Chef Almira Session is a talented entrepreneur and sous chef at Red Rooster Harlem. I came across her as a featured chef in Marcus Samuelsson’s cookbook, The Rise. I am so glad I did.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Chef Almira Session of Red Rooster during the holiday season. Her dedication to her craft, her children, and her catering company Truly Yours LLC shined through in our interview. When I caught up with her recently, Almira shared that she had launched a Youtube Channel Truly yours Catering LLC.
The Interview with Chef Almira Session of Red Rooster
Sharila Stewart [SS]: Thank you so much for joining me today to talk about being in The Rise as well as your career. Can you start off by telling us a little about you, who you are, and how you got into cooking?
Chef Almira Session of Red Rooster [AS]: I was born and raised between The Bronx and Harlem. [I come from a] big family. Of course, with family there’s food all the time.
Falling in Love with Food as a Toddler
AS: And how I started? I always tell a story about when I was three years old. It was in the morning. My siblings were already in school. My mom took a nap and I snuck in the kitchen to try to make some cheese eggs. My dad came in and busted me.
SS: You were trying to make cheese eggs at three? [Laughs.]
AS: [Laughs.] I was. I wanted to do it. I see them do it enough. I know this. Instead of [my dad] yelling at me, he showed me how to properly make it. Of course he warned me not to do that again by myself.
SS: I love that though. He was supportive of the craft. He was like it’s dangerous but I will show you how to do it. [Laughs.] Cheese eggs are one of the best things, so you had a good palate even at three.
SS: So were you cooking for family? Did you start helping out at family gatherings with your dad showing you the ropes as you got older?
AS: I was just always in the kitchen watching what everybody was doing. My dad was the main person that made the meals. In my personal home our family is not big, so he does not have to make a large amount of food.
But he always did. He would have his door open just in case someone came over. He was always prepared and ready to feed everybody.
On Her Journey as a Chef
SS: So you got that giving spirit from him. Which is what food is. Feeding people is a part of that warmth, so I love that. As you got older, when did you decide [cooking] was what you wanted to do professionally?
AS: I was toying with it. High school, senior year, I had a history teacher who decided to do an economics class for us. He had us do a project about what we would possibly want to do in the future. We had to do a business plan and an outline and stuff. I was like, I’m going to make my restaurant.
From then, it was like, this is what I want to do. My friends and I used to travel to different colleges just to visit and see which ones we wanted to go to. The majority of them were culinary colleges. It was like wow. They have whole schools to teach you how to cook.
Attending Culinary School
SS: So did you go to culinary school then?
AS: Right then, no. I ended up going to Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn for Business Management. I wasn’t happy there so I did leave after a year and a half. [From there] I went into culinary.
SS: So it wasn’t a straight path, but it was where your heart always was. So you found your way back there.
SS: What was culinary school like? Was it a lot different from learning to cook at home? You’re learning all these techniques, right?
AS: It was completely different. When you’re home, you use that one little knife for everything and you cut everything in your hand. [Laughs.] In school, the first thing you learn is knife skills. If you don’t pass knife skills, you can’t go on to the next segment.
SS: Wow, that’s hard. You can make a good meal, but everything may not be cut exactly right. But they are just trying to teach you those basics, right?
SS: Where did you go to culinary school?
AS: Star Career Academy. It was on 14th street [in Manhattan].
Starting Her Career
SS: What was your first job out of culinary school?
AS: So for this culinary school you did six months in the school learning skills, and three months externing at a restaurant. I went to [the now defunct] Vong restaurant. Jean-Georges was the owner. I guess they liked me so much during my externship that they decided to hire me as soon as my externship was over.
SS: So you were doing something right! Those knife skills were on point.
SS: So now you are a sous chef at Marcus Samuelsson’s restaurant up in Harlem. What was the path from working for Jean-Georges to now?
AS: It was a rollercoaster. I wasn’t able to stay in the culinary industry because I had to quit my jobs to take care of home. So it was a lot of stop and go, stop and go. I’ve cooked in plenty of places. I’ve cooked in a fish and chips spot, a Thai restaurant. You name it, and I’ve probably worked in one of the restaurants.
Eventually I got to Red Rooster. It was by chance. I didn’t even know they were hiring. I had just got hired at another job, but I went to the Red Rooster interview anyway. They hired me on the spot.
Chef Almira Session on Red Rooster
SS: Okay! That is amazing. How has that been working and cooking in Harlem? What has been your experience there?
AS: I like Rooster because it’s a vibe. There’s a live band. The front of house, especially with the customers, is just so open and happy. The food a lot of times is family style. It’s just like a good vibe.
The plus is the celebrities that come in, but even without them, it’s just a really good vibe there. Like I said, I was raised in Harlem as well as [The Bronx], so it’s like being at home.
SS: It sounds very family like. You talk about family style meals. I know Red Rooster has a twist on traditional soul food meals. How has being at Red Rooster changed the way you cook, different flavors and techniques?
AS: Flavor wise, I’ve learned a couple of African dishes. That’s been intriguing. One of my favorite dishes that I learned to make is called kelewele.
SS: Oh yeah, the Ghanaian fried plantain dish.
AS: I’m like, what is that. I had a couple of days to figure out how to make it. I love traditional food. I don’t want to put my twist on it, especially not my first time. I want it to taste like how it’s supposed to taste.
It was for a couple who were getting married. We don’t have [kelewele] on the menu, so it was like, oh my gosh. Are they going to like it? Are they going to curse me out? [Laughs.]
