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Russell Jackson’s Restaurant As Stripped-Down Storytelling Machine

Russell Jackson grew up in Los Angeles and started his first restaurant, Russell’s, right out of culinary school. He relocated to work as chef at San Francisco’s Black Cat restaurant, and it was in that city he launched SubCulture Dining, an underground dinner series that spread to Los Angeles and New York. Jackson then founded a new restaurant, Lafitte, built on the same principles as SCD. When Lafitte closed, he relocated to New York and appeared on Iron Chef America and The Next Food Network Star. Jackson opened his current restaurant, Reverence, in New York in 2019.

Building Reverence has been a long story. I’ve cooked professionally close to 40 years now. I’ve owned some interesting restaurants throughout my career in Los Angeles and San Francisco. I’m one of the godfathers of underground restaurants by way of Subculture Dining, with the idea that we were going to do it for a short period of time to fine-tune some things and build our culture and philosophy, as well as entertain potential landlords and investors.

And after seven years of some pretty rough hand-to-hand combat, we actually accomplished that goal, and I built Laffite, which at the time was relatively historic. It was one of the first restaurant projects to open up during the recession, which in hindsight wasn’t the best of ideas. It also had the most expensive rent in all of California. But it was a great idea, it was a beautiful concept. Everybody can now fondly look back at it and be sorry and miss it. But when the place was fucking empty and nobody was around and we were all wondering “What the hell are we doing here and why is this happening?”—it was a little bit of a different story.

The Food Network had been circling me for quite a while back then, and literally the week I closed Laffite, they asked me to participate in one of their shows with the idea that it would turn into a long-term relationship. The agency that I was working with here in New York talked me into doing it. That spawned other options and jobs with them. The idea was to evolve a business partnership with Food Network. But that’s not really how they roll. They talk that game, but it’s not how they roll.

I ended up having a halfway decent run. Part of their ask, as was my agency’s ask, was they wanted me based on the East Coast to have better access to me, and to be able to get me more work. I didn’t have anything really tying me to California at that point any longer. My family is originally from the East. My dad’s from Jersey, my mom’s from Ohio. Most of my family had moved in the 60s and 70s. Everybody migrated from east to west. Then in the 90s, the majority of the family moved back to the East. I was the lone warrior still out west.

So I packed up and moved out here with the thought that I was going to be doing a lot more television. That wasn’t the case. I ended up signing with NBC and doing Going Off the Menu with Bravo. I got some accolades for that. I was fired to be replaced by that white guy who then killed the show. Again, all of us were thinking, what the hell happened here? Oh, well. They got money to burn.

After all that ended, I met a lovely young girl. I’m in my 50s. I’ve been married before and went through a horrific, very public E! True Hollywood Story-style divorce. I was never going to go that route again. I realized this was the opportunity for me to have a family and lay down some roots. She happened to live here in Harlem. As time went on, we ended up getting married. And my little brain trust of family, Dominique Crenn being one of them, and a handful of others said, “You need to build another restaurant, and you really need to build it in New York.” And I said, if I’m gonna do this—because I had had enough time between the last restaurant to be stupid about it again—if I was going to actually do this, I was going to use my own money, not have any partners, and do something that was really meaningful and the epitome of my career. Something that emotionally, metaphysically, really represents who I am, what I do, what I stand for, and the people I have respect for.

Photo: Cassie Zhang.

It was also important to build a restaurant in an underserved neighborhood. I learned many years ago, during the building of my first restaurant, that soulful intent has to be a part of your everyday life. If you don’t have that core foundational motivation, if you’re not there to do for the good of, you’re not really serving your purpose.

I was already aware of what was happening here in northern Manhattan. I’m a board member, going on six years, of WHEDco, which is the Women’s Health Education Development Company based out of the South Bronx. There’s a whole incubator kitchen and business incubator that’s part of that system. One of the things they brought to my attention was how for this area, people use the term “food desert,” but it’s more accurate to call it “food apartheid.”

I knew that living in Harlem and spending time here. I realized that as a patron, as somebody who lived here, that the access to food was insane. Harlem doesn’t have high-quality fine dining. I’m talking fresh, local, traceable—not gastrochemical or simplified, but elegant and really driven by quality. That’s what I do, that’s how I cook, that’s how I’ve been trained to cook. I know nothing else.

There was a gaping hole in the landscape, even though there are amazing restaurants here. There are more 20-plus-year-old restaurants in this area than I think there are in all of California, which is mind-boggling. You have some 20-plus-year-old restaurant, which is three blocks away from another 20-plus-year-old restaurant, which is 10 blocks from a 15-year-old restaurant. That’s insane, so immense respect.

