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Harlem chef Russell Jackson on race, restaurants and pandemic recovery

Chef Russell Jackson (Photo by Evan Sung)
Chef Russell Jackson (Photo by Evan Sung)

Only six months before the pandemic began, chef Russell Jackson came out of retirement to open his latest restaurant in Harlem, New York.

Reverence, an 18-seat restaurant he describes as a “jewel box,” stands at street level on Frederick Douglass Boulevard and offers passersby a glimpse inside through floor-to-ceiling windows.

Inside, diners sit around a U-shaped wooden bar for a communal chef’s table-style prix fixe dinner, the eight-or-so courses carefully curated by the chef nightly.

The restaurant survived the pandemic but not without hardship. “We watched our restaurant implode overnight,” Jackson says.

In addition to getting funding from the Paycheck Protection Program, he says he turned to his wife, who had been laid off, and said, “Okay, you’re going to hunt every single grant, application, loan give-away, scratch-it – whatever we can do to keep the fuel going.”

Among the grants he received were “small different tranches of money” that included funding from the Hello Alice grant program, a Discover Card grant, the Apollo grant and others.

Still, while he says every dollar helped, he adds that “it didn’t make us whole by any means.” To keep the restaurant alive, he says he “dug a massive six-figure hole.”

Jackson also expresses frustration over the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, a government grant program that distributed $28.6 billion to 105,000 restaurants, leaving more than double that with no funding at all.

“The RRF needs to be refilled,” he says. “Congress needs to get their act together and they need to do it today. Because the restaurant industry is decimated.”

He says people are fooled when they see restaurants open and full.

“Do you know how many people are still on the verge of closing?” he says. “There isn’t a day that doesn’t go by that I don’t hear about a restaurant that was very strong — that was a great restaurant that’s been around for years — because they didn’t get the money that they were qualified to get.”

Jackson is equally frustrated with what transpired after the fund’s initial decision to give priority to restaurants run by chefs of color, women, veterans and LGBTQ people. Faced with lawsuits by white restaurant owners who said the decision violated their rights, the RFF backed down and told many who’d expected the money that their payments would be halted.

“[Marginalized restaurant owners] are always at the end of the line,” he says. “Other restaurants, especially large groups, have resources and access to money. Those guys can call the bank and get a loan tomorrow. We can’t!”

He says the solution is simple: “Put another $80 billion into the [RFF] system immediately to make sure that all those people that are in line are made whole.”

In terms of his own restaurant, Jackson says he’s grateful to have survived and now witness what Reverence is capable of.

Part of that, he says, is bringing a fine dining restaurant to a neighborhood that has not traditionally had one, and putting his investment into Harlem, a community he believes in and where he’s raising his family.

The pandemic was also a time of introspection for Jackson, who wrote a moving essay on Medium about coming to terms with the injustices he’s experienced as a Black man and restaurant owner.

Though Jackson was afforded an extraordinary life, raised in Pacific Palisades, California, he says there were still moments of racism including going to a beach club with his friends and being told to leave, or trying to date a white girl whose father wouldn’t allow it. The aggressions continued through adulthood as he became an increasingly successful chef.

“All of the fine dining houses I worked in, I was the only African American cook in that restaurant,” he says. “I was always the outlier.”

That meant he had to work “faster, harder, better,” he notes. He says he was also turned away from some jobs because of his race.

In one demoralizing instance, Jackson was hired unseen because of his reputation, only to be rejected on the first day on the job. “I was told I was fired on the spot. ‘No I don’t need you, go out!’ ” he recalls.

That interaction, he says, was overheard by the chef’s partner who pulled the chef behind closed doors — though Jackson says he could still hear what was being said.

Jackson was re-offered the position after the partner told the chef he could be sued over the action, Jackson says.

“But for me, that was a turning point in my career,” he says. “That was: ‘I’m never working for somebody else ever again.’ ”

Black chefs are put into stereotypical boxes, often expected to cook “soul food,” he says.. “I’m a chef, but I’m a California chef” who is trained in techniques of French, Italian, Hispanic and Korean cooking, he adds.

That, he says, means people don’t know how to classify him. The combination of factors created what he calls an immense amount of self-loathing, and attempts to white wash his own pain. And during the George Floyd murder trial, someone threw excrement at his restaurant windows — a “soul-crushing” incident, he says.

“I wanted to just close the doors and be done with this,” he remembers.

But the support and love of his staff got Jackson through the incident and also reinforced the importance of this restaurant in this place.

“We are the only fine dining African American chef-owned restaurant in Manhattan and, possibly from what I’m starting to understand, in the state,” he says. “I wanted to do something good in this community.”

Karyn Miller-Medzon produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Robin Young. Miller-Medzon also adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.