The Roots' Questlove Takes THR's Taste Test
The seasoned DJ, hip-hop band member, new author and musical director for "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon" talks drunken grilled cheese, barbecue ice cream, insects and more.
Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson is a man of many talents, and apparently even more previously unexplored aspirations. Beyond DJing at nightclubs worldwide, spearheading musical direction on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon (where his hip-hop group The Roots is the house band) and penning his newly-released memoir Mo’ Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove with The New Yorker’s Ben Greenman, the wild-haired Twitter personality partnered with veteran restaurateur Stephen Starr (Morimoto, Buddakan) to open a gourmet fast food eatery dedicated to cross-genre culinary mash-ups.
Questlove developed the polyglot global sensibility after recent years spent eating across the U.S. -- particularly at food trucks -- while traveling for performances. “After seeing that, I was like, ‘Oh, I want to do that.’ My life has always been full of ‘I’d like to try that,’ but never having the opportunity."
Opened in May, Hybird (75 Ninth Ave., 212.989.3332) nests inside Manhattan's culinary arcade Chelsea Market, outfitted with graphic question marks, striped countertops and yellow footprints on the floor, and sharing a space with teas, spices, nuts and tacos. The menu revolves around "Love's Drumsticks," Thompson’s signature fried chicken, which should be ordered alongside honey biscuits, watermelon jalepeno slushies and freshly folded dumplings cradling bok choy, truffled egg and curry chicken.
QUESTLOVE’S THR TASTE TEST
“Drunken grilled cheese. There’s a restaurant in Brooklyn called Rye, and Fuse does this thing where they go and get top chefs s--t-faced, and then ask them to prepare a meal while crazy drunk. The owner made this grilled cheese sandwich that he dips in vodka. It’s the most perfect thing you’ve ever had. It’s a religion.”
Known for Cooking
“For all of this food talk, I hired a full-time chef because by the time I come home, I don’t have time to prepare food. We just discovered that fava beans are a protein, so we’re trying to experiment different ways to prepare mashed up fava beans. It kind of tastes like a potato, so that really cures my ‘jonesing’ for potatoes. Hash browns, potato chips – they came out looking like banana chips, but still good, nonetheless. I’m trying to turn fava beans into the new potato.”
“It happened last week, half the cast of the movie The Butler -- which is already gargantuan in its cast [Lenny Kravitz, Cuba Gooding Jr. and Forrest Whitaker] – and I went to dinner at En, and I got the check. It was around four figures! But having made a pilgrimage for my 40th birthday to Sukiyabashi Jiro in Tokyo, I’ll say that En Sushi in New York is probably the closest to the experience that I had in Tokyo. In the United States, it’s one of my top three sushi spots.”
“Hands down, David Chang’s Momofuku Milk Bar in Brooklyn. His cookies are bar none: blueberry, corn, compost cookies -- which is everything but the kitchen sink. Barbecue ice cream. It’s insane. The best thing is his cereal milk, where he takes farm-raised milk and drowns it in Fruity Pebbles or Frosted Flakes, lets it sit there for three hours and drains it. Then the milk is really sweet.”
“I wasn’t that mad at frog legs. As far as amphibians, that’s as far down the plank as I’ll go. However, I did try a few insects when I went to Korea. We went to a restaurant where snails was the most regular thing they had. It was… interesting.”
Simply Won’t Eat
“I hate bean sprouts. Whenever I go to a Thai restaurant, that’s the first thing I tell them -- take the sprouts out. I don’t like the aftertaste of sprouts.”
“Whole Foods herbal popcorn. Popcorn is my weakness – I’m a cinephile, I can tell you about every movie theater across the United States and half the time, I judge these theaters based on their popcorn selection. I know the places that have the best spices and condiments, and sometimes I’ll sneak in my own toppings for my popcorn.”
“I’ve been following Timothy Ferriss’ 4-Hour Body for six months now, and you’re not supposed to have any starch during the weekdays at all. I’m allowed to cheat on Saturdays though!”
