Chef Russell Jackson is an incredibly accomplished chef, Food Network competitor, and restauranteur. I sat down with him to discuss difficult lessons he has learned throughout his career, his Harlem fine dining restaurant Reverence, and refusing to be limited as a Black chef.
|Address: 2592 Frederick Douglass Boulevard, New York, NY 10030|
Hours: Wednesday-Saturday, 12:30PM-8PM
Service: Delivery, Takeout
Contact: www.reverence.nyc, @reverencenyc
Reverence is currently serving delivery and take out Bento Boxes during the pandemic via www.exploretock.com. In honor of New York Black Restaurant Week, the restaurant will feature dishes inspired by the late Patrick Clark, a James Beard awardee known for his groundbreaking fine dining cuisine. Check out Reverence’s offerings and preorder their ChefsGiving meal kit for your family!
Interview with Chef Russell Jackson
Click on the video below to watch my interview with Chef Russell Jackson, who is well known for his stint on “Food Network Star” and “Iron Chef”. He had a lot to say about New York City restaurants opening for outlining dining this winter, how he prepared to compete on Iron Chef with the help of his friend Dominique Ansel, and never giving up on his dreams.
The Interview Transcript
Sharila Stewart [SS]: Hello Chef Russell. Thank you so much for being here today with me to talk about the blog and about your journey as a chef and restaurateur.
Chef Russell Jackson [RJ]: Of course! Anytime.
SS: So I want start off by getting to know a little more about you. I mean you’re an incredibly accomplished chef and restaurateur. You’ve been on the Food Network Star, Iron Chef America. I mean your resume is very impressive. I just want to know: when did you start cooking, and when did you know: “This is what I want to do with my life”?
RJ: As the story goes, I started cooking when I was three years old. This has followed me throughout my entire career. I have the ability to watch from a distance and pick up all the information I need to replicate something. Being raised within the California restaurant industry, you had to really take knowledge versus knowledge being given to you. It’s not the way I teach or believe, but it was what I grew up with.
Chef Russell Jackson On Developing an Early Love for Cooking
So at the age of three, I decided I was going to cook breakfast for my little sister. My dad was in Vietnam and my family were living on the Marine base in San Diego. I got up in the morning at about 4 or 5 o’clock. I grabbed the container of applesauce. I got the pot. I put the pot on the stove and put the applesauce in. I turned the gas on, lit the stove, and put the lid on. I sat back waiting for the applesauce to get hot to feed my sister breakfast. I’d watched my mom do it every morning.
Only to realize that I’d used the pressure cooker and latch, so when the pot blew up, my mom woke up.
SS: My anxiety was building throughout this entire story. I’m glad you’re here with me today!
RJ: There was applesauce on the roof. All over me. No injuries, just a lot of mess. 50 plus years later and nothing’s changed. [Laughs.]
A Young Chef Russell Jackson in the Making
SS: Wow! It definitely sounds like you were definitely one they had to keep an eye on. That’s still true to this day. You’re currently someone that’s still making moves, still pushing boundaries. So it’s great to hear that has been something in you from a very young age. When you got older and could be trusted in the kitchen, when did it become a thing you wanted to pursue?
RJ: Food’s always been my thing. Even growing up, I had my group of boys and I was the food guy. At the age of 14 I was throwing sophisticated multi-course dinner parties. This was in the 70s.
SS: Wow, I wish I knew boys like that when I was 14. [Laughs]
RJ: [Laughs] Those days are long gone. So I cooked throughout high school and college. I was in college and cooking at a couple restaurants. I realized that I wasn’t following a path that I was happy with. I was very fortunate that I had a professor who saw that and spoke to me about it. I said I’m going to drop out of school and go full time into cooking.
I bounced around a lot of kitchens and worked under a lot of really amazing chefs. It was at a point in time in culinary history where Los Angeles and California cuisine was really evolving. Jeremiah Tower, Alice Waters, Joaquin Spinkel, Hans Rockinwager, Wolfgang Puck.
All of these amazing chefs that were coming into prominence. And there was no such thing as Food Network or Food TV. There certainly wasn’t any level of social media or celebrity chefs. You were really attracted to cooking because it was something you truly wanted to do or you were just crazy. There wasn’t too much in between.
At one point I had worked at ten of the top 40 restaurants in Los Angeles under some really crazy chefs. They’ve helped make me the chef and the person I am today. I know how I want to treat my crew and my family. How I want to represent my community, my style of food, and where I grew up.
The Trials and Tribulations of Being a Restaurateur
RJ: That’s in large part why I built this restaurant. It was really about trying to share with people the evolution of food as I understand it. In the end, I think for everyone food is very personal and communal. Sitting down and sharing a meal with someone is a very intimate act. Having that, especially today, when we’re forced to stay apart, there is a sincere importance in reconnecting with people.
