It’s not unusual for a chef to strip a cuisine down to its roots, to use heirloom ingredients or work with local farmers to grow specific produce. It’s also not unusual to take a research trip to the cradle of that cuisine. Edouardo Jordan will do all of this at his forthcoming second restaurant, JuneBaby. But the result feels singular in our corner of the world.
The chef resisted doing Southern food the first time around. Despite growing up in Florida, with a dad who loved to smoke meat, and a lifetime of cherishing the region’s culinary traditions. “As a cook of color, it was so easy to be pigeonholed,” he said one afternoon, sitting in the dining room at Salare. Here, the menu is a triangulation of Jordan’s charcuterie training in Italy, sensibilities acquired cooking at places like the French Laundry, Herbfarm, and Bar Sajor, and the Northwest ingredients all around him. There are a few hints of his roots, if you look for them: grits with the pork cheek, a fondness for gulf shrimp, some Caribbean influences. But not many; Jordan wanted his first restaurant to bust expectations, even tacit ones, that a black chef is more likely to be handy with ribs than with geoduck or ancient grains.
Consider those expectations busted. Salare opened in June 2015, with Jordan finding beauty in unlikely combinations like tripe and habanero peppers. He then found national media attention—the cover of Food and Wine, a lengthy conversation in Lucky Peach about how few black chefs work in fine dining kitchens.
So when Jordan saw a restaurant space available just down the street from Salare last summer, he knew immediately, he wanted to cook Southern food. But what he’s envisioning for JuneBaby is one of the trickiest restaurant balances I can imagine. It also feels wholly necessary.
He wants JuneBaby’s food to explore the cultural context behind Southern fare. But as a cook of color well knows, these foodways can be fraught. Many Southern dishes—“food I love, cherish, and respect,” says Jordan—are heavy because they fueled forced labor. In researching the food for JuneBaby, Jordan traveled through the south and visited plantations where African-born slaves ate pork necks and pig feet and chitterlings because they had no other choice. He walked South Carolina rice farms where people with his skin tone suffered seemingly unbearable conditions. He wants to source rice from around here, in hopes people will consider the sacrifices people made to harvest it those centuries ago.
“That’s gonna be my personal challenge, to present that emotion and that struggle,” says Jordan. “My food is not intended to be political; I don’t want people to get sad at the table or anything, but let’s take a moment and think about what we eat before we throw it in our mouths.” I’d argue that in this new era of alternative facts and reimagined truths, it’s more important than ever to remember the realities—even (especially) the unsavory ones—that shaped our country.
Enter the second part of Jordan’s mission—exploring the ancestral origins of staple dishes. Like peas and rice as they were before they became Americanized through liberal dosings of butter and lard, or the art of transforming cast-off parts like pork necks and pig feet into something delicious. The technique behind this, not to mention the pursuit of heirloom ingredients like black-eyed peas, is the challenge—the part Jordan relishes. “Above all, make it taste good.”
JuneBaby, which takes its name from the childhood nickname of Jordan’s dad, will do fried chicken and barbecue, but those types of foods won’t be the focus, says the chef. “It’s just about incorporating that journey.” He’s envisioning fried chicken Sundays, maybe a brisket special on Saturdays.
All these things aren’t too far away; JuneBaby is just a few weeks away, set to arrive before the end of February.
“Salare was showing my muscles a little bit, just expressing what I can actually do,” says Jordan. “My umbrella is larger than just this little scope.” At JuneBaby, “it’s going to be a very singular subject, but that one subject is huge.”