But in the same light, what I do has been missing. What we’ve come to learn is—and we’ve been trying to verify this, but I think it’s true—I am the first African-American-owned fine dining restaurant in the area since Patrick Clark and Metro in 1988. Do I need to say more? Like, holy shit. And the fact is that Patrick’s restaurant was on the East Side, not in Harlem. And the fact that I’m on the key corner of the most historic block in all of Harlem, on Striver’s Row. It should say something.

But I also hate the fact that we’re this sore thumb sticking out. I hate the fact that I’m the only restaurant like this that exists up here. My hope is that eventually more restaurateurs will see the opportunity here, drop their fear away, and start to open more restaurants like what we’re doing.

African-Americans don’t just cook soul food. We never have. Soul food is a moniker. It’s an idea. It’s a concept that people use to label and categorize. Nobody teaches any history here anymore, and nobody even understands African-American food history. Do you realize that the very first African-American cookbook published was by Rufus Estes in the 1800s? It’s a French fucking cookbook. There’s no fried chicken. There’s no chicken nuggets. There’s none of that bullshit. There’s no barbecue. It doesn’t exist. But what does exist in that book is a peanut soup done like a vichyssoise.

It’s important for me to educate myself and to educate the people around me and educate my staff, for us to have a real understanding of what’s come before us. That very clearly delves into why the restaurant’s name is Reverence. I’m not reinventing the wheel here. That’s not my job. I can’t. I can only reinterpret what I see and what I’ve learned in my career.

There are lots of incredibly great chefs that have gone before me—Black, white, male, female—that I’ve learned from, that I’ve been inspired by, that I’ve had the opportunity to spend time and not spend time with. My years of being exposed to that beautiful part of the country in California, and the ideas and the concepts of the food—it’s not just avocado toast and tacos. It’s so much more than that. I grew up in the Silver Palate Cookbook era, where there is French, Italian, Japanese, Chinese. There were chefs like Hugh Carpenter teaching on Santa Monica Boulevard, who was at the forefront of American Chinese food at the time. There were people like Barbara Tropp, who I got to work with and dearly loved and respected, who did Americanized Cantonese-style cuisine. And then there were all the Hispanic influences.

Photo: Cassie Zhang.

I grew up with soul food. My dad was from the East Coast. I have tons of relatives from the South. I can barbecue better than most motherfuckers out there, but my barbecue style is actually based on French technique. I approach barbecue in a very, very different way. My dad and I argue about it all the time. My dad’s a badass chef in his own right. I’m fortunate that I grew up at a time when I sat down at the table, I had dinner with my family, and we connected with each other. And there wasn’t the distractions of phones and TV and all this other bullshit.

With Reverence, I wanted to create the environment that brought people back to the table and allowed them to reconnect to each other and to the experience that they’re having, because that’s ultimately what changes people. That’s what influences people in a positive way.

Having built several massive restaurants and done all types of different styles, I said, “Let me build a business model of efficiency. Let me build the best mousetrap from all the teachings, all the experiences that I’ve had.” We incorporated the business model from SubCulture Dining, and which other brick-and-mortars have utilized as their template as well. I’ll quietly take credit for a system like Tock, which is geared towards a fine dining, prix-fixe, pre-paid protocol.

That was what we did for 10 years with SubCulture Dining. It took us time to get to that place. It took a lot of mistakes and financial devastation to build in safeties that helped us stay alive. Knowing how difficult all of this was going to be, I wanted to take better care of my crew. Make it financially equitable and fair for not just myself and my family, but for my staff. Make it so simple and easy that if everybody gets sick, if I had to operate the entire restaurant by myself, that I had that ability to do so—and could still perform on a high level, and the service would stay consistent.

Reverence is the Bruce Lee of the restaurant business. We took out all the old, classic, outgrown steps, overdone multiple this and that, and cut all the superfluous bullshit away, and got down to the real core essence of the action, gone straight to the power punch. There’s no hostess. There’s no telephones. It’s really binary. It’s very simplistic. There’s one funnel in, there’s one funnel out. You go online, you place a reservation, you tell us ahead of time what potential issues you may have with your dining experience in respect to, you know, do I have to stick you with an EpiPen?

I’m in the Marco Pierre White camp. He said years and years ago, when he gave back his Michelin star, that the customer doesn’t know shit, and the reality is that after so many years of doing what he does, he knows best. Shut up and let him do his job. I’ve been doing this for 40 years. I know what the fuck I’m doing. Come in, let me do what I do for you, and I guarantee you you’ll walk out a different person, and happier for it. You get in the rollercoaster, buckle in, and hold on for dear life, and walk out with your hair blown off. That’s what we do. We don’t pull punches.

