‘Skateboarding has never been a personal passion,’ chef Hervé Riou tells French Morning of his efforts to build a community skate garden near Prospect Park. ‘But you have to open up your soul, open up to others.’

Courtesy Hervé Riou

Hervé Riou trying out his skateboarding skills.

This article was originally reported and published by French Morning on April 5, 2021. It has been updated and lightly edited for clarity. 

The alliance is surprising: a French chef—a solid Breton sailor who has been living in New York for more than 30 years—becomes the spokesperson for young skateboarders from Brooklyn, and fights to try to offer them a skatepark of a new kind, in the middle of a real garden. 

A family tragedy is at the source of this commitment by Hervé Riou: the accidental death in 2019 of Pablo Ramirez, the son of his wife, Loren Michelle. Pablo was a professional skateboarder, jazz musician and artist. After his death—during a traffic crash, while he was skating—Loren Michelle decided to create a foundation to help young skateboarders, not only on their boards but to also help them develop their artistic talents. The foundation created music lessons with the Coltrane church in San Francisco, of which Pablo Ramirez was a regular, as well as art, painting, music and skate lessons in New York. 

But the ambition of the foundation goes further: for several months, Michelle and Riou have been fighting to build a skatepark in Brooklyn. “As a chef, I have a particular passion for gardens,” explains Riou. For the catering company Michelle ran until recently, he cultivated an urban vegetable garden in Brooklyn. “This relationship with nature, with the products of nature, is important to me; we want to bring this same closeness to nature to kids who skate: get them out of vacant lots under the highway bridges where they are confined today, to put them in parks.”

The foundation wishes to build  a “community skate garden” around Prospect Park, which is a space of a new kind, combining skateboarding, gardening and the arts. To do this, they put the project up for the vote of residents. The procedure, participatory budgeting, allows residents of Brooklyn City Council District 39 (which includes the areas of Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens, Gowanus, Park Slope), to vote for projects proposed by residents, which will then be funded by the city. Michelle and Riou asked for $300,000 to launch the project, competing with, among other things, new bathrooms for a local school and a dance floor for another school. Voting was done online, open to any resident of the area over 11 years old, and ended April 14. The winners were announced Sunday, and the community skate garden was among them, scoring the second highest number of votes for capital projects on the ballot. Riou says they are currently working to find a “great location” for the site.

Passionate about sailing, a cook for more than 40 years, Riou admits that “skateboarding has never been a personal passion.” He took his first steps on a board just a few months ago.

“But you have to open up your soul, open up to others. I had this idea of the garden married to skateboarding after a dream in which I was with Pablo in a garden,” he explained. The chef, in love with nature, thus became the defender of the interests of a group of young skaters, dreaming to connect the very urban culture of skateboarding with nature and the garden.