The Hero of Harlem
Can one chef single-handedly lift up a neighborhood? Chef Marcus Samuelsson thinks so.
June 21, 2017 ● 6 min read
By Priya Krishna | Illustration by Meryl Rowin
Marcus Samuelsson blows through the doors of his Harlem restaurant, Red Rooster.
He’s clad in a pink-elbowed chambray button-down, camouflage pants, and a matching camouflage hat emblazoned with the Red Rooster logo. He gives me a quick nod, and then proceeds to work the room: He compliments the color-blocked dress of one of his wine providers (“Look at you! So stylish”), bumps shoulders with the poet, David Ellis, whose words decorate the restaurant’s walls (“I can’t wait to read!” he says, referring to the Times article that Ellis was featured in today), and congratulates a young woman clad in Columbia graduation robes (“Yeah, yeah, right on!”).
Dinner service hasn’t even started yet, and the dining room is abuzz. Every single person here is craning his or her neck to look at Samuelsson. I gather that this is not the sort of crowd that reads Eater every day, or could specifically tell you that Samuelsson is the youngest chef ever to earn three stars from The New York Times. But they know that the guy who just walked in is a big deal.
And he is a big deal. Marcus Samuelsson has won a lot of awards, authored best-selling books, appeared on TV many times, achieved unprecedented success in an industry where — even if you aren’t black and an immigrant — there is a ninety-nine percent chance that you will fail.
Even after all of this, the achievement that matters most to Samuelsson is what he has accomplished in Harlem.
Once a neighborhood that outsiders perceived as violent and unsafe, Harlem became Samuelsson’s cause célèbre in 2010, when he opened his first restaurant Red Rooster there, using his platform to shine a light on the culinary vibrancy of the previously overlooked locale. That mission carried over to Samuelsson’s annual food festival, Harlem EatUp — an event that he dreamt up to spotlight the restaurants and institutions that he thinks make Harlem great, from the fine dining jazz clubs to the jerk chicken guy in the park. I arrived on the first day, of the third year, of the event.
Samuelsson did not grow up anywhere near Harlem — he was born in Ethiopia, and adopted by Swedish parents at a young age. But the connection, he says, was forged early. Learning about black history as a kid, he says, “Harlem always came up, whether I was reading James Baldwin or listening to Ella Fitzgerald. Harlem was the epicenter of black culture. Harlem instilled in me this idea that if I work hard, I can conquer.”
So he did. For years, he traveled through Japan, Switzerland, and France, training at the top restaurants. He became the Executive Chef of a celebrated New York restaurant, Aquavit. Partway into that stint, he decided to move to Harlem — to study the neighborhood in the hopes of eventually opening up shop there. He spent seven years getting to know the community. He befriended Charles Gabriel of Charles’ Pan Fried Chicken (a Harlem classic and one of his absolute favorite restaurants), became a regular at the soul food institution Sylvia’s, read up on Harlem food icon Lilian Harris Dean, a.k.a. Pig Foot Mary. He came up with the idea for a restaurant that would be rooted in soul food, but would borrow from the sheer diversity of the neighborhood, and all the cultures that influenced his upbringing; shrimp and jerk pork belly, berbere smoked salmon, catfish and grits.
Around the same time, he was competing on Top Chef Masters, judging Chopped, and planning a state dinner for President Obama. By the time Red Rooster opened, Samuelsson had already reached the upper echelons of food celebrity, practically ensuring that the restaurant would be both an instant hit and a powerful mouthpiece for the neighborhood. The success of Red Rooster led to the opening of a speakeasy downstairs, Ginny’s Supper Club, followed by a fast casual concept, Streetbird Rotisserie, just up the street, and eventually, Harlem EatUp. He wrote a memoir, Yes, Chef, and released a Red Rooster cookbook dedicated to the story of Harlem.
As someone who is both supported by the local community and lauded by his fellow chefs and the media, Samuelsson has become known as a local hero, of sorts, in Harlem. He embraces this. So much so, that his desire to stay on brand — to have people understand the good he has done in Harlem, and how much the community has supported him — seamlessly permeates most all of his interactions.
