Grammy-winning star Gregory Porter began his career in New York as a chef before being discovered as a musician. He recently took time out to talk to Chaz Brooks about his online cooking series The Porterhouse
CB: Singing and cooking are two of your passions. You’ve the same passion with your cooking that you have with your music. Who first inspired you to cook?
GP: It’s a family thing, I started cooking with my mother as a child and it became a thing for me. With cooking there was singing involved, there was always singing in my house. I remember singing with her, just gentle, soft, quiet.
I really love to cook. It’s an expression of something from me to you. Even just something simple you know, rice and a little butter, just the act of putting a plate of something warm in front of somebody is so friendly.
It’s a wonderful thing, and there can become a moment where it can become taken for granted. I remember when I got my first apartment I was like, something’s missing, living alone by myself in my first apartment when I was in college – it was the music. There was constant music when I was growing up and sometimes there was a battle of music. When you wanted to hear something different you’d go to the other side of the house with your radio.
CB: Who does the cooking in your family?
GP: When I’m at home I do, but my wife is a nice cook. A lot of my friends won’t even cook for me as they say “oh, you’re such a good cook, we won’t even cook.”
My son helps. He’s interested in cooking and being a helper in the kitchen. We’ll cook Russian dumplings. He’ll roll out the dough and put the meat inside and we will do that together. He started with his grandmother – he’s very close to his grandmother, by way of Skype. He goes to Russia every summer and has been four or five times now. Cooking is a thing for us to do. He loves making pancakes so we do pancakes or waffles every weekend, and he’s a good egg maker.
CB: I saw from an episode of The Porterhouse that your mother wouldn’t let you listen to rap music when you were a child.
GP: Right, exactly. We had a cousin in LA who would play rap music to us on the phone. So we would listen to the Beastie Boys, and the Fat Boys, through the phone. We found a way. Children always find a way.
CB: It’s amazing what you’re doing with your brother and the soup kitchen.
GP: Yeah, that’s fantastic and it’s nearby in Bakersfield, just a couple miles away from me now. It’s very much a part of the music that’s the message of Take Me To The Alley. That’s what my mother used to do, go to those talk to those people. It’s beautiful and you’re giving back to the community and Yeah, Yeah, that feeling, you know, most times we do that stuff without anybody watching it.
We happened to have cameras that day. Thanks to the sponsorship with Citibank and, you know, we were able to do it [on the programme Porterhouse] and maybe it will encourage other people to take on that type of spirit.
My sister did it, a few weeks later – she cooked a bunch of turkeys. I had a freezer that all of a sudden stopped freezing. So we thawed everything out and cooked everything. My sister had the idea of taking it all down to the very same place where we served, and she served people. This is just what we will do. If we have, we can.
CB: What’s your favourite food? I’ve seen you mention steak on the programme.
GP: Yes, I mentioned steak but you can’t, or shouldn’t have, steak every night of the week, you got to be careful you know, you can have that rib eye all the time.
I think my favourite dish to make is gumbo. I enjoy the tradition of that. I enjoy some of the flavour of my mother and my childhood in a way. To go along with it, you know, you don’t take too much, you leave some for somebody, but there’s rules there’s ethics, don’t take all the best cuts and the best slices. Save some for your brother, give your brother a bigger piece that you would give to yourself. All of these things, these are skills that my mother was teaching us. Even just a pot of food was a lesson.
And so I get it, I get it now, even as, as you know I make the dish like that it’s like this there’s tradition and ethics and fairness, and while she was like “make sure the last mouthful has a bit of everything” in order to do that you have to be an empathetic person.
CB: And do you do cook a big Thanksgiving dinner for the family, the extended family.
GP: Yeah, Thanksgiving and Christmas is a big thing in my house. This was again obviously before COVID, really big numbers. One Christmas I was supposed to be making for 20 people. My brother got on the phone, really extended the circle of family, and it ended up being 125 people. I had to run out, go get more proteins, I had to go get ribs and more turkeys and more ham and I cooked that Christmas Day, and I cooked. We had just enough food for everybody to get a plate and a full plate. So I did that out of my kitchen at home and it was, it was a beautiful experience. This is my brother who passed away from COVID.
You know, I feel like if I never do that again, which is not true as I will do it again, but it was such a wonderful thing to experience and to see all of my cousins and uncles and my brothers and sisters and their kids. This is a gift, you know, this thing is so much like music for me.
COVID has been incredibly hard, particularly for some people. I myself have lost siblings and relatives.
CB: I guess the one positive thing that has come out of it is time at home for people, family time and cooking. I think cooking has had a big resurgence in lockdown.
GP: Yeah it has, you know it’s funny this is something that I noticed, even with all of the, you know I’m a fan of a lot of the contemporary musicians and jazz musicians.
I was on the page of my friend, the pianist Christian Sands the other day. Most of his posts are normally about music, but he had all these posts during COVID about food and it was amazing, cooking with his parents and this kind of kind of thing, so yeah people really got into it. And that was fun to watch, fun to see.
Musicians aren’t normally known for their cooking, you’re on the run all the time. But musicians that have the opportunity to travel around the world without knowing it can become a foodie. My piano player Chip Crawford never used to cook. He would go down to the corner store and order a sandwich. But after travelling to so many countries, and eating so many extraordinary foods, he’s now cooking.
CB: One last question. Do you cook when you go on tour? And would you do you ever kind of get the opportunity to do any cooking like, say you were in a place for a week would you have an apartment and maybe do some cooking on your own or are you always in hotels?
GP: Fortunately that has happened for me. I’ve been invited to cook in different places. People know that I enjoy cooking so that’s happened in France and in the UK.
I’ve had some opportunities to cook to cook in other people’s kitchens. Yeah, it’s been a thing, and I’ve enjoyed doing the cooking shows in the UK, Sunday Brunch and Saturday Kitchen. I was able to curate a menu as I’m artist in residence of the Cheltenham Jazz Festival. I was able to attend the restaurant and curate a menu for the guests, and that was that was very enjoyable. They essentially made from my recipes. I was there with my band so we performed, and I got to taste the wine, so that’s all good. Yeah, it was all around a great experience.
Watch episode one of The Porterhouse here