The new restaurant is just a few blocks away from Queensbridge, North America’s largest housing projects and the locus of so many of Nas' childhood memories.
On the eve of the April 9 opening of a Sweet Chick in his hometown, Long Island City, Nas recounts the origins of the dish his and partner John Seymour’s restaurant is famous for: chicken and waffles. “If Billie Holiday or Duke Ellington sang all night in Harlem, the whole city would drive into upper Manhattan and party ‘til the wee hours of the night and eventually, they’d get hungry,” he tells Food and Wine.
“Do they want breakfast; do they want dinner? It’s five, six in the morning and they’ve been partying all night, they think: let’s have both.’ The kitchen’s been going all night and they’ve been partying all night and somebody mixed their chicken with a waffle, and there you have it. That’s the whole thing.”
The hip hop-saturated chicken and waffle restaurants in New York and Los Angeles started by Seymour (the new location is the fifth) is the rapper and entrepreneur’s first foray into the food world. And while it may seem like his love of good fried chicken got the rapper to finally dip his toes into the restaurant world (he does have an entire track dedicated to the stuff), it was just as much about the restaurant's musical soul.
“The first time I walked into Sweet Chick, they were playing original samples from some of the greatest hip hop songs ever made,” he says. “Samples that were just as hot as the rap record that they were later turned into. The vibe was just ... it was for today’s guys.”
The partnership between Seymour and Nas, solidified when Seymour randomly invited the rapper to come by his house to watch the NBA finals and the two bonded over jumpshots and some of Seymour’s wife’s (Fall Seymour of Brooklyn restaurant Pearl’s) cooking, is just as happenstance as the founder’s foray into the restaurant industry. After years of ups and down and saving some money from working as an electrician, Seymour bought his first restaurant (Pop’s) after randomly searching for any businesses he could find for sale on Craigslist. Fast-forward a couple of years and the now-established restaurateur is working with “his favorite rapper” turned business partner and friend.
“If you're not into hip hop, I don't know what's up with you,” Nas says. He sees a strong relationship between music (especially hip hop) and food. Both are instrumental in bringing people together, healing, and nurturing—they both also showcase a specific slice of time and culture.
“It's all about what are people feeling today, what are people thinking,” he says. “What's the most cutting-edge sound? It's hip hop, and hip hop always reinvents itself.” An ideology that’s reflected in Sweet Chick’s inventive riffs on the classic Harlem jazz club chicken and waffles that have transformed into everything from a salted caramel chicken and waffle to Nas’ personal favorite: the buffalo chicken and celery carrot waffle with bleu cheese.
With the opening of the new Long Island City location, Nas is bringing that reinvention back home. Raised in Queensbridge, North America’s largest housing projects and birthplace of some of hip hop’s biggest names, Nas hopes the new restaurant, located just a few blocks away, will serve as a reminder for what’s possible.
“People see the music opportunities, art opportunities to put your art out there and become an artist, to become an entrepreneur. Watching someone like myself bring a restaurant back to the neighborhood, it just reminds them I never forget where home is and they can do anything they want to do. That’s what this establishment represents.”
Nas recalls growing up in a home where his mom would cook dishes from her Southern roots for him and his father, jazz musician Olu Dara. “I grew up on the best food,” Nas says. “Macaroni and cheese, collard greens, corn on the cob, fried fish, whiting, catfish, turkey wings baked with gravy—just the works.” (Though when asked what his last meal would be, the rapper responds, "A croissant. Warm and with butter. Alongside herbal tea and a beautiful lady.")
While the menu for the Long Island City location will start off as the classic Sweet Chick comfort food-heavy menu, the presence of jazz plays a bit more of a role at this location, paying homage to Nas’ father as well as the jazz roots of chicken and waffles, in the form of a jazz-themed back room for private parties to inspired cocktails.
But while Nas is excited to give back and create a new space for the community to gather, he says it’s important to remember the people who did it before him. “I got friends who didn’t make music or play basketball who have restaurants in Long Island City that grew up in Queensbridge or Ravenswood. Those guys inspire me, they're entrepreneurs that had an idea: like Zoe's Place, like Something Catchy down in Ravenswood, and like Blend, a Latino place right here in Long Island City,” he says.
At the end of the day, the rapper says opening his first spot in Long Island City is ultimately all about the people of the neighborhood. That’s what gives each Sweet Chick its unique vibe. “There's something about the block that you’re on and the people who walk by every day. Those people that work in the neighborhood, go to school in that neighborhood, shop in that neighborhood, live there, whatever. It's all about the people there.”
For the Long Island City location, the means one thing: pride in the neighborhood. “It's still a whole family thing. I think we have a pride, a sense of pride, about Long Island City, about Queensbridge, about Queens in general. So [this] is just what we were meant to do. It's just what we were meant to do.”