In the kitchen at the Four Seasons Bakery in Flatbush, Brooklyn, cook Andre Gordon’s hands never rest. He circumnavigates three large pans on a tiny stove. He pivots to a long metal table to hurriedly chop onions and then aggressively opens a can of black-eyed peas with a large kitchen knife. Fresh peppers and pumpkin are tossed into oil. Gordon says this is when he usually offers a few words of praise to Jah.
“I cook the food and I say ‘Thank you Father, Thank you for the food I’m preparing for the people. Bless this food,’” said Gordon.
Gordon, a Guyanese known as Chef Blackie to many customers, is the chef at the Four Seasons located on Church Avenue in Flatbush, Brooklyn. He is tall, gaunt, full of energy and looks younger than his 46 year. He attributes his looks and energy to his diet, which follows Rastafarian practices. The Rastafarian diet, known as ital (from the word vital) is vegan and salt-less.
Ital restaurants are scattered throughout Flatbush. The business gives cooks and owners a chance to make a living from the daily lives of the Rastafari. In areas with shifting populations like Flatbush, it also attracts a secular community who come just for the healthy eating.
“We got a lot of white folks, we got a lot of Italian folks, we got a lot of Chinese folks,” said Gordon. “In 2003, 2004 you see one type of crowd coming in but now at this moment today we got a variety of peoples coming every day.”
Rastafari is not an highly structured religion and is considered by most followers to be more of a lifestyle. It began in 1930s Jamaica by proponents of African repatriation, most notably Marcus Garvey. For its followers, it’s a way for African descendants around the world to spiritually connect to their homeland. Jah is the word for God and is considered the equivalent to the Christian God. While Rastafari are careful to say they are not a sect of Christianity, their followers worship Jesus and the Holy Trinity.
The Four Seasons’ wood-paneled walls reflect the restaurant’s spiritualism. They are lined with pictures of the 1930 Coronation of Haile Selassie, Ethiopia’s Emperor who Rastafarians believe descended from Biblical Kings. A magazine rack sells books about black nationalism, spiritualism and healthy cooking. All these things connect to each other under the umbrella of Rastafari. According to Vivaldi Jean-Marie, a professor of philosophy and African studies at Columbia University, Rastafarians believe that “vegetarian diet makes one light and healthy and gives… a connection to African ancestors and the great prophets of the Bible.“
The itali diet, which is void of meats, diary products, salt and preservatives, is derived from biblical rules. “The book of Genesis describes a vegetarian diet… and the book of Leviticus is very specific about certain things that man should not eat,” said Anthony Merritt, a professor at San Diego State University and Rastafari priest.
According to Merritt, it’s customary to say impromptu prayers when gathering food and preparing it. It can be anything from psalms from the Bible to praise from the heart. Gordon prefers to say whatever comes to mind.
One a recent day, customers who walked into Four Seasons said they come for health reasons. Sarah Blute, a teacher at Erasmus High School across the street, is a regular at Four Seasons. Blute said that she comes for the kindness of the staff, a two dollar teacher discount and to get some energy.
“They make a lot of healthy fruit juices for us,” said Blute. “So when I feel like I’m out of energy Andre has a perfect mix to boost my energy.”
Many Rastafari will preach the health benefits of ital food. Jarvis Hall, owner of Italfari Juice Bar in Crown Heights, says meat, sugar and sodium contribute to high obesity rates in the United States and views ital food as an alternative. Studies, including a recent report from the Center for Disease Control, confirm that an increase in salt is responsible for high blood pressure in young adults.
But not everyone thinks that ital food has health benefits. Lisa Cohn, a nutritionist and owner of Park Avenue Nutrition in Manhattan, says that the ital diet’s health value depends on how the food is made. Restaurants like Four Seasons that saute fresh foods with healthy oils but then leave them out in heated pans compromise the health value of the food.
“Oils are oxidized by the heat and can activate carcinogens that can be harmful to the body,” said Cohn. “Just because its vegan doesn’t mean its healthy.”
After cooking, Gordon puts together a plate for himself and a neighborhood friend to take outdoors for lunch. He wraps his arm around her shoulder and waves to everyone he leaves, delightfully greeting them and always smiling.
Health and spirituality are intertwined in Rastafarian culture and Gordon’s constant good mood is a reflection of that. Regardless of how the food is cooked, he swears by the spiritual and health benefits. He doesn’t even have to eat the food to feel a connection.
“Just holding the onions and the garlics and the spinach and the pumpkin, everything that comes from the earth,” he said. “Just holding those things make you feel so good.”
Andrew Parsons: You may not realize it, but salt is trying to kill you.
ABC news report
Parsons: Now consider Ital food – the diet of the Rastafari religion.
Ambience: Sizzling of food.
Parsons: Ital food is made without meat but also without salt or preservatives, those culprits of high blood pressure. Andre Gordon is the chef at Four Seasons in Flatbush, Brooklyn. He says that ital food is good for the body and the spirit.
Andre Gordon: “When you eat Ital food after a certain period of time, your spirit becomes light, you just got a nice vibe. I cook the food and I say thank you Father, praise you, I cook with clean hands and clean heart.”
Parsons: Rastafari is about being one with God, the earth and humanity and this extends to the food. The components are locally grown and are fresh. The food is meticulously cleaned and is absent of chemicals. Prayers can be said during preparation. All this work forms a connection with mother earth. Vivaldi Jean-Marie is an associate professor of philosophy and African studies at Columbia University. He says the cuisine has Biblical roots.
Vivaldi Jean-Marie: “Veggie diet makes one light and healthy and given a connection to African ancestors and the great prophets of the Bible.”
Parsons: Back at Four Seasons, Chef Gordon is working with his fresh produce.
Ambience: More sizzles.
Parsons: He says it’s expensive to buy fresh. Of course, the 2008 economic crash hurt the restaurant as well. Last week, Four Seasons was cited for various health violations and was given a B grade by the New York City Health Department. This could also be out of compliance with Rastafari. Achieving vitality is not always easy. Andrew Parsons, Columbia Radio News.