Having a “rack attack”?
Lucky for you, “Chef Jeff” Esaw heard a voice on the wind after winning first prize at a barbecue cook-off in Jamaica for his succulent ribs in 2002.
It inspired him to open on North Main Street in SoNo, a gem of a joint for down-home Southern-style cuisine, serving award-winning versions of barbecue ribs and authentic sides.
That head wind seemed to call out: “Coast to Coast!” Esaw recalled this week as his establishment enters its eleventh year of serving robust, deeply flavored dishes as well as a jazz and bluesey nightlife when he doubles as DJ in the back room.
In Esaw’s lexicon, “Coast to Coast” is not about Atlantic-to-Pacific travel. He has in mind instead the passage from Senegal, West Africa, to the sugar plantations of the Caribbean and the rice paddies of South Carolina that his ancestors made 300 years ago.
An eye-catching wall mural painted in folk art tradition in stunning colors by a local artist tells the story pictorially.
Their stories and cultural traditions—and love for potent, stick-to-the-ribs cooking—were handed down to Esaw by his aunt Daisy Bell, who learned from her grandmother, Roxy Bell Sally, daughter of a slave in the low country of South Carolina where the transplanted West African Gullah culture lives on.
As the oral tradition has it, the families who were Esaw’s forbears were split up by the slavetraders, with women taken to Brazil, children to work on sugar plantations in the Caribbean and the men to work at rice paddies in South Carolina.
There’s a German slave-owner as well in Esaw’s genetic heritage, whose liaison with his great-grandmother introduced German traditions.
At Jeff’s Cuisine, Esaw has fused his ancestors’ cultures to create dishes that celebrate his geographic roots as well as other traditions that originated in Africa and evolved in other parts of the South—Creole, Cajun and Chesapeake Bay among them.
Think shrimp and grits and smothered chicken.
The fusion makes Esaw’s soul sing.
“Finding something to do that you truly love is a blessing,” the gentle giant (at 6’2”), a former Stamford High School football and basketball player, confides to a visitor.
“I’m living a dream and I don’t want to wake up,” he once told an interviewer.
Big-hearted hospitality is part of the cooking tradition.
“It’s a truly different lifestyle in the South,” he says.
“When you visit, you are asked what you feel like eating—and they fix it for you right there!”
True to that ethic, Esaw rustled up a plump wiener and slathered it in his signature mustard sauce for me in the course of our interview.
The sauce reflects his German-fused-with-African roots, with brown sugar, fruit juice, peppers, vinegar and horseradish.
“The juices and peppers bring it alive!” he rejoices.
This being October, and Esaw being part-German, he’s serving Oktoberfest every Thursday with sausages, German potato salad and beer chilled at the back-room bar.
Music is inseparable from Esaw’s kind of hospitality. (He plays drums, bass and saxophone.)
On weekends, live bands play jazz and blues and there’s karaoke night on Mondays.
Throughout the day the sound system smoothly blasts the classic soul recordings from the 1960s that Esaw’s aunt listened to as she cooked up culinary storms with Esaw at her side. Think Junior Walker and the All-Stars, Aretha Franklin, James Brown.
Esaw’s always open to opportunities to host events.
On Sunday, he served up a “gospel brunch” following a gospel choir concert given by the Mary of Bethany congregation in his back room.
“I don’t miss a meal and I don’t miss a prayer,” he said.
And Esaw doesn’t miss a chance to share his love for hearty food celebrating regional cultural traditions with the larger community.
You can sometimes find him at the Oyster Festival carving up a 60-pound sucking pig.
During the winter holidays, he’ll be deep-frying 90 turkeys with Creole stuffing and yams on the side for eat-in as well as take-out orders and catering.
54 North Main St. in South Norwalk.
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., Tuesday through Thursday; till 10 p.m. Friday; noon to 12 a.m. Saturday; 1 to 8 p.m., Sunday.