Ludacris: Rapper and Restaurateur
© John Kernick
In the last three years, Christopher Bridges, a.k.a. Ludacris, has had several major accomplishments. He won two Grammys for his album Release Therapy (not so surprising). He earned rave reviews for his role in the movie Crash, which snagged an Oscar for best picture (pretty surprising). And he opened a Singaporean restaurant, Straits Atlanta, in his hometown (very, very surprising).
When I first heard about Straits Atlanta, which debuted last year, I was skeptical. I've seen so many celebrity-owned restaurants come and very quickly go (I work in New York City right near Times Square, the site of Britney Spears's short-lived Nyla). But I was in Atlanta when Straits opened, got a chance to taste the food and was blown away by dishes like chili lobster (a fiery, garlicky riff on Singapore's classic chili crab) and fried rice dotted with plump shrimp, tangy pickled onions and sweet coconut. And then I met Ludacris.
I'd always thought TV chefs were treated like celebrities, but I soon found out that a person who stars in music videos and movies attracts a whole different level of attention. I understand Ludacris's appeal—and not just because he's supercute, with huge brown eyes and diamond stud earrings roughly the size of my hand. I loved him in the film Hustle & Flow (as the Southern rapper Skinny Black), and I loved him in Crash (as the carjacker who becomes a hero). I loved his CD Chicken-N-Beer but assumed that he didn't care much about food beyond the fried chicken he rapped about. I was wrong: Since Straits Atlanta opened, Ludacris has turned into a foodie. "I've become obsessed with restaurants," he says. "It's the same feeling I had when I started doing movies; you look at them in a different way—at the direction, at how the screenplay flows. Now I pay much closer attention when I go out to eat, to the service and the ambience and the food."
© John Kernick
The 31-year-old decided to get into the restaurant business when he met Chris Yeo in 2007 at a charity dinner. Yeo, a terrifically talented chef who'd built an empire of Straits restaurants in northern California over 22 years, had resisted offers to expand outside the state. Still, he liked the idea of opening in Atlanta, and he was impressed with Ludacris, even though he'd never heard his music. "My kids helped me look him up on the Internet," says the fifty-something chef. "They were surprised—in a good way. After all, I'm old enough to be his dad."
Why Ludacris, who had little if any familiarity with Southeast Asian cooking, chose to open a Singaporean place is another question. "I just want to be versatile," he explains—an answer that's as true for his movie career as his restaurant. "I don't play just bad guys." There are, to be certain, rap-star touches at Straits Atlanta; the Billionaire's Margarita goes for $50. But the real draw is the food.
Ludacris, who was born in Champaign, Illinois, had some exposure to restaurant cooking as a child: His father worked at a local pizza place, and Ludacris would sometimes toss dough in the kitchen. Still, until Straits, his biggest commitment to food was sending his childhood friend Willie Box to Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. "I happened to stop by his house one day, and he'd made this soul-food spread," Ludacris recalls. "It was incredible, but Willie said, 'I was just cooking.' So I said, 'If this is something you really want to do, I'm going to put you through cooking school. Then you're going to be my chef.' " Box is indeed Ludacris's personal chef now; he has also spent time cooking with Yeo.
Yeo himself came to the restaurant business circuitously. He grew up in Singapore, worked as a bartender there and made his way to San Francisco in 1980 as a hairstylist. He missed Singaporean food so much he decided to open a restaurant. "It makes more sense than you think. When you're a hairdresser, you entertain a lot," says Yeo, who continued to cut hair until the lines outside Straits forced him to concentrate on his cooking. Today, he has four Straits locations and a Chinese restaurant, SINO; he plans to open a new Straits in Houston and a SINO in Santa Monica, California. "I have five restaurants now," he says. "But I haven't gotten as many reviews in my entire life as when I teamed up with Ludacris."
© John Kernick
Ludacris is extremely proud that Straits Atlanta is now a year old. "Everyone told me how many restaurants fail in their first year," he says. "I'm a Virgo, I'm a perfectionist, and I've worked to make the restaurant better and better." To celebrate the milestone, Ludacris and Yeo threw a party at a friend's house, inviting a small group that included local TV anchor Amanda Davis; Ludacris's mother, Roberta Shields; and Randall Cartwright, Ludacris's stylist at Ralph Lauren (Ralph Lauren supports the Ludacris Foundation, a nonprofit that works with underprivileged children). To start the party, Yeo served bright Riesling-splashed strawberry-and-vodka cocktails and set out bowls of tangy wok-cooked peanuts tossed with kaffir lime leaf. Then everyone crowded around the platter-lined buffet table. Ludacris has a favorite dish at Straits, and at the party it became mine, too: kung pao lollipops, crispy fried chicken drumettes doused with a delectable sticky, sweet and seriously spicy sauce made with fried chiles (on weekends, Straits Atlanta goes through 100 pounds of drumsticks). They were served alongside beef tenderloin in an elegant tamarind sauce, another Ludacris favorite. As we ate, his mother told me stories about her son growing up—which I promised him I wouldn't repeat.
Ludacris had one regret: The Cognac he'd blended in France with a mix of XO and VSOP brandies wasn't ready to drink yet, so he couldn't serve it at the party. "It was all good," he says of his trip to France. "Eating at restaurants is one of my favorite things to do now. And aged Cognac is one of my favorite things to drink."
After the party, Ludacris and Yeo took me back to Straits, where the rapper walked around introducing himself. (Believe me, everyone already knew who he was.) But he was upstaged by his seven-year-old daughter, Karma, who worked the room expertly, going up to tables and saying, "Thank you for coming to my daddy's restaurant." By the end of the night, she was on a hugging basis with just about everyone and had her picture taken more times than her father. Although she went into the kitchen to help Yeo make the short ribs that Ludacris couldn't resist ordering (she sprinkled the chopped peanuts on top), her real ambition is to be a fashion designer—"like Donna Gabbana," she said. "That is so hilarious to me," said Ludacris, picking up a fork, while Karma skipped off to greet a table that had just been seated at her father's restaurant.