On a Rolle with Ralph

Ralph Rolle returns to Ireland with his culinary cap on this summer, as part of the Electric Picnic’s Theatre of Food line-up

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The term nominative determinism is the idea that a person’s name can influence what they do with their life. A horticulturist with the name Gardiner or a bread maker named Baker, for example. So how about Ralph Rolle? Well, this drummer turned cookie baker may have a double case of this determinism; you can bash out a drum roll, and you can roll out cookie dough.

Rolle is no stranger to Ireland, having played to exuberant crowds as drummer for Nile Rodgers’ band Chic. He has also played with Sly and the Family Stone, Lady Gaga, Sting, and he was the house drummer for New York’s Apollo Theatre for more than 20 years. He will return to Ireland with his culinary cap on this summer, as part of the Electric Picnic’s Theatre of Food line-up, to tell us about his cookie company Soul Snacks Cookie Company (soulsnacksnyc.com).

When I speak to him over the phone, he’s looking forward to sharing his cookies with us. “I’ll be talking about the company and I’ll be doing some drumming, too,” he laughs, which he does a lot of throughout our conversation. “It’ll be an exhibition of food entertainment and music entertainment, all rolled into one.” No name pun intended there, I don’t think.

Festival revelers will be treated to a taster of the cookies too, and I have my eyes on the Ebony and Ivory Almond, the Chunked Up Chocolate Walnut, and Grampy’s Chocolate Peanut Butter cookies.

From an early age, cooking and community have been integral to Rolle’s life. The cookies that launched Soul Snacks Cookie Company are based on his grandmother Leola “Grampy” Williams’ recipe. “My grandmother was always cooking. I always remember her in the kitchen, and I remember being behind her, especially when she was baking. At that age, you absorb everything, so I can remember all the smells.

“I gravitated towards baking, and I used to bake one-layer cakes for kids in my neighbourhood when I was a teenager, when I knew they wouldn’t have enough for their own cakes.” Drumming overtook baking in Rolle’s life when he was 10 years old, after his older brother Howard “Howie” Rolle set up a drumset in their childhood bedroom, between their two beds. “Everything he did I mimicked. If he sneezed, I pretended I sneezed. If he combed his hair to the left, I did it. I did everything to show him I was there.”

Ralph and Howie grew up in The Bronx River Houses project, with their two sisters and their mother, who was a major influence in Rolle’s approach to life and business. “My mother wanted to make sure that her kids were all self-reliant. She taught us how to sew, how to wash clothes, and how to cook, she taught us how to iron and everything,” he explains, including baking. “The girls learned what the boys learned. I never looked at it as being different.” He concedes that one of her objectives was to keep her children into activities and out of trouble. She was also very community-minded, and was involved in the Tenants’ Association, a garden programme, as well as being the corner crossing guard for school kids. “She was involved in everything in the community, so she was the go-to person in Bronx River Houses if a tenant was having a problem. They would usually go to her instead of going to the office when they had a problem.”

In 1996, Rolle opened the Soul Snacks Cookie Company in the neighbourhood he grew up in. Inspired by his mother’s care for the community, he has picked up where she left off. “As I grow, I hire more people from my community and train them. The goal is for them to be self-reliant and for them to support their families. If they nurture their lives, that nurtures the community. I do a lot of crisis intervention. If I have the time I will go do it myself or I will direct people towards someone who can help.”

In 2014, Rolle opened a Soul Snacks store in Tokyo, Japan, a place he knows well thanks to his drumming career. How does he handle running two stores on opposite sides of the world, running drum clinics, and playing with superstars like Chic? “It does keep me busy. I work in a lot of different time zones, so I’m up at all hours talking to people in Japan, Europe and the US. I don’t get enough sleep because of my work. But it’s my passion. I’d rather work at my passion than worry ‘what if?’ later on in life. ‘What if’ is really scary to me. I’d rather succeed. Success is not about how much money you make. It’s about finishing a thought. The residual might be making money, but once you finish a thought or see a statement through, that is success.”

Ralph Rolle will be rolling dough and drum-rolling at The Theatre of Food at The Electric Picnic on September 4th. Find out more at electricpicnic.ie/stage/theatre-food

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