take the farmer’s market on 125th, frequented regularly by Red Rooster’s chefs. Not only does it provide a source of affordable, locally grown produce, but it draws people out of their homes and offices to talk to farmers and compare strawberries and swap recipes. (We tried to follow this same model for my dinner in Aspen preceding this talk, featuring Colorado lamb and local deviled eggs, with special acknowledgements to the farmer and place that produced each delicious ingredient.)
But on an even broader sense, food can shape the very essence of a community itself. Good food is best served with good company and that’s why Rooster is also built upon this idea of inclusiveness, a place where the tourist, the New Yorker, and the Harlemite can all gather under one roof to break cornbread. At our communal tables, with plenty of good food ready to be ordered, people catch up on the happenings at the church down the street, learn a few key Swedish words from a visiting family, or simply refuel with some delicious and unexpected Harlem chop suey.
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