Standing in the kitchen of chef Marcus Samuelsson’s music-fueled Harlem eatery Streetbird Rotisserie, A Tribe Called Quest co-founder Jarobi White says, “I’m experiencing serious flashbacks.”
As a Notorious B.I.G. beat thumps overhead, Samuelsson, 47, and White, 45, put the finishing touches on honey-yuzu chicken wings and ramen noodles in bird broth. “We both love Japan, so we’re doing our little blackanese version of that,” jokes Samuelsson.
These days White stays busy with Tribe, which recently released We Got It From Here... Thank You 4 Your Service -- it debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and crowned the Top Rap Albums chart for three weeks -- and put on a politically incendiary performance of the single “We the People...” at the Grammys. But White, who is currently working on a solo album, also has spent large chunks of the last two decades pursuing a lifelong love of cooking, attending culinary school and working in restaurant kitchens like August in New York, where he served as executive chef. And he was just in Miami, as guest chef at hotspot Alter during the South Beach Wine & Food Festival.
“Being on the pass [where dishes are plated] is like being a conductor,” says White, looking around Streetbird’s kitchen. “You have your individual sections. Let’s say sauté is the brass, the fryer is the woodwinds. And sometimes it’s like, ‘You come, you stay. Now you come. Now everybody together.’ You’re directing.”
“You build crescendos,” adds Samuelsson, who was born in Ethiopia, grew up in Sweden and has become one of America’s best-known chefs, his recent Red Rooster Cookbook drawing raves. “You’re building something up and then bringing it down. I look at fat and vinegar, salt and sweet, sour and bitter, and there’s got to be a little bridge there. If you don’t have the downs, you can’t have the ups. Without music, I couldn’t cook. It gave me my identity.”
Jarobi White: I first heard of Marcus because he used to post on this message board called Spitkicker. So he’s the first real hip-hop chef.
Marcus Samuelsson: This was before podcasts, but it touched everything about hip-hop, things that were in the culture. We actually met through Shorty, our chef friend. I knew Jarobi was cooking, but I was like, “If he’s not talking about it, why should anybody else talk about it?”
White: I didn’t do it for fame or anything; I did it because I loved it.
Marcus, how did you get into hip-hop?
Samuelsson: Early on, Neneh Cherry on “Buffalo Stance,” and the fact that she was Swedish and black, meant a lot to me. That eventually opened the door to Run-D.M.C. and LL Cool J. I adored Prince growing up, but I was torn if I liked his rap. I didn’t want to criticize Prince, but “Jerk your body like a horny pony,” what is that?
Jarobi, were you a fan of chefs while growing up?
White: Oh, hell yeah. My parents were divorced, and I was a latchkey kid. I wasn’t able to go outside, so I watched a lot of PBS. My heroes were Julia Child, Martin Yan, The Frugal Gourmet, and you remember Justin Wilson? Those were my buddies growing up.
Samuelsson: I have to tell Martin next time I see him. Nobody can break down a chicken as fast as he can.
White: I can break down a chicken pretty fast too, but that’s where I got it from. That’s my guy.
Samuelsson: Were you the only dude growing up who was into food? Food wasn’t really a thing back then.
White: I was like a unicorn. I used to have hooky parties, where you’d ditch school and have a party at my house. I’d say, “Yo, give me four or five dollars, and I’ll make us some food.” I’d cook for my friends, play music, and that was the hustle.
Samuelsson: History class or Jarobi’s house -- I know where I’d be.
What role does music play in a restaurant kitchen?
White: Especially in the prep kitchen, it’s like a damn disco. I tend to like Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Earth, Wind & Fire. But when I’m on the line, I like Public Enemy. I need uptempo joints. I need Metallica or M.O.P. M.O.P. is fantastic in the kitchen!
Samuelsson: I have to have music, and when I was coming up, every place you went to was dead. Then in the early ’90s, I met Charlie Trotter, this god of cooking. And he said, “The only music you can play is Miles Davis.” So that opened the door.
What are the similarities between making food and making music?
White: The instant gratification. Like when you see people take a bite and go, “Mmmm.” Also, in music, you’re only as good as your last song. With cooking, you’re only as good as your last dish. But you have the chance to fix it the next time around.
Samuelsson: I’m sure with musicians, it’s a record label or manager that screwed you. Every chef I know has had an ownership breakup.
As Tribe said, “industry rule number 4,080”?
White: (Nods.) Mmm-hmm.
Samuelsson: Then there’s that cat where every chef is like, “How did he come up? He’s not that skilled!” And as a musician, there must be similar stories.
White: I’ve seen some famous chefs cook and I’m like, “This dude is a total hack. What the f---!” And then there’s a song and you’re like, “Why is this song so popular? This shit sucks!”
Jarobi White’s Honey Yuzu Chicken Wings
“I think of regular food and try to do new things, like the combination of tea with honey and lemon,” says White. “That’s basically the flavor profile here.”
2 dozen chicken wings
½ cup yuzu fruit juice
1 ½ cups honey
1 Scotch bonnet pepper
1. Put wings on a sheet pan and bake in a 400-degree oven until done, about 35 minutes.
2. While wings cook, whisk together the yuzu and honey. If you need more, make more. The key is using a ratio of 3 parts honey, 1 part yuzu.
3. Using a knife, break the pepper open and let it infuse the yuzu-honey mix.
4. When wings are done, remove from oven.
5. Remove pepper from sauce and discard.
6. Toss the wings in the sauce until well coated.
7. Serve atop something green and pretty.