For example, he loves hats. He wears hats all the time! But a hat to Marcus Samuelsson is more than a hat is to us mere mortals: it is a signal and a unifying symbol, like when he pops a purple camo Red Rooster hat onto the head of Daniel Boulud or Dominique Crenn, or when he brought in famous Harlem designer Lana Turner to exhibit a hat display at the restaurant. Same with the word “hustle,” which he uses to describe both himself and the neighborhood. You suspect you may never hustle the way someone like Charles Gabriel hustles, for example. Has he mentioned how much he adores Gabriel and his chicken? Because he does. And now you do, fervently.
Samuelsson’s mission, deliberate as it may be, is one that is easy to get behind. It’s why, for Harlem EatUp, alongside all of the local Harlem restaurant owners, he’s lined up a collection of chefs that includes the likes of Boulud, Crenn, Michael Anthony, and Angela Dimayuga. “He is the cultural ambassador to Harlem, when it comes to taste, when it comes to personality, when it comes to community,” Boulud tells me, emphatically. “We as chefs want this kind of festival to succeed.”
And who wouldn’t want it to succeed? As an event in and of itself, Harlem EatUp is fun because Samuelsson is obsessed with making people happy. Every night of the festival, he surprises the dinner crowd with an extra course of fried chicken, accompanied by sparkling firecrackers. He meets guests and immediately gives them nicknames (he encounters a contest winner named Diana, and without hesitation, she is christened “Dirty Diana”). He’s constantly introducing me to people, making sure my drink is topped off, leading me to a kitchen or a party, before promptly departing to show the same sort of hospitality to someone else.
In Harlem, Samuelsson is the center of the universe. I think about the restaurants people are obsessing over right now in New York — Le Coucou, Olmsted, The Grill at the Four Seasons — and they literally feel thousands of miles of way. Here, it’s Marcus’ world, and we’re all just living in it.
But don’t align any of this with gentrification. When I use this word with him, pointing out the fact that the cost of living in Harlem is steadily increasing, and there’s now a Whole Foods around the corner, he becomes a little defensive. He tells me that, before he opened up in Harlem, there were five methanol centers and five jails, but now, there’s only one of each; and before he came here, there weren’t farmer’s markets, and now there are several. “You can label it what you want, but I know my compass, I know the importance of a weekend like this when 15,000 people come to Harlem to eat and drink, and meet local business owners just the same as they meet Daniel Boulud.” (In all fairness, the only beneficiaries of Daniel Boulud’s cooking this week are employees and clients of the financial services behemoth, Ernst & Young, who have sponsored a dinner hosted by him and Samuelsson). He continues: “It’s not my term, it’s your term. I live in this community. I know what that means.”
He points out that, unlike most food festivals, Harlem EatUp has free events in addition to the ones that cost hundreds of dollars. That there are cooks who participate in Harlem EatUp and eventually go on to work for Daniel. That he is equally concerned with honoring the old institutions of Harlem as he is the new places. “There’s an evolution happening here that is worth talking about. I have a network of people in Harlem that I got to know for seven years before I opened, who would never have had the chance to shine, and now they are on national TV. I give them a platform and a battery that pushes.”
Samuelsson wants to create opportunities for those who are underrepresented in the chef community, and he wants to do it on his terms. “Diversity is hard at every level,” he tells me. “I can’t focus on other chefs, but I can give them an opportunity to plug in and say, ‘Here’s what we do here.’ It’s an open conversation. Harlem EatUp creates that conversation just by existing.”
The culminating event at Harlem EatUp is called The Stroll, a mini-festival of tastings and classes in Morningside Park. There, Samuelsson does cooking demonstrations with guest chefs, all of whom he bedecks with those camouflage Red Rooster hats—happy symbols of unified endorsement. He dances with guests to the Rakiem Walker Project (the house band at Ginny’s Supper Club), and rides around in a CitiBike branded with the Harlem EatUp logo (Citi is another sponsor of festival).
As soon as the festival is over, Samuelsson will board a plane to London, where he’ll ready for the opening of Red Rooster in Shoreditch, a formerly industrial neighborhood that is undergoing its own transformation, becoming a trendy nightlife spot for young people.
There’s no doubt that this new restaurant will be successful. Samuelsson knows how to run a business. To win over a community. To put his own stamp on everything he does. He doesn’t yet know how he is going to imbue the restaurant with its own identity, he says, to mirror the way that the Rooster has become so unique to Harlem.
Rest assured, when he figures it out, he’ll be the hero of a new neighborhood. And that will keep him going.