A red door and a pink patio announce the small, Caribbean-style eatery on Union Street in the midst of the shops, corner stores and brownstones in Brooklyn, New York. The emerald green siding and painted cement patio recall the vibrant island culture where chef Michael Gordon finds his roots.
Gordon, a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu culinary school, began cooking around the age of 6 or 7 out of necessity for himself and his sister when their family lived in the rural Jamaican countryside. “We didn’t have a refrigerator or anything, so we just had to cook food every day, what we grew from the ground.” He moved to New York 30 years ago at the age of 15, following his mother to Queens to find himself in a world of new people and a different culture. When he first moved to Queens, he explains that at first he struggled to fit in and adapt to the American language, much different than Jamaican patois – sometimes called “broken English,” spoken in a strong accent with grammatical influences, language structure, words and phrases borrowed from several African and other languages. “After about a year, I started running with the other Jamaicans and it was all good,” Chef Gordon continues, and says that he also spent time with his Uncle who is a member of the 12 Tribes of Israel order of Rastafari. The experiences with him brought him to cooking Ital, and since then his love and appreciation for the food has grown. “I love how Ital food makes you feel, … once you stop eating the stressed-out animals, and switch to a plant based diet, you become more positive.” Ital food (pronounced eye- taal) comes from Caribbean Rastafarian culture, a stylized form of the word “vital.” Ital food is traditionally pescatarian or vegan, free of synthetic chemicals and preservatives, and full of beneficial herbs, spices and nutritious fruits and vegetables. True to Rastafari, Gordon states “Positivity starts with your food; When you start to rebel, food is where you start.”
To understand Ital cuisine, one must understand Rastafari. Rastafari began as a religiopolitical movement among the oppressed and poverty-stricken people of the slums of Jamaica in the 1930s. As a religion Rastafari holds Haile Selassie I, former emperor of Ethiopia, to be the second coming of the messiah, Africa to be the spiritual homeland of all Blacks, and the Holy Bible to be the only true word of God, or Jah. As a culture Rastafari celebrates love, unity, respect, African culture such as drums, language, art and spirituality, and natural, sustainable living. It is born from a Caribbean culture that is a mix of African, European, Native American and East Indian influences, and as such Ital food represents a meatless, all-natural take on Caribbean food.
I visited Ital Kitchen BK around noon on a Friday in January for a healthy, vegan lunch. I walked in to the one-room establishment to find a beautiful interior, its small size typical of a New York business. The walls are painted a vibrant violet hue, decorated with African paintings and wooden carvings and masks. Gordon stood at the stainless-steel counter in the rear of the room chopping vegetables, the kitchen area sectioned off by shoulder height rice-paper folding dividers. He invited me to sit anywhere I liked. I took my place at a small table next to a short pink book shelf and a painting of Reggae legend Peter Tosh. I gave a nod to the Stepping Razor, and examine the book on the shelf – a collection of cook books in between cultural and sociopolitical works like Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow” and Nelson Mandela’s “Conversations With Myself,” as well as a book on natural healing through food.
Gordon strolled over to my table and greeted me with the Rasta phrase “Yes I,” and placed a bright blue glass in front of me and a large glass bottle of ice cold water. He handed me the menu and let me know me he was now cooking food from the lunch section, and suggested to me the ‘Lunch Box Special’ of the day: Jerked “chicken” (tofu strips) and zucchini. I spent a few minutes looking over the single-page menu, its simple and effective format offering an array of tasty dishes, drinks and sides but not an overwhelming amount. The lunch menu – served 11am to 3pm – is smaller than the dinner menu, with savory and convenient choices like the Jerk “Chicken” Burrito with sautéed onions, peppers, and brown rice and the Mushroom Burrito with shiitake mushrooms, sautéed peppers, onions, and rice as well as avocado and black beans. I decided to order the Lunch Box Special, and also the soup of the day, which was a spinach soup.
While I waited for my food, I enjoyed the crisp taste of water served in glass, appreciating the absence of plastic in Gordon’s restaurant. I took some time to look over the rest of the menu, and saw an array of flavorful, unique Ital dishes. Mickey Lee’s BK Chow Mein caught my eye, a serving of Asian noodles with red cabbage, carrots, and peas, a marker of the diversity of Gordon’s menu. Right under that I saw the IK Veggie Burger, a vegan spin on the American food classic with sun dried tomatoes, chickpeas, mushrooms and lettuce. The Turmeric Stew was a savory, spicy choice that made me wish I had come four hours later during the dinner menu. I dreamed of the hearty dish of potatoes, carrots, roasted corn, and coconut milk. The drink menu was equally diverse ad colorful, with natural beverages like Turmerical Ting – made from turmeric, ginger, lemon, and apple – and acai, sea moss and mango Yes I! offering rejuvenating tropical flavors and nutrients to accompany the main dishes.
Having read the Kitchen’s slogan “We Cook Slow!” online, I was prepared for an extended wait for my food after I gave Gordon my order. To my delight, before 15 minutes had passed Gordon was placing a steaming plate of “chicken” and zucchini in an aromatic brown jerk sauce on the table, accompanied by a small bowl of wild rice and the vegetable soup. I thanked Gordon for my food, and took my first bite of the Jerk.
I was immediately surprised by the satisfying texture of the tofu shreds. As any vegetarian understands, soy meat substitutes are typically rubbery and are not very flavor absorbent, but such was not the case with Gordon’s vegan chicken. The scraps were chewy to an ideal extent, and had fully absorbed the essence of the sauce. The zucchini complimented the strips excellently, adding a fresh crunch to the savory dish. I moved on to the rice, and took a small pile of the firm, separate grains on the tip of my fork. The steam from the tan and brown long cut cereal carried an earthy scent, and the flavor was simple and earthy, the texture slightly al dente as it is in most Afro rice preparations. The soup was also a simple, complimentary dish: spinach with small slivers of potato and onion in a thin vegetable broth. It tasted of fresh spinach leaves, with the subtle taste of onion and spices. My two basic, modest sides created a fulfilling solid backdrop for the spicy, robust tastes of the jerk “chicken” and zucchini, and left me wanting for nothing. Finished with my food analysis, I dumped my rice into the plate of jerk, mixed it all together, and enjoyed a warm, healthy and filling meal.
Ital Kitchen BK
1032 Union St. Brooklyn, NY.
Phone # 347-405-9727
You can find more information on Instagram @italkitchenbk.