Eats, Rhymes & Life: Spend An Hour In The Kitchen With Chef Jarobi White
Words + Photos by Scott Heins for Okayplayer
It’s 6pm in Harlem and Jarobi White is on fire. Sputtering oil and flames leap out of a saucepan and onto his right hand, but it only takes a second for him smother it with a metal lid. “Got it coming got it coming!” he yells as the kitchen bustles with aproned bodies. It’s a half hour to dinner service and the hip-hop star-turned-chef is in his element.
“The kitchen is where I excel,” Jarobi says, carefully plating chicken over sauteed collard greens. He offers me a taste and it’s delicious, tender, perfectly seasoned. The plate is one small part of a six course tasting menu he created especially for Blujeen, a new American eatery in East Harlem that invited Jarobi to take over its kitchen as a part of its extended Black Chef series.
Before anything having to do with A Tribe Called Quest--before the sold-out shows, People’s Instinctive Travels…, and his partial exit from the group, Jarobi had already found a life for himself as a cook. His parents, split up, worked long hours and were rarely around to prepare proper meals. In his own words, he became friends with Julia Child, Justin Wilson and the Frugal Gourmet; “Those were my playmates,” he says as he rinses fresh lettuce.
When he was 14, Jarobi lied about his age to get his first restaurant job in New York City. Soon he was working the entire line, handling the tasks of three cooks all by himself. When his high school friends played hooky to party at home he’d collect spare change and run off to the store, then come back and cook a meal for the whole clique.
Now, Jarobi primarily cooks for strangers, and does it with no less love. He’s found his professional groove as a journeyman chef, doing brief tenures in kitchens in New York, Atlanta and Los Angeles. 2015 has been a banner year for him, thanks to the rise of his culinary company Eats Rhymes & Life and the new phenomenon that is Tribe Taco Tuesdays--a semi-regular roving restaurant takeover that sees Jarobi and a revolving cast of DJs throwing the ultimate hip-hop food fete. The series was born out of his love of LA’s streetside taco scene and the #TribeTuesday trend on social media and now pack Brooklyn back patios and dancefloors to capacity. It’s summer trend that proved so popular it’s continuing into the fall.
But tonight’s job couldn’t be any more different. Jarobi’s an invited guest in Blujeen’s space; he’s on their turf, using their tools and cooking for their clientele. And so, he’s on his toes and deeply self-aware. He likens it rapping a guest verse on someone else’s song. “You’ve got to play to their rhythm,” he says. “It might not be the rhythm that you’re accustomed to. You have to represent yourself and your crew, it’s the same thing.” As he moves around the kitchen, wiping the sweat from his brow and grime off his hands, Jarobi constantly checks in with the staff, critiques their plate arrangements and samples sauces as they reduce on the stove. “I’m always doing a bunch of things at one time, and this is one of the only times that it makes sense.”
De La Soul blasts over the kitchen stereo (minutes earlier it was Big Sean), and out in the dining room a string trio warms up with the bassline of “Check The Rhime.”
Jarobi smiles; he notices. "Me and [Q]-Tip have been playing tag for a minute,” he says, without even being asked. “And I spoke to Phife last week, because I'm trying to get him on this song with Omar, from London. It’s gonna happen.”
At the end of the kitchen appears Lance Knowling--Blujeen’s executive chef and the mastermind of their Black Chefs series. He’s the reason we’re all here. “We’re going to be all set chef, why don’t you take five?” Jarobi smirks and can’t get to the dining room fast enough. In seconds, he has a drink in his hand and is playing games with his grandson at one of the tables. I watch him, and ask Knowling what he thinks.
“There’s a need for black chefs to be seen more,” Knowling says as he watches his staff plate the first course. “Not just as line cooks or home cooks, but actual creators. Sometimes when we hear ‘black chef,’ we make assumptions on what they can do.” And as he says this, Jarobi’s creations shine on a steel counter--diced yellow squash, zucchini and arugala. In an oven, golden yuccas and shrimp are browning; it all smells delicious. It’s poised, diverse and complicated fare. Blujeen is about to eat very, very well.
Service is only two minutes away, and so Jarobi slips outside, across Frederick Douglas Boulevard, for a cigarette. I follow him, and he nods as he finishes a long drag.
“It’s funny,” he says. “I can get in front of 80,000 people, but this shit makes me nervous as hell.” He’s not talking about cooking--it’s the brief speech he’s expected to give to the packed house of customers. Every guesting black chef at Blujeen is asked to talk directly to the crowd; it’s the sort of spotlight gig Jarobi has worked tirelessly to avoid. “Taco Tuesday and tribe shows, they’re specifically here to see me. This place, I’m coming into their environment. It’s not my crowd. I gotta be responsible. I gotta respect the chef’s kitchen and everything he’s built. And this being also that it’s the black chef series, I gotta be responsible for that.”
“Black people, a lot of times we’re responsible for the whole black race every time somebody sees us. When you’re a black dude, you represent every black dude that comes before you.” He turns and looks at me, takes a deep drag, and sighs again. “You don’t have to represent George Washington, but I gotta rep Martin Luther King.”
I ask him if he’s at peace--if machine of the restaurant industry feels any different than the music industry sting that sent him packing from A Tribe Called Quest over 20 years ago. He nods. “Now, I understand the function of it. Before, I didn’t trust it...I’ve realized that those things are necessary.”
“I wasn’t really lost,” he assures. “This is what I was doing. Even though I’d go on major tours around the world, I come home and do this.”
Jarobi has loved cooking all his life, and while Native Tongues fanboys and true-school believers might not want to hear it, this is the world that suits him best. In food he’s found community and challenge, paychecks and self-expression, frustration and joy. It’s given him a way of life that simply would not have been possible with A Tribe Called Quest. Jarobi’s not an outsider (and he’s certainly not lost)--what he is is under the radar. He’s only ever as visible and vulnerable as he needs to be. All of this has always been about autonomy. He’s a worker who's not a drone, a solider who faithfully follows his own orders. As the Harlem traffic slows, Jarobi White walks back across the street and straight into the kitchen. He lights the stove and gets back to creating.