What do Prince, fine food and Soul Train have in common?
All three are major obsessions of the Roots’ Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson. The Philadelphia-born drummer wrote about one of his passions in 2013’s Soul Train: The Music, Dance, and Style of a Generation. Now he’s dishing on his love of eating well with his new book, Something to Food About: Exploring Creativity With Innovative Chefs, due out April 12. Only a book on Prince would round things out.
The 45-year-old Tonight Show bandleader has been hosting food-salon get-togethers in his Frank Gehry-designed New York City apartment building for years now. Since the closing of Hybird—a fried-chicken stand that Thompson opened at the city’s Chelsea Market with restaurateur Stephen Starr—these eclectic dinner parties in lower Manhattan, full of celeb chefs, have been Questlove’s main culinary outlet for his foodie fixations. And now, Something to Food About.
The book, co-written by the New Yorker’s Ben Greenman, features Questlove in conversation with 10 world-renowned chefs, including Nathan Myhrvold, Dominique Crenn, Daniel Humm and Ludo Lefebvre. The author-DJ-drummer-“connector” (in the Malcolm Gladwell sense) recently took time out for a similar conversation with The Root to discuss the evolution of his palate from Devil Dogs to kouign-amanns. And, of course, Prince.
The Root: What was your path from Philly to foodie?
Questlove: It really started once I saw how advanced food-truck culture was becoming. One night in Portland, [Ore.,] after a DJ gig, this Mister Softee truck rolls up with only grilled-cheese sandwiches. I saw that and I was like, “Yo, this is going to be a revolution.” I was joking with my manager, like, “Yo, I want to do a soul food restaurant, but in a Mister Softee truck and call it, like, Soul on a Roll or something.” And then we started brainstorming.
My DJ manager is Korean, and she was like, “Well, there’s a Korean-fried-chicken revolution about to explode in the United States. People are starting to discover that Korean fried chicken is almost as good as Southern American fried chicken. We should go half on a Korean-fried-chicken truck, ’cause they’re starting to explode all over Southern California.”
TR: So Hybird, your Chelsea Market fried-chicken stand, started as a food-truck idea?
Q: I was planning on investing in a food-truck business. Then my manager, Rich [Nichols], was like, “That’s only realizing half the potential. You have a football in your hand and you want to kick a field goal and not do a touchdown. If you’re really going to touch in the food area, take over the s—t. Realize that chefs are the new rock stars and use your knowledge of food and really make something of it.”
I never even heard the term “foodie” until I got to [Late Night With Jimmy Fallon]. I wasn’t a Food Channel worshipper, but I was aware of these different types of restaurants. The Roots have been really privileged to eat in some of the … finer places on earth. But I just consider that as an everyday thing, not something that I can market and make something out of myself. So the more we started brainstorming, I traded in the Korean-fried-chicken-truck business for the drumstick. We spent about three years doing heavy focus groups, meticulous planning.
From 2010 to 2013, it was nothing but events and slowly gaining the trust. I mean, when you can buy your way into situations, you may not get that much in respect. It’s like buying your way into a fraternity. So you really have to gain the trust of the [Anthony] Bourdains of the world, the [David] Changs of the world, the [April] Bloomfields of the world. And once they sort of gave the green light that they accepted me into their fraternity, I just decided to really make the most of making bucket-list dreams come true.
TR: So Hybird didn’t work out the way that you expected it to or … ?
Q: When we opened in Chelsea Market, that was one of the few times in which I took advantage of someone letting me cut in front of the amusement-park line. Because no one in their first year opens up in Chelsea Market. But the whole goal was to basically partner up with someone, invest in a business, make a big splash and get out immediately. Food & Wine [magazine] had already talked about us massively; we got the front cover of Time Out New York. And then, after a year, pull out; now start throwing food salons.
We’re still throwing food salons, but what I really want to do is kind of have it on a more frequent basis. I feel like there’s something there when you invite artists, writers and singers, playwrights and journalists to a sort of potluck thing. So that’s pretty much the goal with that; that was always the intention. Similar to the Black Lily [music showcases] back in ’96. Just doing it this time with chefs.
TR: Your love for food, Prince and Soul Train is about equal. What’s the best album off Prince’s Paisley Park Records?
Q: [Laughs.] Umm, officially on the label? So it had to be created after ’85?
TR: And not a Prince record.
Q: Motherf—k … [Laughs.] The Family. Basically because of the covert-nature operation. Prince was strictly contraband in my house. So they didn’t know what to make of The Family album, because it seemed so unlike Prince records of the moment that they didn’t know it was Prince. They knew Sheila E. was with Prince, so that went in the trash. Mazarati, forget it. [Laughs.]
TR: The Family was relatively safe. They had silk pajamas on.
Q: Right, they just looked at it like it was white, safe: “You can listen to that. She don’t sing that ‘Sugar Walls,’ does she?” I like Prince when he’s more relaxed. His records, they have a very specific aim and purpose to them. But his side projects, when he’s living out his id or his alter ego, then that’s when he has the most fun.
It’s so weird; he managed to successfully fool me all those years [on songs like Vanity 6’s] “If a Girl Answers (Don’t Hang Up).” Because Prince didn’t have a sense of humor, as far as we were concerned. But that’s him on those Time sketches, like “Chili Sauce” and “The Walk.” That’s him on “Tricky,” the B-side of “Jungle Love.” So he had a sense of humor, but he just didn’t want to show that to us, so we had no clue it was him. I like him better when he’s not thinking about it, when it just comes natural.
Miles Marshall Lewis is the Harlem-based author of Scars of the Soul Are Why Kids Wear Bandages When They Don’t Have Bruises, There’s a Riot Goin’ On and Irrésistible. Lewis is a former editor at Ebony.com, Vibe, XXL and BET.com. Follow him on Twitter.