Earlier in the week, in our Better Late Than Never Weekly Recap, we eluded to a special guest visitor on Sunday evening. What was supposed to be a quick follow up about a special dinner guest turned into a long introspective on race and career and black culture. I was happy to have stoked these thoughts, but sorry this took so long to post. I am weary of saying that something will be posted in a day, or whenever, because restaurants have a life of their own. And since this blog is the life of a restaurant, trying to predict each detail of what will be posted and when seems a bad idea. Or maybe I’m just making up for the fact that I actually had a more difficult time with the post than anticipated. The truth is somewhere in the middle.
So who came in with Trey Songs that required the security detail? It was Def Jam President Kevin Liles.
“Oooh…” (you might be saying sarcastically), ‘Kevin Liles?’ I mean, being the President of a record label is cool and all but I thought you were going to say someone, reallyfamous “.
To be clear, Kevin Liles -even if you don’t recognize his name and face- is a really important figure in American culture. It is much like the sports owners who can often maintain some measure of anonymity, while we clamor at the salaries of the athlete. Shouldn’t the man who signs the check be equally recognizable? Perhaps even more?
If you don’t know Kevin Liles, you’ll learn. Foremost, his story is quintessential “American Dream”. In the fashion of many homegrown icons and celebrities, Liles’ story of going from intern to major record label exec is endearing folklore. Especially for a black kid from New York.
African Americans of a certain age, particularly those from New York and Atlanta (like me), know “our” music mogul multi-millionaires. Rap is a vital part of urban culture, and we follow the players like the NBA or NFL. Music and sports have given young blacks more tangible examples of fantastic wealth than any other industries. And while Kevin Liles is anonymous to many, he is a central figure in urban music. And just as Napa is defined by wine, and Hollywood by movies, urban music in Atlanta has an illustrious history, and is understood by many in this light.
I already described the scene on entry. And though it was quite a scene, there were probably 3 people in the whole place who could name a Trey Songz track. Including me (the utterly ridiculous, “Lol Smiley Face” which is as bad/irresistible as it sounds).
I’m betting no one who knew Kevin Liles. But because I am of a certain age and place, I knew exactly who Kevin Liles was, and it felt important to me that he was there. I am not overwhelmed in the presence of celebrity, but I was very aware of Mr. Liles and felt a subtle but tangible sensory sharpening in the moment.
Trey Songz sat at the head of the table. This seemed an intentional deference by Mr. Liles, which was reinforced throughout the meal. To the surprise of no one they decided to drink Riesling. To the (slight) agitation of Mr. Deegan, they opted for the Dönnhoff Oberhäuser Leistenberg from 2010. We are only allocated a couple cases of this each year. A spatlese from Kruger-Rumpf would’ve also filled the gap nicely here, but whatever….
When it was time for wine service, I presented the bottle to Mr. Liles, “ 2010 Dönnhoff Oberhäuser Leistenberg from the Nahe”. He allowed the entire ceremonial presentation before directing me to open it for Trey. I pivoted to the head of the table and repeated the ritual: Vintage, producer, vineyard, grape, and place, pointing at each on the bottle as I recited them simultaneously. This was met with some measure of amusement, but I think more so because he could see how seriously I took it. I thought of Mr. Liles’ insistence on having Trey taste and go through the process. Surely he’d gone through this ceremony many times in his outings with Russell Simmons, Lyor Cohen, Clive Davis or any of the other biggest names in music I could imagine. Surely he once thought this ceremony was trivial, but had grown to understand -maybe even appreciate it- over the years. He was very comfortable in this role and I imagined he’d gone through this before with Puff Daddy, Jay-Z and Kanye.
Then I thought of my own life. There have been very few blacks-especially among my peers- that I’ve encountered along the way who have taken a profound interest in wine. Even in 2012, wine is viewed by many to be an elite product, enjoyed only by the wealthy or Europeans or wealthy Europeans.
But an interesting thing has happened in this modern iteration of rap. Privilege and access became heavy subject matter in rap lyrics, and whereas that ritualistic presentation may have once been easily dismissed, there was now intrigue. I’ve always suspected that if a few influential mainstream rappers would share more about their wine indulgences beyond purely pricey name drops, this curiosity could become infectious. With my family and many of my peers from home, when I explain that drinking and talking about wine is an integral part of my livelihood, they are dumbfounded. And God forbid they actually see me swirling and swishing—absolute hysteria.
As usual, Jay-Z is a central figure in bridging the gap between the mainstream and urban culture
But Trey was curious. And not just about the wine, but about everything. We talked about different shapes of pasta, about nettles and celery root. When he drank his wine, he noted Donnhoff tasted sort of like Moscato. Not entirely off the mark, actually. But it made me even happier that there was this point of reference, this association that suggested an attentiveness and curiosity. This convergence of popular black culture and my own path of food and wine have rarely transpired, though I’ve thought a lot about the relationship between the two. What were the gaps? Socioeconomic stuff. The intersections? Puffy’s Ciroc deal and Jay Z’s Ace of Spades.
Our exchange was definitely an intersection, and I wanted to make sure I explained each detail of the food with the right temperament-with seriousness and sincerity. After a very long exchange, he finally conceded.
“You been studying”.
“That’s my job”
“Yea, I see. We about that.”
And except for him telling me to make his pour extra big, this was pretty much the extent of our interaction until they left. I wondered if they were having fun, enjoying the food at least. The group left abruptly, but not without a loud serenade for Bethany, our most senior server. Something about inviting her back to the hotel…
I was positioned at the bottom of the stairs as the crew filed out. I was impressed as each one of them, groupie girls included, made eye contact and gave an earnest “thank you”. Trey walked right by, then stopped to turn around and shake my hand. “Thank You”.
Kevin Liles trailed him out. He too stopped and said thank you. He added, “You guys were great. Thank you so much. Bless you guys”. I was taken aback.
Kevin Liles and Russell Simmons do favor each other
I wanted to tell him that I knew who he was. That I knew he wasn’t Russell Simmons. (He must’ve been sick of hearing that 20 years ago, but they do look alike). I wanted to tell him that I thought he’d been an important role model and leader in black culture.
But then I figured that in New York and Atlanta, where people would have recognized him, that he must hear things like this often. And I wanted to go out of my way to show my enthusiasm for what we do here without any pretense for their celebrity. So that was the angle. But in retrospect, I was elated that this convergence had taken place.
Whatever that night was to Trey Songz and Kevin Liles, I hope in some way these influencers may be turned into discerning consumers of fine and seasonal food and drink. And that some way, they would share this with their peers of influence, and perhaps at some point create a culture in which food and drink are appreciated more broadly by more African Americans. But at the very least, I could tell they appreciated the evening and my enthusiasm, and in that lies a unique satisfaction and optimism.