In 2014, Tristen Epps was a finalist on the ABC cooking competition series “The Taste.” One of the judges was award-winning chef and restaurateur Marcus Samuelsson. The two quickly bonded.
“I would have never gotten to where I am if I didn’t meet Marcus,” said Epps, who is now executive chef at Red Rooster Overtown, Samuelsson’s recently opened restaurant. “It put me on a path to say, ‘OK, everything fine dining is not only French food, Italian food or modern Japanese food.’”
I don’t want this neighborhood to change, but I do want it to develop with the people of Overtown.
Epps, 33, has worked everywhere, from fast-food chains like McDonald’s to high-end hotels and Michelin-starred restaurants. At Red Rooster he’s bringing people together through his cooking, regardless of race or creed.
He’s been fascinated by food ever since he was a child.
Born in Trinidad to a single mother in the military, Epps moved often. Patricia Lynch-Epps was a lieutenant commander in the Navy JAG division who was stationed in locations across the United States and in Guam, the Philippines and Japan. Epps always tried the local food at each stop and learned something that would help him in the kitchen, from sushi preparation in Japan to smoking meat in Virginia.
“It made me want to become a chef from the beginning,” he said.
After graduating from Johnson & Wales University in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 2009, Epps expanded his cooking repertoire at restaurants in New York City, New Jersey and West Virginia. He eventually landed on “The Taste,” and to the meeting with Samuelsson that would change his life.
“He was so special,” said Samuelsson of Epps. “He didn’t win the final, but I just knew he was a ‘chef’s chef,’ a person I want to work with and I want to mentor. Because of his great work ethic, I told him, ‘Sometimes you don’t win the competition, but you win at life.’”
Epps admires the Ethiopian-Swedish chef’s attitude toward cooking and the diversity of his cooking styles, as well as his desire to expose underserved communities to new ways of enjoying food.
“He chose places like Harlem to open up restaurants in communities that people say wouldn’t work,” said Epps. “It’s inspirational.”
It didn’t take long for their friendship to blossom – or for Samuelsson to hire Epps to work alongside him at Red Rooster Harlem in New York.
“[Tristen] cares about food and he cares for people,” said Samuelsson. “He started working with me and I knew that he would become a sous chef – and eventually, an executive chef.”
Epps traveled to work at other fine dining restaurants from Sweden to Denver before finally landing at Red Rooster Overtown as, yes, executive chef.
The restaurant, which was built in a space that once housed a pool hall, aims to become a community staple. On offer is Southern comfort food with a Miami twist, including a deliciously deft fusion of Caribbean and Latin cultures. Eighty percent of the staff is from Overtown.
“We have an oxtail dish that I’m super passionate about, because it used to be food given to poor people,” said Epps. “If I could be any food, I would be oxtail, because it’s fatty just like me! Being able to transform things that are so humble into things that are elegant has been a really big passion of mine.”
The dish is one of Epps’ favorite things to prepare from the menu. Braised in guava and red wine, it takes three days to make and is meant to be shared between two to four people.
To mark Black History Month, the restaurant is celebrating the culinary impact of African culture. In remembrance of the transatlantic slave route, Epps has created a menu consisting of cuisine from West and Central Africa, the Caribbean, New Orleans and the South Carolina/Georgia low country.
“I don’t want this neighborhood to change, but I do want it to develop with the people of Overtown,” said Epps. “To get a different light shined on them.”