“It’s about the chicken…” says Chef Chris Scott (Top Chef Season 15), telling his new Connecticut fan base a story at his sold out Pop Up last Thursday night. And he’s about to knock nutmeggers socks off left and right with what he calls Real Soul Food, not the “gentrified” sort we’ve heard about or tasted before. There’s a story attached to the chicken, to the greens and black-eyed peas; there’s a story about the people who originally brought us the food. Real Soul Food is not just the celebrated dishes we’ve come to know and love. Chef wants everyone to understand the heritage behind this cuisine, and really hear about the ones who toiled long and hard for the meals we know as southern soul food. It’s time we learned about the Birdman; and Chef Scott is just the one to deliver the tale. He is passionate, he is immensely knowledgeable, he is experienced, and he just so happens to be one freakin’ amazing Chef.
His pal and Top Chef mate Tyler Anderson, whom Connecticut knows and loves for his many acclaimed eateries, opened up the doors of the Cook and the Bear on January 24, in order for Chef Scott to unleash a glimpse into his newest venture, Birdman Juke Joint, set to open in late February or early March in Bridgeport. The Pop Up event was sold out within a half an hour and, as diners walked in, the energy in the room was palpable. I don’t think there was ever any question that Chef would deliver delicious food, but the story he shared and the overall experience was like no other. I think we realized we were not just tasting another piece of chicken; we were facing history and honoring those who were never acknowledged before.
“Now we’re living in a time where there are Michelin star Italian and Mexican restaurants, which is how it should be; it opens the minds to the diner and informs them of a deeper insight about a culture through its food. Now it's time for African Americans to come to the table and get the respect we deserve...I start at the beginning, with the Birdman.
“During the antebellum era, blacks weren't permitted to own livestock. When this law was enforced, the powers that be didn’t put chicken on that list, so blacks raised chickens and this was one way that we came up out of poverty by becoming chicken merchants. During that “hard time era” folks were not eating fried chicken and biscuits every day, and people were simply too damn broke to be turning their food red (velvet) just for fun. Much of the food prepared by black folk during that time was based on southern agriculture with an emphasis on rice beans and grains. I think if more people understood this about the core of southern/soul food then they wouldn't expect every dish to be chicken and biscuits.
And, Birdman Juke Joint is going to inspire that desire. In addition to the chicken, and all parts of it, as we kicked things off with Crispy Chicken Gizzards and Hearts, Chef Scott made grains and veggies absolute stars with highlights like Cornmeal Crusted Corn on the Cob and, with a kapow of flavor, a bowl of Cauliflower Rice and Beans, with Garlicky Kale, a dish I could have had seconds and thirds of. Every bite offered something familiar then a striking surprise. We even had drink pairings from Moonshine and Chicken fat infused cocktails--one that so resembled an apple pie I licked the cinnamon sugar right off the glass---to everyone’s delight, a paper-bagged 40 of beer, clunked right on the table for our Chicken and Waffles. I died and went to heaven after the CRISPY FRIED DEVILED EGGS with COLLARD GREEN “CRACKLIN.” That was the fullest, tastiest bite of egg I had ever had, giving something so relatively simple a soulful, earthy upgrade; it had every texture in one colorful mouthful. And, it was served in an egg carton. Atop our flowing picnic, complete with red and white checkered accoutrements, we devoured mini catfish sandwiches with jalapeno jam; and roasted kobocha (squash), smoke black eye pea salad with a pumpkin seed vinaigrette, not to mention a Gullah, creole style Shrimp and Grits that was luscious and smoky for days.
When loosening buckles and wondering how this remarkable, soulful affair could get any better, Chef Scott came out again to tell the diners of Birdman future desserts. He asked us all to consider what we knew of southern treats; he asked us to close our eyes and imagine them. As I dreamt of pecan or key lime pie, sweet potato or the tallest lemon meringue he said, “Okay, that’s what you’ll get at Birdman, infused as an ice cream flavor.” Just then the eyes of hundreds of diners became saucers.
Leaving Brooklyn (Butterfunk, Sumner’s Luncheonette) was bittersweet Scott says, but he has been welcomed with open arms and thrilled to immerse himself into a new community with his wife and partner Eugenie, and their children. “We want to be a part of our neighborhood in ways that go beyond day-to-day restaurant operations. We give back, we get our hands dirty, we help those have a voice.”
Mark your calendars and grab a crew, Birdman Juke Joint is not just a meal: it is a memorable experience with a history. In other words, Real Soul Food.
2931 Fairfield Avenue, Bridgeport, CT
Follow them @birdmanjukejoint