'We're Never Going Back to the Good Old Days'

A tasting-menu chef turns to soup

Thanks for visiting The Bittman Project, a place where food is everything (or pretty close).

Chef Russell Jackson is the owner and executive chef of Reverence, a fine-dining restaurant that highlights the flavors of Jackson’s beloved West Coast. When Jackson and I first met in 2019, Reverence was somewhat of an anomaly: A Black-owned, tasting-menu restaurant on Strivers’ Row in Harlem was hardly the norm. But Jackson believed that it should be.

What he wanted Reverence to become is one thing. What he’s been doing to survive is another.

“I spent two years developing and creating a business model that I felt was going to be my best opportunity for success and, to a certain extent, bulletproof,” said Jackson. “And now? I'm at that place where I don't sleep anymore because it's a week-to-week analysis of where we are.”

Pre-Covid, Jackson's cooking caused a stir and filled reservations: Today, he’s focused on a to-go item he’s especially good at — soup.

“Throughout my entire career, I've been known for my soups, but I've never really leaned into it,” said Jackson. “I could cook a different soup every single day of the week, and never repeat myself.”

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Jackson’s pumpkin soup one night lent earthy comfort riddled with spice notes: a reminder that there’s joy and pleasure beyond this difficult moment. When I picked up another to-go order— a marvelous spread of eggs, pancakes, black ash honey, sausage, seared vegetables, and hot soups to last for days — I was joined by other hungry New Yorkers: as hungry for Jackson’s food and they were for community.

Though Jackson and other restaurant owners need guests and government support, customers like me need restaurants, too. Much of the new administration’s focus, understandably, has been on getting essential businesses and institutions like schools and public services fully up and running. But restaurants continue to be essential for many of us.

Reverence, like other NYC restaurants, was forced to shut down abruptly at the beginning of the pandemic a year ago in March. Since then, the restaurant has readjusted and reset to meet the moment. 

“I think this could have been over by now,” said Jackson. “I truly believe that had we had proper leadership, proper advocacy, and people with a national plan, this pandemic could have been over, even without a vaccine.”

Meanwhile, the restaurant is surviving. “People are excited that we’re here,” said Jackson. “Right now, it’s imperative to walk with the community. I've been saying for a year. We're here for the community; we're here to be your service; what can we do to help. It was important to be congruent in that. When shit went down, we showed up.”

Jackson’s business model, based on advanced reservations and a dining experience that relied on talking to one another (no phones allowed) wasn’t crafted for a pandemic moment. But Jackson was. He’s been able to largely retain his staff, hold onto his corner of Frederick Douglass with bento box orders and holiday-themed meals. And he's kept hope alive: Hope that relies on an acceptance of the moment — and the fact that dining has likely changed for good.

“That’s been the greatest difficulty for most people to accept: there is no such thing as, let's go back to normal. We're never going back to the good old days,” said Jackson. “We have to start thinking about and working toward whatever's going to be and supposed to be next.”

Jackson is still trying to figure out what exactly that is: As with every facet of American life, race plays a role in that new beginning. 

“I think that the realizations that I've had for myself personally, have been the acknowledgment to myself that the injustices that I've lived through have not been OK,” said Jackson. “I think that in African American culture overall, there's a shame and the stigma that's attached to the mistreatment, that we've had the stuff that we've had perpetrated on us. But there's a shame that's involved in acknowledging that fact. And that just has to change.”

Juggling the needs of the restaurant community and Black Americans, he's part of the Aspen Institute’s Covid Task Force, the New York Hospitality Coalition, and remains connected to other Black chefs working to highlight Black Americans doing unique work in food. During Black History Month, he launched four menus that highlight the work of four Black chefs in U.S. history — Rufus Estes, Edna Lewis, Patrick Clark, and Alexander Smalls. It’s one of many efforts to recognize the ongoing importance of Black history and ingenuity.

“I'm having these conversations in these meetings every week with restaurateurs from around the world,” said Jackson. “It’s been really interesting talking to them and hearing some of their feedback. And, it’s almost — to a small degree — a therapy session, because it lets me know that I'm not the only one that's suffering.”

Since Jackson and I first spoke, a new administration has entered The White House, and there’s more support for small businesses in the American Rescue Plan. Though Jackson is grateful, he’s found the legal mechanisms tied to financial support cumbersome for small businesses and restaurants that are most in need.

“This new support is great, but the language is so convoluted for people just trying to get the help they need to survive,” he said. “I’m just flabbergasted by it all. But again, I'm going to survive and we’re going to get to the other side of this.”

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As Jackson navigates the wave of changes, he still maintains the personality that allows a place like Reverence to exist. Each takeout order comes with his hand-selected quotes (I, luckily, received one from none other than Edward Lodewijk Van Halen) and a smile from Jackson cooking indoors.

The world has changed, and so has Jackson. But the core of who he is? That, and his restaurant, will remain the same.