In an industry with few faces of color in its ranks, Chef Nduvoakim Abdus-Salaam exceeds the bar. As the Executive Chef of the Roosevelt Hotel in New York City, Salaam infuses his global culinary experience with his appealing and artistic style. In a Q&A with Chef Salaam, we discover his life’s journey and what legacy he wants to leave behind—and get an exclusive look inside his studio (the Roosevelt Hotel kitchen).
LET’S START WITH YOUR CHILDHOOD. DID YOU HAVE ANY EARLY INFLUENCES OR ANYONE IN PARTICULAR WHO IMPACTED YOUR START IN THE CULINARY WORLD?
There wasn’t really anything that influenced me other than the fact that I was shy. The high school that I went to was a college prep high school and they had trades and tech, so in 9th grade, you had 28 different curriculums that you could choose from and during your 10th through 12th grade, that was all you did, almost like at a university.
When the time came, I wasn’t necessarily sure because I was an athlete and I wanted to play ball or run track and field, so I didn’t have many interests outside of that except drawing. I used to paint a lot as well. I was very shy though, so the only two courses that I knew I would go for were culinary arts or cosmetology. The reason why though, because those two focuses were not on the school campus. Culinary was in this beautifully restored mansion on the Hudson River and cosmetology was in another location. For the cosmetology, I said, “You know what? I don’t think that’s me.” so I’ll just do culinary. For me it was either, I can deal with 12 students or I can be in school all day with hundreds of kids, so that was the easy choice. And once I was in it, the influence came from my mom. My mom was a great cook and my aunt was a great cook as well, so I had that to start with. While I was in the course, I learned how to transfer my artistic visions into the food that I’m making. I ended up getting a scholarship to Johnson and Wales University.
YOU STARTED IN THE 10TH GRADE AND LEARNED THE BASICS THEN; WHEN DID THE ENTREPRENEURIAL ASPECT COME ALONG?
It’s always been there because that’s how I was raised. Learn your trade and then you can make it into a business at some point. That’s what I always have and will work for. The time when I really knew that I could do it was in 2012. I started catering lunches to the boutiques on Madison Avenue.
“Learn your trade and then you can make it into a business at some point. That’s what I always have and will work for. The time when I really knew that I could do it was in 2012. I started catering lunches to the boutiques on Madison Avenue.”
WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST JOB AFTER SCHOOL?
My first job after school actually had nothing to do with culinary, I was working on Wall Street as an account coordinator for small and mid-size capital investments. I got into that because my mother’s friend was the VP of a bank and when I got out, I wasn’t sure I actually wanted to cook. I enrolled and started going to Fordham and was studying political science and pre-law. She said, “Hey, I have an opening for a position.” So, I did that. That was my first job after going to culinary school.
WHAT STEPS DID YOU TAKE TO GET TO YOUR CURRENT POSITION?
I worked at all fine dining restaurants and I always tried to work where the best chefs were or restaurants that were considered to be the best. I mapped it out and knew the kind of chef that I wanted to be. I had to map it out and work at certain places for a year or up to 18 months. I would work at specific stations for the skills and then would start working on the next place that I wanted to learn a specific skill from. Because of my work ethic, I was always the first to come and the last to go, and the chefs took a liking to me. That’s how I ended up going to France. A chef liked me so much, he was like, “Hey, I’m going back home to open a restaurant” and offered me to go with him.
HOW WAS THAT EXPERIENCE IN PARIS?
It was in Colmar in Northern France in Alsace. It was nice. It’s a different living. They still do a lot of things the old-fashioned way like you wake up and the butcher brings you meat. The farmers will bring you milk. And you even go to the farmer for your eggs. It was a very different lifestyle compared to being in New York.
WHAT TYPE OF CHEF DO YOU WANT TO BE OR WHAT TYPE OF CHEF DO YOU CLASSIFY YOURSELF AS?
Right now, I’m in a small niche with fine dining and luxury. I’ve gotten pushed into hotels, luxury boutique hotels. Ultimately, I aspire to be one of the most profitable chefs in the city, because that’s not an easy feat. Everyone thinks the cooking part is what you have to conquer, but it’s the financial aspect that is the most important and enables to do the art the way you want. It also puts confidence in investors. That’s my goal and of course to have my own restaurants.
IS THAT YOUR 5 YEAR GOAL? 2 YEAR GOAL?
No, it’s more of a 5-year goal currently.
WHAT TYPE OF FOOD?
My food is globally inspired. I have traveled a lot and I usually pull inspiration from different cultures and try to raise the level. I am also a very seasonal cook because I believe things are best when they’re eaten in their proper season. It has to be very appealing and artistic. Basically, my style is clean, simple, and elegant.
WHAT OBSTACLES OR CHALLENGES DID YOU FACE?
My whole career has been an obstacle and a challenge, for the simple fact of me being a person of color on the high-end spectrum. There is only a handful of us. Until I became a chef, I never worked, except for one guy, with anyone who was Black in the kitchen. They were all European and white. I was always the only Black person. At the time I started, affirmative action was in play, so I would go to the places I wanted to work and they were like, “There’s a quota we have to meet, so we’ll let you in.” Once I was in, other cooks didn’t like it at first. A lot of them had never been around African Americans or people of color, so all they could go by were stereotypes and they would treat you like that. Then they would even try and sabotage you; that’s prevalent in the industry. Again, being an athlete and because of the things that coaches instill in you: the first one in, the last one to leave. I used that same methodology in the kitchen. Ultimately, it wins people over. But, that’s always been the obstacle, there is just not enough support for us.
DOES THAT PLACE A CERTAIN PRESSURE ON YOU? OR, IS THERE A CERTAIN PRESSURE THAT FUELS YOU TO PERFORM?
Of course, there’s always a pressure. And now, because I’m in it, success is the only thing. There’s no turning back. There is a lot of pressure and it’s also trying to get other brothers to say, “Hey! You can do it as well.”
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE THEM?
Stick it out! That’s it. And have a plan. If I didn’t have a plan. There have been a few brothers that came in at places that I had been and they only lasted a day or week max. Chefs will yell at you, degrade you, and display the worst forms behavior and they place you in positions to fail. That was the old French way, sink or swim. For me, I had a plan, so they could say what they wanted, but I knew I had a timeline to get it and that was the only focus and that’s what kept me from being like other brothers I have seen who would be like, “F this! I’m out of here!” Because they didn’t have a plan. I would try and tell them to stick it out, but they would be like, “Nah, I can’t have anyone talking to me like that.” People forget, once you’re there, no one will remember how you got there. So that’s my advice, stick it out, but just make sure you have a plan. Ultimately, the plan is what’s going to keep you sane.
WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE DISH?
I don’t have a favorite dish to make and I can’t say that I have a favorite style of cooking, but I have favorite ingredients to use.
WHAT IS THE LEGACY OR THE LASTING IMPACT THAT YOU HOPE TO LEAVE BEHIND?
I haven’t thought about legacy or anything like that, I just want young Blacks to know that we can do things other than something with a ball or a mic in our hand.