As my flight rocketed into the sky and I dug my fingernails into the armrests, I felt a shift as an invisible weight that I didn’t realize I’d been carrying started to fade away. I had spent the past four years living in San Francisco portraying this cookie cutter version of how an acceptable Black gay man should look, sound, and behave.
This was years before Red’s House was born. I had been working for a French fashion company, and had developed an eating disorder due to the pressures of fitting into their model aesthetic and for fear that I would be replaced by someone who fit the brand image better. Food had always been the one thing I was able to lose myself into creatively, yet my career had made food my enemy.
This is Part Two of “Pure Fire,” a four-part series by Christopher Russell, the chef-owner of Red’s House in San Francisco.
If I’m being honest, depression was lurking not far away, and my escape to New York was more of a distraction than anything. But it was also to escape the exclusionary discrimination I felt living in San Francisco as a minority within a minority. At the time, I was especially inspired by a line in Kelly Cutrone’s book: “If you cannot see yourself fairly or accurately represented in the community where you live … and nothing there makes you feel awake or alive, I suggest you start doing some research on some other communities.” Based on this one quote, I uprooted my life and made a dash for the exit sign.
On that plane, all of my San Francisco trauma shrank beneath my feet once the clouds cradled the plane. The aircraft elevated higher and higher to its cruising altitude, and I transcended into a sort of mental weightlessness. It seemed as though we had just taken off when the captain suddenly announced over the loudspeaker that we were making our final descent into New York. I wasn’t prepared as my fears and my doubts about what I was doing started to take shape, but my anxiety slowly faded as the sky lessened.
It was February and New York was freezing. I stood at JFK with no plan, no place to live, and no purpose. I had nothing but two suitcases that held a condensed version of the past four years. I had sold what I could, but ultimately left everything behind.
It would take more than just a coat and a pair of gloves to make everything right. It was so cold that my fingertips started to burn, my bones quivered, and my lips felt detached from my face.
At least now, I was free to be me, and so I gathered myself, inhaled the frosty cold air, and called an old friend. To my surprise, he then phoned another friend and within minutes, I had a place to stay until I figured out my next move.
In the months that followed, New York City was a dream within a dream. The days flowed endlessly into one another and soon the flowers bloomed and the sun came out of its hiding place. It was an incredible feeling as the city became alive with loud chatter, random interactions, and that New York spirit of the people.
The most beautiful nights I spent were in New York City and I saw the people that I met along the way as links that came together to form an unbreakable bond. I fell in love, had my heart broken, and cried because I was so happy for the first time in my life. My phone was in a constant state of movement almost creating its own dance as the lights and sounds pierced through this little device. My creativity started to take shape and I felt like anything was possible. It was now mid-July and I had cemented myself as a creative among the creatives. I lived in Williamsburg in a sixth-floor walk up and life was effortless. There was never any pressure to be anyone else but my true authentic self.
And with my friends, I began to share my cooking and my new recipes.
Soon, word spread about my dinner parties — big meals and long nights spent with quite a few of us packed into my small living room, in that sixth-floor walk-up, sitting around a table with bottles of wine and candles abundant. All the pretension these visionaries carried was replaced by a kindness that would overtake the living room. There was so much laughter that there was barely enough oxygen left to breathe in. A few open windows later, a cool Brooklyn breeze floated through the apartment, carrying every word, every movement, and every scent out the same way it came in. An hour or two into the communal meal, people were sitting in each other’s laps and speaking intimately with one another. As old reggae morphed into new hits, new friendships were formed from simple introductions. Every single person pitched in at the end to wash dishes and return my apartment back to its formal living arrangements. This was Red’s House.
During the days, I loved walking through my community, and having access to Cuban food, Dominican food, Honduran food, and Caribbean food. I was constantly inspired by the mom-and-pop quality that all these little restaurants possessed.
This is how Red’s House was conceived.
For something truly wonderful to bloom, it has to go through a reincarnation. Take New York City: Fall comes and the leaves break away from their stationary positions and there is a slight chill that creeps up in the air and then it gets colder and darker from there. Spring arrives and it feels like an awakening, before the magic of summer, when the city is the most alive it will be all year.
My memory of the day I decided to leave New York to return to San Francisco is so vivid that if I close my eyes right now, I can actually place myself there. It was 7 a.m. on a Tuesday and this morning felt different than the others. There was a chill that ran down my spine as I awoke from my slumber. I slipped on a robe and resistantly walked myself to the shower. We had a window that opened to all of Williamsburg and I’ve given my share of private shows for neighbors unbeknownst to me but this time something felt off. I looked out the window as I let the boiling hot water run over me and suddenly the view of the buildings that I had always admired started to feel stifling.
The grey haze from the snowy rain felt like a blanket of sadness. New York City was extremely good to me and I felt ungrateful for wanting to leave. It was now 9 a.m., snowing, raining, and I was rushing to catch the subway to work at the Fat Radish, a trendy modern British restaurant on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. As I approached the entrance to the subway station at Metropolitan, my left foot twisted beneath me and I fell. There I was in a gorgeous Ben Sherman coat, lying on my back in dirty slush. Only a few seconds had gone by before people started hurling insults at me. No one attempted to help me up.
It was then that my perfect vision of New York started to unravel. Summer was over and an unsympathetic winter was upon us. I could feel the ice melting underneath me and I wondered how long it would be before I could get myself up as each attempt landed me on my back. My tears didn’t stand a chance in the cold, and it was in that precise moment that I knew I could not persevere in the face of another winter.
Reincarnation. I had unwittingly gone through my very own transformative event without fully realizing it. I became stronger during my time back in New York, and felt I was better able to deal with the discrimination that I personally faced on a daily basis in those past San Francisco days. I hoped — I prayed — that those experiences were all isolated events. I was willing to face it all again, if it meant being able to bring my experiences, my culture, and my food to the Bay Area.
I made up my mind: I would open a restaurant there.