FOOD INTERVIEW: Jean Grae at Il Bagatto

You probably already know of Jean Grae.  The New York raised emcee is well-known in the hip-hop scene, with songs like “Watch Me” and “Keep Livin'” along with many more under her belt – but there’s more to Jean Grae than just her lyrics.  We sit down for dinner with Grae and get to know more about another one of her passions: food.

Fresh off last week’s show at the Lower East Side’s Drom, Grae is preparing for her many projects this summer, including the release of her upcoming album, Cake or Death.  Judging from the title (and that of her mixtape Cookies or Comas), we should have known she was a huge foodie.

Jean Grae takes us to her favorite NYC eatery, Il Bagatto, a tiny, cozy restaurant with a kitchen that produces some of the most delicious Italian plates I’ve ever had in the city.  Here, she dishes on her secret New York, and we find out that she (gasp) might be better at cooking than she is at rapping!

So, what are your plans for the summer?

I have a lot of plans, a lot, I’ll be releasing my album, a lot of plans for that, and I’m going to be having my own show.  “Life of Jeannie”.  I didn’t want to do a reality show, but I’m a huge fan of sitcoms, I’ve been really serious about sitcoms, we go far back.

What’s awesome about this place is, during the summer, you see everyone’s got their chairs outside…you know when people say that there’s not really New York culture around anymore, I’m like, yeah there is, and we’re definitely here.  There’s a lot of old New York, and community.  So, you know, every sitcom has the places that they go to, and I was like, dude, I should totally shoot here.  I want to make it feel like New York, my New York, the New York they need to know about.

Where have you lived in New York?

I’ve lived in about ten different neighborhoods in Brooklyn over the years.  I grew up in Manhattan, though.  I still consider myself a Manhattan girl.  I moved to Brooklyn when I was 18, maybe?  I lived in Clinton Hill before it got super fucking gentrified, when Myrtle Avenue was still Murder Avenue.  I’ve lived in Clinton Hill, I’ve lived in East Williamsburg twice, Bushwick, same thing.  I’ve managed to move to all these neighborhoods when they were first getting started, as people are just starting to move there, and you’re like, oh shit, organic supermarkets!  Even if I’m not moving, I’m always on Craigslist, being like, what’s going on in the city, where are people moving to?  And especially when new restaurants open, and new bars, I’m always like, let’s go check it the fuck out!  A secret speakeasy you have to take an elevator down to?  Those are always my favorite kinds of things to find in the city.  You know, secret New York.

[At this point, our appetizers arrive, and we pounce immediately on the food.  Grae knew from the beginning that she wanted the calamari, and we also share a burrata and prosciutto plate to go with our drinks.]

I think as I’ve gotten older, you know, I’m not the person who’s like: “back in old New York, we used to have this…” and yeah, we did, and it was great but now there’s so many good things, the same things that people used to have to look for.  And I think people have gotten lazy and are like “there’s nothing going on, the city is dead” and I’m like, no it’s not!  It’s amazing.  It’s New York.  We don’t die.

Where are your favorite places to eat in the city?  Do you even have just one favorite place?  I know for me… I could probably never answer it if I only had to answer one.

Here!   Definitely here.  And…I love El Quixote.  I grew up in the Chelsea Hotel, downstairs is this place that goes overlooked, the facade still has that seventies, eighties look.  I’ve had a lot of lobster and seafood in the city, and this place has broiled lobster and paella and it’s just ridiculous.  The interior looks outdated but it doesn’t matter because the food is absolutely amazing.  I love small places like that.  And you know, places are great where you can build relationships with the people there.

It’s really cool that you know everyone here, it’s like coming home to a family dinner.  

Definitely.  [Coincidentally, she pauses here to say hi as a group of friends passes by the table].  One of the best Cuban sandwich places, it’s on 8th Avenue and either 16th or 17th Street, it’s a really tiny place, and of all the things in that neighborhood, that shit has not gone anywhere.  It’s just all Cuban sandwiches.  It’s been around for years, I’ve tried others but always go back to that one spot.

For burgers, I’m a huge burger person.  Black Iron Burger, which is around 5th and Avenue A?  Super small, small place, smaller than this place.  If you’re going there, don’t go anywhere else after that, ’cause there’s no way you can’t not smell like burgers.  They only serve burgers, beer, wine, some sides.

How did you find out about this place (Il Bagatto)?  Did you come here randomly and just kept coming back?

My friend was here, spinning here, ’cause they have a DJ downstairs.  This is like, maybe ten years ago?  And they’re like, we’re spinning tonight at this restaurant, come through, and we show up, and just never fucking left.

