Chef-d'oeuvres: Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson (left) with chef Graham Elliot at a launch for their joint food venture at NYC's Mondrian SoHo. (Photo: Dom Savini)
Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson is no foodie come lately.
The Roots drummer and "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon" musical director has indulged a sophisticated palette for most of his life. "People used to tease us about our catering," Thompson tells Billboard.biz.
"The first people we ever toured with were the Beastie Boys...at the time half our band was vegan, the other half was vegetarian, some just omnivores. It was very weird to every day see a display with Cocoa Puffs and fake turkey and fake ham and seafood, specialty free range products and Whole Foods crates. Caterers would look at us like we were crazy."
Round One: ?uestlove vs. David Chang pre-bout fried chicken battle set-up
on the set of "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon."
?uestlove's ?uest Loves Food company logo.
Thompson, meanwhile, is turning his eclectic passion for culinary concerns into commerce (check out the prolific Twitterer's food handle @cook4quest). Last year he launched ?uest Loves Food, creating Creole-and Korean-inspired soul food dishes, as well as a variety of on-a-stick comestibles that were served at entertainment industry events.
?uest Loves Food also created a line of Love's Drumsticks that have been spotlighted by Food & Wine and were on Bon Appetit's list of the Top 25 Things to Eat, Drink, and Cook in 2012. This past April 9, ?uestlove and Chef David Chang of Momofuku fame had a fried chicken duel on "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon" (see photo above) in which David Chang was declared the winner (more on that later).
More recently Thompson teamed with celebrity chef Graham Elliot for a joint venture ?uest Loves Food POWERED By Chef Graham Elliot, which debuted May 5 during an event at the Penthouse at Mondrian SoHo with a menu that included drumsticks, truffled deviled eggs and black and white popcorn. The two will team for more special events in the future.
Thompson says the allure to get into the food business came "just from being on the sideline. I slowly noticed it's like the new, untouched category, but it's so parallel to the music world it's not even funny -- even the playful way (chefs) call each other out and battle. I've seen MCs call each other out every day. It's kinda the same."
So, he adds, is proving himself to the established "acts" in the food world. "It's similar to how the Roots started," Thompson explains. "You're like the new kid on the block. There are a lot of cross arms, a lot of cynics. When (?uest Loves Food) did our first major food event in Philadelphia, Feastival, going up against established restaurant proprietors, they're looking at me like, 'OK, the little train that could.' But we won at Feastival and became a darling amidst much disbelief."
Thompson cocked an eyebrow himself when he met Elliot at Lollapalooza in 2011. "He introduced himself to me, 'Yeah, I'm the food curator,' which I thought was strange," Thompson recalls. "I know when I get called to curate stuff it's in musical terms, but I've never seen it done in culinary terms. Then I hung out with (Elliot) and it was sort of like watching myself with how I do these music projects. He can taste something and recite the exact ingredients that went into it in less than a minute. I thought it was a great combination because I truly haven't met anyone who treats his food operations like I treat my music operation."
Saturday Night Live's Jay Pharoah freestyles with ?uestlove at 'Quest Loves Food' Launch
Thompson DJ'd while the food was being served at his first events with Elliot, during the Sundance Film Festival and the Los Angeles Food and Wine Festival. And though the venture is "in our baby stages right now," Thompson has more ambitious plans for the future, including "a full-on jam session" and more interactivity between the various elements of the parties. "I like that idea where we just take over your entire party, mixing food and mixing music. It's like a complete package...an experience for hire," he says.
Much like old school hip-hop MCs who battled each other using words, culinaire ?uestlove and chef David Chang battle each other using sacred fried chicken recipies. They will have their second battle this weekend at Chang's Momofuku Noodle Bar.
And, Thompson adds, Elliot is a key ingredient to that party. "He has crazy ideas I never thought of, making meals out of edible plants and stuff like that," he says. "We definitely have a lot of interest as far as developing things further, with productions for television and stuff like that. We're going to have a lot to talk about, I think."
This Sunday (May 20), ?uestlove will partake in a charity event that will see a rematch between himself and David Chang at Chang's famed NYC eatery Momofuku Noodle Bar in the East Village. Though it's unclear if Chang will have a "homefield advantage," proceeds from the event will be donated to The Food Bank of New York City.