As I started walking into Sunset Park’s Sunset Park on Sunday, I noticed the smell of a charcoal grill coming from behind me, instead of in front of me where I would expect it. Looking down 41st Street, I saw the telltale blue-grey billows coming from around the corner. I followed the smoke into a narrow alley between buildings. Standing there, grilling steaks, was Jonathan Pitre, a muscular man with an angel tattoo covering his upper left arm and a grin plastered on his face.
This was no family occasion, but rather a show of appreciation for the young people involved in a summer youth employment program run by the dance studio that Pitre co-owns with Arelis Beato, a decorated performer, instructor, and choreographer of Latin dance. It’s housed in a basement space adjacent to the grilling alley. The students were hanging out with Beato and a couple of other staff members inside while Pitre managed the grill.
Pitre, a part-time carpenter, said he did most of the work inside when they opened the studio a few years ago, naming it Brooklyn’s Finest Dance Studio. Before they had this space, he said, he and Beato bounced around renting studios, but they couldn’t have the community impact they wanted without a stable location. They wanted a space where children could learn and have a safe space, Pitre said.
Pitre is simultaneously full of energy and laid back. He talks a mile a minute, and I worried that I was distracting from his duties as chef as some of the steaks begin to char. He didn’t seem concerned, even as some small pieces of steak fell through the grill. A staff member brought back a steak that wasn’t quite done, and Pitre liberally poured more lighter fluid onto the charcoal, sending up flames and smoke.
Brooklyn’s Finest Dance Studio runs classes, hosts a professional dance company, and manages the youth employment program, which receives outside funding from the nonprofit Center for Family Life to pay students for their time as they receive training to become professional dancers and run small businesses. The students come on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. In addition to learning and performing dance routines, they learn the history of the dances and the music that accompanies them. They also learn professional skills and things like how to write to a resume. And they talk about issues they face as children and teens in at-risk communities, especially issues surrounding race, LGBT identity, and gender and age discrimination. Pitre said that they had a conversation Friday about last week’s shootings in Louisana, Minnesota, and Texas. As a Puerto Rican-American growing up in Camden, New Jersey, he said that he himself had faced discrimination, but he also understands the perspective of police officers.
“I thought it was really important to have that dialogue that as a minority you have to be aware of what you’re supposed to do in a situation,” said Pitre. “Put your hands up, comply, but you also have to be aware that running your mouth can get you into trouble.
“I grew up with police officers so I know what it’s like to be in a family of police, but I also know what it’s like to be harassed by white police who don’t like Hispanics or blacks in their neighborhood. I’ve been put on the ground, been arrested with a gun behind me, punched by cops; I’ve had that experience. It doesn’t mean I hate cops. There was just one bad cop, one bad person, in comparison to the hundreds of thousands of good cops.”
Pitre, the other staff members, and the students graciously offered me steak, chicharrón, bread, and a pineapple-passion fruit smoothie. The steak was tender, the chicharrón fatty and filling, and the smoothie was refreshing and an excellent way to cut the heaviness of the rest of the meal. The flank steak Pitre served on this day was cooked simply, with adobo seasoning, but he likes to make fancier dishes too, including mango-marinated porkchops. His recipe? “So, I take a porkchop, I season it slightly with sea salt. I take some sliced radishes, some rosemary, some garlic, and some butter, and it’s almost French-style cooking. And I put that on a bed of Spanish rice.”
In addition to cooking, teaching, and co-owning the studio, Pitre says he is an MBA student, a crisis worker (he’s applying to be a social worker), and an academic tutor. He also dances professionally and tours with the dance company. Oh, and he’s writing a children’s novel. He’s 24.