We have people that come in and don’t get it. They really don’t get it. They come in with other guests, and they don’t talk to each other. We have to literally force people into communicating. And then there are those people that instantaneously get it, and all the garbage that’s been held up on them during the course of day drops away, and they’re there in the moment. They’re in real time. They fall in love with the people they’re with. We’ve had more nights here with the music driving and everybody’s cooking and bopping and having a great time, and we’ve had nights where out of nowhere a song will come on and somebody will start to sing, and all of a sudden the entire restaurant is singing at the top of their fucking lungs. Nobody is videotaping. Nobody is taking a picture. Everybody cheers at the end.

They go home and they realize the next day, “What the fuck was that? What just happened there?” And I’ll get these emails from people that go, “I don’t understand what the hell happened there, but that was the most amazing thing I’ve ever been through.” I just stand back in the corner and giggle. I lose my shit watching all of this go down, because we have an impact on people. And I couldn’t do that if you were in control, and you were siloed in your little bubble.

One of the other really important things about a small restaurant is giving people an understanding about the food. Like, why? What the hell were you thinking? When we were designing, and I was building up the thought about what Reverence was going to be, my wife and I went across the country doing nothing but Michelin tasting menus. We went to a two-star Michelin house, not far from Manhattan, that was so hard to get into. I literally had to pay one of my publicists to get me in. I had to jump through all these hoops and finally got in. Prepaid online.

I don’t drink. My wife does. Before booze, we dropped $750. It’s not unacceptable. I completely get it. No problem. It’s two Michelin stars, it’s going to be really fabulous. Just 15 seats in this place. We walk in. It’s really cool. That greeted us nicely. They had a vinyl record player. I went over and picked a couple of albums. “Would you play these?” “Oh yeah, we’ll tell them to put those on.” And the chefs went into their performance. We ate a 15-course meal. At the end of it, we talked to the somm for a little bit, we thanked them for playing our music, tipped them well, and we left. All in, when I left I ended up spending over $1,000.

She and I were walking the block to catch our Uber or whatever it was to get back to Manhattan. I looked at her and I said, “How did you feel about that?” She looked at me and she said, “I feel hollow.” Oh, gosh. I’m like, “It was good, right?” She’s like, “Yeah, but I feel empty. I don’t understand. Why did they make this? Why did they make that? OK, that’s a great dish, but why did they feed it to us? Because everybody likes it and they just have to keep making it over and over again? Like, what the fuck was that?”

And then I realized the food was soulless. It was paint-by-numbers. Somebody came up with an idea and wrote it down in ink somewhere and never, ever changed it. “We may not describe or explain why one of these dishes exists, but we’re just going to serve it up.” And for a small restaurant with the ability to have real impact on somebody’s experience, you’re a tour guide. That’s how we approach things. That’s what is important to me, paying reverence to the food and where it comes from, and not just reading out the litany of what we made and how we did it and where it came from, how it grew on the mossy slope and listened to NPR.

We’ll tell you that we’re dealing with this farmer, and they’re growing a heritage grain that’s been in the family for 400 years. We’re pairing it with some other things to be more local, to be more carbon-neutral. But here’s the reason why this dish exists. It’s representative of this time in the chef’s life, or what I was feeling, what I was thinking. Stories are important to me, in how food impacts me or makes sense to me. Music and food. Those are my creative inputs.

Photo: Cassie Zhang.

I have Dominique Crenn to thank for all of that because I cooked for 30-some years, cooked with her for years, and I didn’t understand what truly motivated me. I knew what lit me up, but I didn’t truly understand what absolutely motivated me was the music, which relates to stories and different aspects of my life. I owe that gratitude to her for teaching me how to connect with that inspiration. Watching her work, watching her create, and having the opportunity to spend time with her, and develop recipes and restaurants—that’s been an amazing part of our relationship.

In this pandemic, we’ve obviously had to completely disrupt our business model and how we’ve been doing things. But the primary core of what we stand for, and who we are, and what our goal is—all that’s still the same. Reverence is a custom-built 900-square-foot counter seat restaurant. Our original plan was to run as long as the city allowed us to. And we served all the way up until the night of lockdown.

Little did we know that literally in the course of service, they were going to change the rules twice within the period of time that we opened and closed. We sadly realized that the guests we served that night were going to be it for a while in the interior of the restaurant. We sat back, and like so many others, tried to understand what all of this meant, where we were all going to go with it, and how and what we could do.

