Photography provided by: Steven Rich
Reinvention is never easy but often necessary. After spending a decade working in kitchens in New York City and the Bay area, Jamel Freeman was ready for a change. “I respect what these guys do because it’s long hours, it’s very thankless, it’s dangerous, it’s tough on the body, tough on the mind,” says Freeman. “Those fluorescent lights — I learned it’s something that really affects your mood and you’re under it for a minimum of ten hours a day; especially if you’re a night time cook. And so I just had to get out.” The former chef went against the grain, finding a new beginning behind the bar. “I disappointed a lot of people when I said, ‘I don’t like doing this anymore,’” he says about transitioning from kitchen to bar. Steadfast he built a new career, for the second time, working his way up to positions at notable restaurants like City Winery, Temple Court, and Bellemore, where he resides as its wine director.
The history of libations is what drew Freeman in. While developing the food menu for a restaurant in San Francisco’s historic Barbary Coast he learned how cocktails tell stories of the past. Freeman became intrigued by the program of classic cocktails from the 1800s. “I became fascinated with the history of it all,” he says. “So, that led me to consider, ‘I think I want to know more about the history of beverage,’ and that’s what kind of led me to cocktails.”
Freeman headed back to New York City with newfound zeal, learning the ropes while barbacking at spots across the city as fervency for cocktails reached its peak. But the transition would turn out to be more difficult than he had expected. Looking very different than the status quo bartender, Freeman admits he encountered subtle and blatant racism. “I got to a point when it was really hard to break into bartending. Especially as a person of color. At that time it was the height of mixology and white guys with handlebar mustaches were kind of what people wanted to see, and not some black kid with a beard and dreads.”
He pivoted to wine, an area of expertise he felt many bartenders lacked, and began working wine retail at Bed-Vyne Wine, a black-owned wine shop located in Bed-Stuy. Wine would turn out to be the fit Freeman was looking for. “Right in the beginning I was being mentored and guided by black men that were in wine before me,” says Freeman. “André Mack (Maison Noir Wines) was one of the first people I met in New York when I first got into wine,” he recalls.
Soon Freeman would find himself back in restaurants where he applied lessons learned from his time in the kitchen — it’s part of his DNA. “Honestly, I sucked as a cook for the longest time and it took some valuable lessons that I still apply today that got me better,” he says. “Organization is key — that’s the main thing.” Never far removed from the kitchen, the former chef begins describing his wine list at Bellemore. “The wine list that we’re doing is a little more rustic, Old World and kind of French-driven,” he starts. Freeman’s train of thought is interrupted by a symphony of claps coming from the kitchen. It’s a ritual done after pre-shift and it catches Freeman’s attention. “I love that,” he says with a smile. “I’ve tried to with them. I’m like the last clap and they’re just like, ‘get out of here,’” he laughs.
As consumer interest in wine continues to grow, the category has become more accessible for drinkers of all types. “There was for sure a divide. We would have — those are beer people or those are cocktail people — but now those lines are blurred. It’s kind of like that Old World, New World styles of wine or white meat, white wine; red meat, red wine — all those things have blurred and so are the people who are asking for wine. If anything, that’s the common trend that I’ve seen. More people are drinking wine, for better or worse.”
The industry that Freeman joined as a young adult in the late 90s is changing — slowly. “There’s been more diversity that I’ve seen in the last few years than in any of my years cooking. Before there were barely any women in the kitchen unless they were pastry chefs and there was rarely ever a woman on the line,” Freeman recalls. “For wine and African Americans, that diversity hasn’t caught up.” Freeman notes that the beverage team during his time at Temple Court was made up of a diverse group of women and men which he attributes to management. “I’m sure it was intentional because of the person that Tom Colicchio is,” says Freeman. The same for Bellemore where Freeman lists a range of representation covered behind the bar.
Freeman’s vision for the next generation of wine professionals centers around intentionality. “I feel like it should be greatly considered what and how this new individual wants to get from the industry. How they want to get there and they should have an end goal,” which may not be in a restaurant he adds. In fact, Freeman encourages new wine professionals to explore a breadth of careers in wine, restaurants and beyond. “I have a fairy godmother in New York who would always tell me, ‘everyone’s wine journey is different,’ and I don’t know if there’s a correct path. I’m proud of my path because if I had never cooked for all that time, I would probably never know my palate as well as I do and I think I’d be at a great disadvantage.”