SS: [Laughs.] I’m guessing this couple was West African, so they know how it’s supposed to taste.
AS: Yes. I was sweating. I’m in the kitchen asking the servers, did they like it? Did they like it? [Laughs.] They loved it! I’m like yes I did it! I did my research. I’m not getting this wrong.
Almira Session on Balancing Red Rooster and Being an Entrepreneur
SS: In addition to working at the restaurant, you are also an entrepreneur. You have your own catering company, Truly Yours LLC. Can you talk a little about when you started that and what they inspiration was behind it?
AS: There were two inspirations. When I was in culinary school, I had a lot of family and friends who would ask me to cater their birthday parties. I wasn’t getting paid for it. I was like, I went to school for this. I have my credentials. I made the business so there is no excuse. This is my business, you have to pay me.
The other reason I made it was because I have an annual pie sale for the holidays. That stemmed from me being at a low place. I’m like, I don’t have any gifts for my kids. I’m working all these hours but I still don’t have enough. So I decided to make pies and sell them for holidays. It was just in time to get the gifts.
SS: So what type of pies? Sweet potato pie? What kind are you making?
AS: Sweet potato pie, pecan pie. The caramel apple pie is my best seller. And an almond custard pie.
SS: That caramel apple sounds really good. Are you still doing the pie sale this holiday season?
AS: I did for Thanksgiving, but I’m not going to do that this Christmas. I have to get some things in order.
Balancing Career and Motherhood
SS: Much respect to you. Just talking to these chefs about the hours you work, constantly being on your feet, and you being a mother. I definitely commend that. Has it been difficult to balance the restaurant industry with having children?
AS: It’s beyond difficult. The culinary world is so demanding of your time. You can’t really take off sick days like that. And being a mother is another demanding job that’s nonstop. It’s kind of hard.
And you don’t want to constantly say, oh I have to come in late. I have to take this day off. Because then it’s looking like you don’t want to be at the job. In the culinary world, a lot of people don’t have kids and so they can’t really relate to what that life is really like.
SS: Again, I commend you. How old are your children?
AS: 13 and 6.
Almira Session of Red Rooster On Being Featured in The Rise
SS: That’s definitely an accomplishment to balance that. I know that even in The Rise, which you are featured in, Marcus Samuelsson mentions that you are doing so many things. Being a mother. Being a chef. Having your business. He really respects your hustle there.
In the book, you inspire the Salmon Rilletes with Injera recipe. That dish represents fusion with the French technique, the African flavors with the injera. Were you surprised to see that was the dish you inspired?
AS: I was just surprised about how much he put about me in the book in general. I come into work. My head is down. I work and I go home. I didn’t realize that he was actually observing me. [Laughs.]
SS: You were like wait, he’s been paying attention!
AS: Right! My family cooks everything. Our functions and parties don’t just have soul food. We have Caribbean food, Spanish food, some Italian food. It’s just always a mixture of things. In that way, the dish from the book does relate to me.
SS: That makes sense. So would you say is your signature dish? The one that everyone knows, Myra is going to make this, so we have to go eat?
AS: My family always, every function–Myra can you bring some baked ziti? That’s the one thing that they always ask for.
Black Food and Black Chefs
SS: So again, those different cultures and heritages being brought in and making food taste good. You talk about not just making soul food, and having these different types of food. How would you define Black food?
AS: Black food is a fusion. You can’t pinpoint it as one thing. I always say it’s a fusion with a little extra spice. [Laughs.]
SS: [Laughs.] I like that. Who do you, either past or present, look up to in the food world? Either as a mentor or as inspiration?
AS: There are so many people. A lot of them are female chefs. In the culinary world, the chefs are usually white males. A lot of times, I’ve been either the only female in the kitchen or the only Black female in the kitchen. Now, I’m starting to see more Black females. And it’s just like wow, I’m not the only one.
Chef Airis [Johnson] won Chopped. I’ve gotten a chance to work with her. She’s like fire in the kitchen.
There’s Chef Lexis [Gonzalez]. She has her own baking company, [Lady Lexis Sweets]. She was on Chopped as well. She works with Marcus a lot. She inspires me because she too is a mother and she was able to have a whole business. That and juggling being a mother is a lot. It is inspiring.
Chef Mashama [Bailey] is also in The Rise. I got the chance to work with her too. She’s amazing. She’s so soft spoken and nice, but she’s another one who is just a fire. A bomb in the kitchen.
SS: I love that you have been able to work with these different Black female chefs. And I love seeing them elevated. I was watching Chef’s Table on Netflix. That was my first time seeing Mashama Bailey and everything she was doing in the industry. It is definitely inspiring.
What’s Next For Almira Session of Red Rooster?
SS: You talk about some of these people who have competed on Chopped. Do you ever see yourself competing on a speed competition for food?
AS: I do! But I’m so nervous. I’m like, am I going to mess up? There’s so much pressure, and it’s all going to be recorded. But I definitely can [see myself doing it].
SS: That would be exciting! Pivoting a little bit, can you talk a little about what legacy you hope to leave on the food industry?
AS: [I want to increase] togetherness. Helping and building. Just being together. That’s what food does. It brings everybody together, no matter the color or race. No matter what your political beliefs are.
If the food is good and you can have a good conversation and some wine, it’s just like, why not? It’s like a moment of peace. Everybody comes together.
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