So we took a couple of weeks off. When all of this started, there were five of us on staff. Now we’re down to three. Two of them left the city, so I didn’t have to worry about them. The other two were like, “What are we going to do? What can we do to be of service?” It comes back to what we can do to help the community.

I hate the word “pivot” because it’s an understatement for what we’ve done. We tried to figure out efficient ways to keep the business afloat, but also put ourselves in a position where we can be of assistance to the community within the confines of what we’re capable of doing. It’d be great to be able to produce 500 meals a day for a hospital or something like that, but this is a 900-square-foot space with maybe 47 linear feet of counter, a five- or six-burner induction cooktop, and pretty badass, first-of-its-kind combi oven. There’s only so much we can cook, there’s only so much storage—let alone the enormous expense and capital outlay that we’ve had to go into for packaging.

To avoid shooting myself in the foot with Reverence, I created an advisory board for the business. I always thought to myself, “Why don’t restaurants have advisors—people they trust that can mentor them, or at least talk out ideas?” Sometimes you see people come up with some insane shit, and you’re thinking, “Who let them do that?” Knowing how creative I am, and that I am a content-generating machine, that I’ll just keep churning all this crap out—it’s better to have somebody that can reign me in.

I put together a basic idea for doing bento boxes, and I shot it over to some of my advisors. Probably the biggest discussion was around pricing. We started thinking what was best for us, and how to economically manage our way through all of this, and what was going to be acceptable to people. And not only are we charging a third of what we normally charge per service, we’re also including all this additional packaging and all these other costs that we don’t normally have, that aren’t written into any business plan.

Photo: Cassie Zhang.

We were all moving at light speed trying to build the infrastructure to be able to do this, all hoping that it was going to be over in a couple of weeks. We’re three months into this now, and we all have to look at the world in an entirely different way. And it keeps changing. The only thing we really have to do is stay flexible, try to keep everybody’s head in the game, and let them all understand that the world’s a different place now. We all have to figure out how to work together, to make it work, and not look at this as an opportunity to kick the shit out of each other. And it’s not easy.

I’ve had a handful of discussions about George Floyd and the protests in the last couple of days. For the first week, I just couldn’t talk about it. I didn’t know how to talk about it, even with my wife. I ended up writing about it.

I grew up in a Southern California beach community in the Palisades in the 70s. Movies have been made about it—doors unlocked, kids playing in the streets and hanging out. It was this amazing place to grow up. And yet I’m having to re-face the racism I had to deal with being raised in a predominantly white community, and those hardships that I had to endure going through that. I’m grateful that there was so much love and acceptance by my core group of friends. It’s a lot to absorb right now.

This isn’t the first time I’ve been through riots. I was in Los Angeles during the Rodney King riots. I watched my business get destroyed. I watched places where I grew up as a child go up in flames, even with my neighbors standing around with guns to protect it. All these horrifying things. I’ve lived through the LAPD and Daryl fucking Gates.

I think as an African-American, we’re always hopeful that that change will occur. There are so many stories I can relate about growing up in California, growing up African-American, the aspects of racism I encountered as a child and young adult and as a professional. My wife has lived through some of the issues I’ve had with the media. She’s witnessed some of it. But so much of it, I haven’t ever told people.

It’s because I don’t talk about it. As African-Americans, there are things we live in such disbelief that they happened, and that they continue to happen. And just for myself, it’s almost embarrassing to have to yell “ouch.” And that that wasn’t OK. Going through this last week, and having to relive so many of these memories and thoughts—it’s like you walk through the dark for so long, and then all of a sudden somebody turns a really bright light on in the room. You squint at first, and then you start to see the ugliness of it all. I’m so conditioned to not even see it any longer. That was really fucking uncool.

There are so many parts of my life that I’m starting to come to terms with—how I’ve been treated, how things have happened. And I’m no different than most. I think at one point in my life, I thought I was fortunate to grow up where I did, and that I didn’t have to go through some of the shit that my cousins went through, that some of my friends went through. Then I realized that in certain respects, I had it so much worse. All these experiences, all this stuff that happened to me in my life. But it led me to become the husband, the father, the restaurateur, the chef, and the business owner that I am today.

I’m proud of who I am, and who I can continue to be, and how I get to represent myself and my family, my crew, my community. But there’s a core reason why I built a restaurant in Harlem, and not in the East Village or Southern California. I built it here not because the people here needed me. It’s because I need them.

Photo: Cassie Zhang.