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Video: Inside Questlove’s Food Salon

For a little while my food salons have been out of pocket. Last winter, we took the show on the road, first to Miami and then to Los Angeles. And even when we came back to New York, we didn’t get all the way home. We borrowed the home of the designer Lela Rose. Not to complain. Who can complain about spending the evening in a Tribeca-ean palace? But I missed my own building, which is why I was especially relaxed for Wednesday evening’s food salon at the NY by Gehry building on Spruce Street. Salon sweet salon.


To celebrate the homecoming, we put on a jumbo-sized event. Usually there are three chefs cooking for me and my guests. This week, there were four: Deuki Hong (from Kang Ho Dong Baekjong), Jose Ramirez-Ruiz (Semilla), Christian Ramos (Virginia’s), and Alex Stupak (Empellon). Four isn’t always better than three, but it’s better when the thing you’re accumulating is good. In this case, four was better.


It had been a good week. Prince had announced that he was going on a solo tour, just him and his piano, in Europe. (It was cancelled in the wake of the attacks in Paris, but those were more innocent times.) José Salvador Alvarenga, a Salvadoran fisherman, had written a book about being rescued after more than a year at sea, and someone told me it was great. I was in a fine mood when I arrived at the salon, and my mood only improved when I found out what the chefs were cooking. The first course was double-barrelled: Deuki was making a variation on the Uni Lunchbox—rice, sea urchin, tobiko, roasted kimchi, and quail egg—while Jose was cooking a pumpkin soup with dill, broccoli and cheese. The second course was Christian’s: he made a modified bouillabaisse with Bay scallops, saffron-shellfish broth, and new crop potatoes. And Alex would be finishing up with dessert, which was tres leches with pumpkin. Part of the fun of the food salons is to look at the descriptions of the dishes on the page and try to develop a mental taste picture. I’m usually wrong. Cocktails would be provided by Martell and mixed by Natasha David. Those I could imagine.


The salon was one of my first events after Halloween, where I didn’t dress up as any of the people or characters in the parentheses at the end of this sentence (Jimi Hendrix, Rand Paul, Plato, Pluto, Cantinflas, that Salvadoran fisherman, Prince, LeBron, or LeBron dressing up as Prince). Still, I had pumpkins on my mind. Before the event, I heard Jose talking about what size pumpkins he bought for his dish when he made it in his restaurant. He said that because the space was limited, he generally went for small to medium pumpkins. Someone asked him if he carved any of them into jack-o-lanterns. He said no.


The evening moved toward the food. The chefs got to work. The guests started to arrive.  I always invite a mix of luminaries who I greatly respect and many of those people were there from David Byrne, formerly of Talking Head to an actual talking head—the new Daily Show host Trevor Noah. It had art people, like Wangechi Mutu and Reed Barrow. It had music people like Nikki Jean and Antoinette Costa. It had Susan Sarandon, who needs no introduction. And it had tons of food people, from Drew Nieportent to Flynn McGarry to Kate Krader.


Every food salon has a vibe of its own, usually as a result of a combination of seasons, guests, and food. This one was on the mellow side, in the best way. The first dish, Deuki’s lunchbox, required some special exertion—it came in a small clear cube with a sticker reading “Shake well.” I did. Everyone did. The tastes were amazing: seafood and rice in perfect texture, with eggs in two sizes: the tiny tobiko and the slightly less tiny quail egg. “Just salty enough,” a man said behind me. I would have turned to agree with him, but I was too busy enjoying the lunchbox. From there, the food was relatively smooth, without especially sharp tastes or presentations. It was comforting. It was a perfect haven from the wet and windy autumn. I heard one woman say that the pumpkin soup was the best she had ever had, which was plausible. I heard one man say that the scallops were “out of this world,” which was implausible. And there was consensus on the dessert, to the point that people went back for seconds and (in one case) thirds. I won’t rat that person out, but it wasn’t me, Trevor Noah, David Byrne, or Kate Krader.


Salons aren’t just about food. They’re about conversation. Whenever I host an event, I try to butterfly my way around the room and pick up snippets of the various discussions. This time, topics included the Republican debate (“Why does Ben Carson speak so softly? It’s like he thinks his mic is turned up too loud”), the Knicks (“Rookie of the Year”), the view out the window (“Amazing”), the live piano that was being provided by Reverend Vince (“Amazing”), and a cut on Laurie Anderson’s new record, Heart of a Dog, about the moment her rat terrier realized, courtesy of a swooping hawk, that the sky was just as much a potential threat as the ground. On the album, she connected that event to 9/11, when humans had the same epiphany. “Dark thought,” someone said, and someone else nodded. There was a moment of bleakness, and a moment of comfort in that bleakness. Then the atmosphere of good cheer thickened again. It was good to be home.