That’s what we built here within [my restaurant] Reverence. I’m really proud of all the things we’ve achieved. I know in the 90s, when I was preparing to build my first brick and mortar restaurant, I was working for other chefs. I was really struggling with who I was as a chef and what I did for a living. I was fortunate that I had people around me that were able to guide me to ask the right questions of myself. It allowed me to have a better understanding of why I do what I do.
It’s been a long difficult road. I built this massive 1500 square foot bistro brassirie restaurant in a historic landmark building in San Francisco overlooking the water. It was more money than I’ve ever had to raise in my entire career. It was almost $5 million dollars to build that restaurant. I literally had a tooth fall out of my mouth from the stress. [Laughs]
I ended up having to close it, which was one of the most gut-wrenching experiences of my life.
The Importance of Growing as a Chef and Individual
RJ: This is the problem young cooks don’t realize. There is this enormous journey you have to go through as a chef, as a business person, to really truly understand yourself. Still today, after having all this knowledge, I still learn something every single day.
When you’ve been in the business for 40 years, it’s pretty much a given that you can cook food good. It’s that next thing. Am I doing something for the good of? Am I providing the community a service that will positively impact people’s lives? I take all of that in consideration for the people who work for me. How I’m impacting their lives and what I can do to help them grow and evolve.
On Reverence, Chef Russell Jackson’s Restaurant in Harlem
SS: You just opened Reverence last year. It’s in Harlem. It’s fine dining, a fixed price menu with several courses. So it’s a very different setup from what we’ve seen. Can you talk about why you opened such a restaurant in Harlem?
RJ: Reverence was started as an homage to my career, my life, the people I’ve worked with, the places I love. I wanted to share what inspires me, to cook the food that made a difference in my life. I also wanted to build a restaurant and avoid many of the potential pitfalls that exist for the business model. I’ve bet everything on this. Failure is sadly not an option.
How The Restaurant Works
RJ: Essentially it is a seven course tasting menu. You prepay. You go to our website and make a few simple choices: 1) I want a vegetable forward meal or I want a protein, fish or poultry; 2) I want alcohol or I don’t want alcohol. That’s all I need to know from you.
You’re scheduled at 7:30, you show up five minutes before 7:30. The door unlocks. You come in. You sit down and we start this experience. No phones, no technology, no distractions. You are with us for an hour and a half to two hours. You don’t have to make any choices at that point.
You can just go along for the ride. That allows us to allow you to reconnect with your guests, to listen to the stories we tell you about why we created these dishes: “Trout is a symbol of California [where I am from]. And because we use local and sustainable ingredients we found a farmer from a fourth generation trout farm in Pennsylvania.”
Chef Russell Jackson on Fine Dining and African-American Cuisine
SS: From what you’re describing it sounds great! Having the freshest ingredients in a place like Harlem, which has not always had the freshest ingredients.
RJ: That’s the reason we built the restaurant here. I could have built this restaurant in the East Village or Brooklyn or whatever. But I chose Harlem for a distinct reason. I want amenities like this here. Better quality chef-driven restaurant concepts that are here in Harlem that don’t serve soul food.
I say this with all due respect. A lot of people get offended when I say this, but the reality is that African-Americans have been led to believe that their food is only one thing. That all they deserve is this one thing. I mean can’t begin to tell you how many times throughout my career I’ve been told “boy stay in your lane.”
Looking to the Past to Understand the Future
RJ: For me, Patrick Clark is an American vanguard. From my understanding, before me, there was a gap of African-Americans who owned fine dining restaurants in the Tri-State area. There was Patrick Clark in 1988 and then there’s me. I’ve been trying to verify it, but everything we keep finding leads to the reality that this is the case.
It’s not a flag I wish to bear, but it will be a flag I attempt to carry for however long is necessary. I would love to have other African-American restaurateurs in this neighborhood who are opening up small mom and pop businesses and doing high quality work.
SS: I love the fact that you are setting this example. I don’t think you are in danger of letting Patrick down. This is an incredible thing you are doing. Thank you. You are inspiring people who would not think to put fine dining with African-American chefs.
The Erasure of Black Culinary History
RJ: That’s the saddest thing in the world to me. It absolutely breaks my heart. That is part of the systematic racism that has existed in the industry for centuries.
Look up Rufus Estes. He wrote the first cookbook by an African-American chef. When you read this cookbook, you realize that it’s French technique done with local ingredients from the Southeastern and Northeastern coasts.
Kitchens across the world have had African-Americans working in them since the 1700s. We have always been the cooks. But we get none of the credit.
SS: Wow! I will definitely look him up. Not only are you a trained chef but you also have this extensive culinary knowledge of the contributions of Black people.
RJ: I know just a little bit. Just enough to be dangerous. [Laughs.]