“I’ve been single for the past seven months, so I’m dating. It’s hard to date with twelve jobs, so I have a few ladies that I take out and I enjoy their company. Nothing serious. You can tell we’re in the modern social media age because before, we’d call somebody, talk to them and ask them out on a date. Now, all I have to do is tell the designated girl, #datenight?”
“It comes from working in an office environment – NBC is very big on germs and germ phobia, so we have hand gel sanitizer dispensers everywhere, and signs that teach people how to properly sneeze and cough. I guess it’s more effective to do this inside the crease of your elbow, as opposed to holding your hands over your mouth. As a result, I’ve become completely anal-retentive when it comes to watching people cough without covering their mouth at a table. I’ll borderline turn into Howard Hughes and give them a stare.”
“I want to be the In-N-Out Burger of my field, something that you have to make a pilgrimage to, so I would like to expand to only 10 locations. Actually, our second location might be outside the country. We’re taking a few meetings right now. I want to keep it more like a boutique, and not just cash in on it and become just another fast food restaurant.”
“Oh god, I can’t believe I’m about to tell you this story. Okay. While rehearsing for Jay-Z’s show at Radio City Music Hall at the tenth anniversary of his Reasonable Doubt album, during the lunch break, I was reading on a website that a human being cannot consume seven Saltine crackers in under 30 seconds, which instantly made the entire orchestra want to challenge me on this new declaration. I had my assistant go out to purchase four boxes of Saltine Premiums. It was like a bet: I would give a hundred dollars to anybody who could do this, and they had to give me five dollars to find out if they could. I made about $135 – nobody was able to do it.
"The concert ends, and I rush my luggage to my Philadelphia home so I could run to the airport to go do a show in Los Angeles. In rushing home to drop my bags off, I inadvertently left my tuxedo, so I asked my assistant to go to my house and FedEx me the tuxedo, but as she gets to my house, she realizes that vermin – specifically, rodents – have attacked my bags because I forgot that the Saltine crackers were inside, left open. I found out the abandoned house next door had a hole in it that had animals coming inside of my house. As a result, I moved out of that house. I purchased a brand new house within a week, and in moving boxes, I cut my hand, so I had a Sesame Street Band-Aid.
"That night, I was set up on a blind date with a producer from one of those reality shows on MTV, and we’re in a very exclusive, hard-to-get-into restaurant – Sarah Jessica Parker was sitting behind us, Bjork was hosting a party of ten in the private room. She notices the Band-Aid and asks how I got it. I’m telling her the entire story, from the Premium crackers all the way to me getting this new house, and as I’m doing it, we’re hearing a rumbling noise behind the wall. To discover, it’s the subway system – it’s a New York restaurant in a basement. This rumbling noise keeps happening and shaking our table, and I’m obsessing over the fact that right behind us, subways are running. Subways reminded me of urine and rats, and just as a joke, she jumps up and screams. What she didn’t know about me is that I have an instant, sharp knee-jerk reaction to anything that leads to the conversation of vermin. I mean, I gave up my house because there were rats! So I get up, and I turn the entire table over – food on the floor, wine glasses everywhere. I was embarrassed; I had to pay for not only my table but the table next to us because I had spilled salsa all over the lady’s dress. As I’m totally mortified, she dropped the bomb that she was only playing that she saw a rat, and she was just going along in the story. I realized I was not gonna get a second date from this girl. That’s the quickest I’ve ever told that story in my life.”
“Nine times out of ten, I’m Philly-bound. I go to Cosmi’s Deli and I get a honey-roasted turkey hoagie and jalapeno chips. And a Tastykake butterscotch krimpet. It’s a Philadelphia staple.”
“Whenever I’m taking an international flight, I make sure that’s my last meal. Not that I’m morbid, but it’s tradition. I get that meal and then I get on the airplane and fly overseas.”