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Listening to the deep, silky tones and textures in his voice earned a Brooklyn-born singer, songwriter, and producer a legion of fans worldwide. The flavor, soul and layers Will Downing puts into his music also shine through in his cooking.
“It’s a different experience with every bite, and when you listen to my music, your ears get sort of the same sensation,” says the Grammy Award-winning artist. Downing wants people to hear something new and distinctive each time they listen to one of his songs. “The same thing is true with the food that I make. Every bite is slightly different than the next. Something stands out.”
Downing’s favorite cooking method is low and slow, just like the ballads that have thrilled fans of his 23 albums. The R&B and contemporary jazz artist known as the Prince of Sophisticated Soul knows exactly what he wants to come out of the oven. “We’re going 250 degrees for three hours. When we pull that girl out of the oven, it’s falling off the bone,” Downing says. “I love turkey wings. I work those joints for two days. I season them up and cook them low and slow.”
Mom’s Cooking Lessons
The New York native grew up in Brooklyn’s Albany Projects with his parents and three siblings. His journey into cooking lessons with his mother began with a hilarious story. “I was probably around 10 or 11. I did something very, very stupid, as I’ve done many times in my life,” says Downing. He was home alone with his brother, Gerald, when hunger inspired him to fry some chicken. “My brother is the practical one. He’s like, ‘Don’t do that.’”
Of course, Downing didn’t listen because he had seen his mom fry chicken a thousand times and thought it was easy. “I go into the freezer, and I pull out a frozen chicken. I fill the pan with grease and turn the fire up. I get some flour and toss it all over the chicken.” That is when disaster struck.
“I put the frozen chicken with the flour into this hot-ass grease. The flames flew up to the ceiling,” says the singer. “The grease popped all over the linoleum, so there were holes in the linoleum. The ceiling in that area was basically black.”
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Downing laughs jovially while explaining why his now 92-year-old mother Catherine decided to teach all her children how to cook. “After I got the whooping of life for doing that, she said, ‘If your ignorant behind is going to do something like that, let me teach you the right way.’ That’s when it started.”
From that point on, the Brooklyn boy became his mother’s sous chef. She would tease him about his misadventure with the frozen chicken. “Every time she was cooking, she was like, ‘Okay, Mr. Smart Ass. Mr. Kentucky Fried Chicken. You gonna shuck the peas for me?’” Downing did just that, sitting in the kitchen watching and helping until he learned how to cook.
The Downing family used to have big Sunday throwdowns where everyone got together in Brooklyn before his father, Duke, passed away. Later the gatherings were held at a sister’s home. The pandemic restrictions ended those get-togethers. Will and his wife Audrey still prepare homey meals at their place in New Jersey.
“My wife and I share the responsibilities of cooking. Last night, we made crab cakes. The night before that, we did Cornish hen,” Downing says.
The entertainer describes his cooking as basic. “If you want a good meal that is tasty and well-seasoned, that’s me. It’s definitely more taste-oriented, more robust flavors.” For the versatile performer, it’s all in the opening lyrics. “I make it a big deal. We thaw it out. I season it up the night before and put it in a little bag. In the refrigerator, it goes where it sits and sits.”
As a couple whose three children are all grown and living on their own, the Downings usually make a meal out of well-seasoned chicken, turkey or fish. “We’ve kind of got it down. I don’t deviate too much from what I normally make. If my daughter comes to visit, she knows what it is going to be,” Downing says.
He describes his youngest daughter, Aja, as a sometimes meat-eater, vegetarian or vegan. “My wife makes a really good fried porgy. If my daughter comes home, she’ll be like, ‘Can we have that freak fish?’ She calls it freak fish because it is so big.’”
While Downing prefers to stick to the basics, he cracks up over the subject of cookbooks. “Don’t get me wrong. We’ve got all the books. Issac Hayes and I were friends, and he had a cookbook. My whole counter upstairs is lined with books. We just don’t use them,” he says, laughing.
There is the Isaac Hayes cookbook along with cookbooks on Southern cuisine, healthy eating, vegan and vegetarian cooking (for Aja), low-sodium cooking and more. “It’s not that I haven’t tried some of those things in the past. What I’ve learned with those books is you find yourself running to the store a lot. The ingredients are not the basic things you have at home,” says Downing. “And you come back, and it doesn’t come out right. Do I have enough time to try this again? Nope. Let me go back to the basics.”
The Downing children, Will Jr., Siobhan, and Aja do cook well enough to survive on their own. “They won’t starve. When they do get to that point, they come home. They get a meal and go their separate ways,” their father adds. The next time the kids drop by, they might get a meal cooked in their parents’ new air fryer.
“We got the air fryer on a Tuesday. I swear to you on Wednesday my oven went out,” Downing says. “It made me familiarize myself with the air fryer. That’s what we’ve been using for the last week.”
Naturally, the very first meal the couple tried was fried chicken. “The consistency is not the same, and you can’t do it the traditional way. My way is milk, egg and dredge in seasoned flour, and then into a fryer. You do that with an air fryer, and it does not work.”