 Literally, like you’re still here.

Literally!  And we just brought more people, and we all just became family.  It’s good.  I got a whole bunch of other suggestions for you, too!

 Well, keep them coming!

[Our meals arrive – when we picked up the menu at the beginning of the meal and ask Grae for her recommendations, she immediately tells us to wait for the specials.  We order the gnocchetti and pork chop, and Grae gets the branzino, as per the waiter’s recommendation.  We all eat some of each other’s food.  It’s so insanely good!]

Have you been to Sidecar yet?  I just went there last night.  It was about 3 in the morning, and we went to Sidecar, and I had a blue and bacon cheeseburger, and I also got to taste a kale, bacon and syrup… I do kale with summer squash and bacon, so it’s really light.  It was great.  It’s on 15th and 5th, in Park Slope.

Bar-wise, I get really into bars, I almost don’t want to tell you!  We got really into Elsa, on 3rd between B and C.  And I think we stumbled upon it really late night, literally stumbling out of another bar.  It’s like the Alice in Wonderland of drinks.  My favorite from there is the Corpse Reviver #2.

And there’s other regular New York places that people always want to go to, they’re alright, they’re cool, I feel a different connection at least when I know the people, the bartenders, and we build a relationship that feels real.  That’s why I like to cook for people, because I know the food is good, because it’s done with love.  It’s very different.  Hopefully, I can’t do it this year because I don’t have time, but I’ve finally been looking at storefronts to get my own small place.  And I want to do it, because guys joke, “yeah, she raps pretty good, but she cooks better than she raps.”  I’m like, you know what?  I don’t mind that.

What kind of food do you make?

I cook super healthy, I try to use good ingredients, olive oil, or no oil, I use everything.  The one day that I lose my mind, and there are no rules, is Thanksgiving, where I will just use tons of butter, you know, just fuck it.  I do this rabbit that cooks for 8 hours, it goes with grits, it’s super fucking creamy with tarragon.  It’s fucked up!  My usual list is black sheep shepherd’s pie, I twist it around to be very Black American, you know, instead of beef I use ground chicken and turkey, sweet potato with cornbread crust.  But the one thing I did this year, I was invited by someone’s family, his mom asked me to cook something for Thanksgiving.

Wow, that’s such an honor!  To be invited by a mother to cook on Thanksgiving.  

She was like, what do you want to do?  I was like, what do you want me to do?  She was like, do the mac and cheese, and I was like, shit!  So I did a ten cheese mac and cheese with white truffle oil, just brie, name it, havarti, it was all in there.  It was all I wanted from mac and cheese, I told everyone to just take a small piece, it’s so rich.

Were you just making it or did you have a recipe in mind?  

I never have a recipe.  I cook and then I taste.  I work it out from there.  People tell me I should have a cookbook, but I can’t.  It depends on the people, the season, I would fall back on different spices depending on the season.  I also did some roasted vegetables, a butter squash and cream puree with tarragon and rosemary.  It meant so much to be let into the kitchen on Thanksgiving.

Basically, just get some good ingredients, make it with love, and you can’t go wrong with that.  There’s been times when I’ve been in a relationship and we’re buying groceries, and we get in a fight and I leave the cart because I’m like, no, now I can’t fucking eat this shit.  ‘Cause now it’s ruined.  I believe in food as something to enjoy, and it’s an art, and I love when people do it wonderfully.  I think music at different levels is a similar science.  You’re pouring your words into it, there’s a formula, it’s a fucking science.  It’s why I would never disregard pop songs.  You have to include certain ingredients at the right time for it to be a hit song, to touch that many people.

Where else can we get good Italian food in the city?  There are so many options, I’ve kind of been avoiding eating Italian because it’s so hit-or-miss here.

There are two places.  One is al di là in Brooklyn.  And then there’s this.  And they’re very different styles.

[Eventually, we come to the end of our meal.  We’re all stuffed but of course Grae has to tell us that the Torta Della Nonna is the way to go for dessert and we can’t not give in.  Note: I am still thinking about this custard tart.

A delicious and refreshing dinner – getting to know another side of Jean Grae while enjoying what brings people together best: food!  And, lucky us, we also now have an arsenal of new places to check out.  Also, don’t forget to check out Il Bagetto next time you’re in the area (192 E 2nd Street, between Avenue A and B).  We will definitely be back!

Be on the lookout for Cake or Death, and many other exciting things coming your way – trust us, you haven’t heard the last of Jean Grae.]