A Cook and a Book: Robert Battle Takes 'Coconuts & Collards' by Von Diaz for a Whirl

Alvin Ailey artistic director Robert Battle grew up in Florida. His earliest cooking memory is of watching chef Justin Wilson's PBS television show about Cajun cuisine with his great-uncle in the 1970s. Here, he takes on Coconuts & Collards.

Robert Battle
Photo: Andrew Eccles

"I pride myself on having all the gadgets," says Robert Battle, artistic director of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. At his house in Connecticut, they sit like sentinels against the backsplash on the large open kitchen's counters. Outside on his deck, a state-of-the-art grill stands beside a spiffy electric pellet smoker. He's got two deep fryers and the ever-popular Instant Pot; his cooking timer is Alexa, the Amazon smart-home device. But today, the only appliance the dancer and choreographer really needs is a food processor to blend a batch of adobo sauce.

Adobo features heavily in writer and radio producer Von Diaz's new cookbook, Coconuts & Collards, which chronicles her early childhood in Río Piedras, Puerto Rico; her coming of age in Atlanta; and her recent reconnection to the island of her birth. The opening recipe is for sofrito, "the number one backbone of Puerto Rican cooking." The next is for adobo, the marinade that "gives much Puerto Rican food its signature flavor," with three variations: one for chicken and seafood, one for pork, and another for beef.

Battle is preparing the first of those adobos for Diaz's Sweet-and-Sour Chicken Adobo, which gets its flavor, initially, from marinating in a mix of garlic, dried oregano, lemon juice, olive oil, salt, and pepper, then from roasting in a combination of brown sugar, vinegar, and chorizo. He's incredulous that the entire cooking process takes place on the stove, that the bird is left whole, and that no more liquid goes into the pot. He is equally curious about the Coconut-Braised Collards recipe, which begins with a sauté of scallions in a blend of butter and coconut oil. The greens join the allium for a few minutes before coconut milk and soy sauce are added. It's the presence of coconut and lack of pork that are throwing Battle: "I'm from the traditional Southern collard greens, ham hock, apple cider vinegar—that flavor." Still, he takes Diaz's versions for a whirl.

Battle grew up in Florida. His earliest cooking memory is of watching chef Justin Wilson's PBS television show about Cajun cuisine with his great-uncle in the 1970s. But it's Emeril Lagasse, he says, "who really got me into cooking." He found the Louisiana chef's debut television series on the Food Network in the 1990s and nostalgically connected it to Wilson "in those overalls, [saying] all those crazy things." He purchased Lagasse's Every Day's a Party and cooked through it until he felt like he could follow his own instincts.

Battle loves to read about different ways to make a dish when he's on tour. "It's a great way of letting go of everything: deciding what you're going to make, which usually is happening on the plane," he says. But at the stove, he prefers to improvise. "I'm just gonna make it up," he confesses. Today is no exception. After he blends the marinade together, he decides it could use more olive oil and pours that in until the marinade reaches a consistency he likes. Once the chicken's browned and left to continue cooking, he gathers and preps the necessary ingredients for the collards. In the ensuing downtime, he tells Alexa to "play upbeat jazz" for a dance break. "I tap-dance in the kitchen," he says, his shoes clicking to the music.

The collards cook relatively quickly and with little effort; Battle sticks his fork in for a taste and his face lights up. "It's just great!" he says, going in for another bite and giving the pot a get-outta-here wave of the hand. A few minutes later, the chicken is done; he places it on a serving platter and carries it to his dining room table, which is fashioned from a salvaged bowling-alley lane.

The meal—and cookbook—has exceeded his expectations. He relates to Diaz's economy of ingredients. "That's so much of what we try to do in composing a dance," he says. "Find ingredients that really matter, and then figure out a way to present them." He also admires her creativity, what he refers to as "cultural collision." Most of all, Diaz's point of view resonates. "There was a certain warmth in there that was embracing the tradition," he notes, but it also was about her own spin on that heritage. "It was about a culinary journey that was also a personal one."

As dinner winds down, Battle decides to invite Diaz to one of the performances in Alvin Ailey's 60th anniversary program, which kicks off this fall at Lincoln Center. Then he starts to think about what he'll cook tomorrow: perhaps pork ribs in a guava-rich sauce, or Costillas de Cerde con Salsa BBQ de Guayaba, as you'll find it in Coconuts & Collards.

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