He agrees with one reviewer who said making fried chicken in an air fryer just leaves you wanting the real thing. “Everything else has been fantastic. We’ve done crab cakes, hamburgers, French fries and Cornish hens,” Downing says.
Seasoning in Silence
The secret to those delicious air fryer meals might be the personal spice blend with ingredients the crooner will not reveal. “Shhh. Don’t tell anyone. It is a combination of a lot of spices that I think work well together with food. Some Indian spices are in there as well,” Downing says. “Everyone seems to like it, so I think, ‘Great! I fooled them again.”’
You might imagine someone who uplifts, inspires, and moves audiences with his voice for 32 years would listen to music while he cooks. Not Downing. He prefers either silence or the television on in the background. “I pretty much relegate all of my music listening to the studio. I do it all day long, so I don’t want to hear anything when I go up to the kitchen area. I want to get away from it for a minute just so I can concentrate on what I’m doing and get a little balance or variety in my day.”
Will and Audrey do have a routine when cooking and sitting down for a meal. “I’m obviously down in the studio working. Then about 6:30 or 7:00, I come upstairs, and we get the food together. We eat together and watch ‘Family Feud.’ We’re eating a meal and screaming at the TV.”
Why yelling at the television? Downing jokes that some Black families make us look bad as a people when they say dumb things. “They were asked what goes with the word pork. People said things like pork chops. But this one guy said ‘cupine’ (as in porcupine).”
That September 2012 episode of ‘Family Feud’ can be seen in the “Dumbest Answers Ever” on YouTube. Host Steve Harvey said to the ‘cupine’ contestant, “I’ll tell you what. It’s going to be #1 on YouTube. It ain’t going to be #1 up there. I’ll bet every dollar I got that you are the only person that said ‘cupine.”’
Downing also enjoys watching the Food Network, especially Guy Fieri’s “Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives.” He takes information from the show on the road with him. “I always like watching that and finding places. When we are on the road, we go to different cities and want to know where we can get a good meal.”
Will Downing and Life Lessons
The importance of staying healthy took on new meaning for Downing in 2007. A diagnosis of polymyositis, a hereditary muscle disease, left the music legend in the hospital for seven months and then in a wheelchair, unable to walk or sing. “That gave me a whole new perspective on life. It gave me a PTSD sort of thing,” Downing says. “Sometimes, I’ll start boohooing when I think about what I went through, or it inspires me to get up and live.”
His family helped Downing get through a debilitating time in his life. It forced him to focus less on fame and fortune and more on the moments with loved ones that mean everything. It can be something as simple as completing a chore for his wife. “Now that I’m leaps and bounds better when it is garbage night, I’m like, “I got it. I’m happy to take out the garbage.”
Ironically, Downing always thought his father would be the one to become ill before he died at age 89 with no major ailments. “My father smoked three packs of cigarettes a day until the day he died. He did not drink water.” His father’s comical explanation was, “I don’t drink water because water will rust your pipes.”
Neither of his parents wanted Downing to become a singer. Even when the R&B and jazz star performed at Carnegie Hall, his father was less than impressed. “I could see my father from the stage looking at me and looking at the audience and thinking, ‘What? People came here to see you? You ain’t no Lou Rawls.’”
Still, Downing received the Diamond Award from the International Association of African-American Music for his work. His latest releases, “Romantique I and II,” pay tribute to some of the baritones who influenced his music, including Lou Rawls, Isaac Hayes and Jon Lucien. The greats who are gone remind Downing not to waste a day not giving your all to your dreams. “You’re here, and then you’re not. If you don’t make your mark while you can, people might not notice when you are gone.”
Live for Today
The coronavirus pandemic that has taken hundreds of thousands of lives in the U.S. alone is a wake-up call for everyone. The November release of the song, “So Many Good Die Young” is a celebration of life and a way to remember those we have lost. “Those old sayings, ‘Tomorrow is not promised or live every day as if it is your last,’ have gained real meaning. When you are younger, you don’t listen to any of that stuff,” Downing says.
He and Randy Bowland co-wrote and co-produced the song. The music video shows a montage of Kobe and Gigi Bryant, Prince, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Chadwick Boseman and others. It is a moving call to live for today. “It’s a wake-up call. Don’t wait for tomorrow. Do it now. Live your life. Do something for others and leave a legacy,” Downing says.
What is on his list of things to do in the future post-pandemic? Downing wants to learn how to bake and maybe take a cooking class. The preciousness of life is not lost on him. “I think once this thing is gone and we’re free and clear, I think people are going to be doing a little bit of everything. I don’t know anyone on the planet who hasn’t gone through something – a life-altering experience that makes you think, ‘I’ve got it now.’”
Be sure to tune into Downing’s weekly radio show, “The Wind Down.” It airs on his website and on more than 20 stations in the U.S., United Kingdom, Japan and Spain. You can also follow him on Instagram and Twitter or on Facebook.