Meet the Ethiopian-Swedish-American chef and his new restaurant home in Harlem.
To understand Marcus Samuelsson, you must check out his newest venture, Red Rooster Harlem. Both the man and the restaurant are an integration of the dominant artistic aesthetic of our time: assemblage.
Whether you are talking about the mix of found objects and classical techniques in the visual arts, the meeting of Oriental and Occidental in current fashion, the use of sampled beats in contemporary music, or the increasing importance of fish sauce, miso paste and chili peppers on menus the world over, artists these days are largely defined by the ways in which they corral disparate influences into a cogent personal statement.
This approach is the essence of Marcus Samuelsson as chef, restaurateur and man.
Look at the chef himself. That face is classic Ethiopian, but that modified Mohawk haircut is neo-American. The black-and-gold patterned trousers are chef’s pants — working clothes for a man in his profession. The combination of black vest with vertical red stripes, the black tie with bright horizontal stripes and the purple checkered shirt, however, could be Saville Row or Milan runway.
But if Samuelsson is going for a formal look with the tie and vest, why is he wearing gold lamé sneakers? And that Red Rooster chef’s coat is no chef’s coat at all, but a dark blue denim shirt with an embroidered restaurant logo. Yet somehow these disparate elements form a coherent whole.
It helps that Samuelsson’s wife, Maya Haile, is a fashion model, born in Ethiopia and professionally attuned to such details. “She inspects me every morning before I leave the house,” says Samuelsson, 43.
Although his style generates conversations, place has been the signature detail of Marcus Samuelsson’s identity. Even those who don’t know the chef’s name can recognize him by the itinerary of his life: born in Ethiopia, raised in Sweden, first gained fame at New York’s Aquavit restaurant. But with Red Rooster Harlem, Samuelsson is identifying himself with his location more intimately than ever before.
Aquavit was Swedish before he got there, and though he may have improved the quality of the food, he didn’t make the place more Scandinavian. Two of his other restaurants — Riingo and Merkato — were based on foods of specific regions, but neither had any particular affinity for the New York neighborhood in which it was located. Riingo was an Asian fusion restaurant; Merkato, a Pan-African fusion restaurant. Both closed years ago.
“The purpose of being in Harlem is completely different,” he says. “This place — I felt like it could be articulated so much more and not just lean on what it was.
“I mean, it’s more than a restaurant. It has to do with national history, hard-core local history. It has to do with each other, not just from the black and white narrative [but] from a human narrative.”
A look back in time
The 2-year-old Red Rooster is located in the New York City neighborhood that is arguably the capital of the African diaspora. This neighborhood was the site of the so-called Harlem Renaissance, that 1920s-era flourishing of African-American art and letters.
Here lived Marcus Garvey, the Jamaican-born leader of the Back-to-Africa movement. Here worked artists Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden. Here wrote Langston Hughes, James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison. Here played Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk and James Brown. The legacies of these men — the musicians in particular — are guiding lights to artists throughout the black world.
It is this rich legacy that Samuelsson wants to be part of. “Harlem has this incredible mystique,” he explains. “I want to be sure that its food aspirations are as important as its art aspirations and music credentials.”
Even the name, Red Rooster, is a vestige of old Harlem. As he researched, Samuelsson kept coming across references to the legendary neighborhood speakeasy: “down at the Rooster” or “down at the Roo.”
“It was where the ball players went,” he says, “but it was also where [the late Congressman] Adam Clayton Powell held court. And there was also this common level of the everyday person. That’s the spirit that I wanted. Those multiple facets.”
There is live music most nights of the week at Red Rooster, either upstairs in the Nook or downstairs at Ginny’s Supper Club. The walls are filled with the work of young visual artists, most of whom have lived or worked in Harlem, such as Sanford Biggers, Lorna Simpson, Gary Simmons and Rebekah Maysles.
One wall of the Nook area is lined with bookshelves on which sit jars of Chapman Farm pickles and Druvan klassisk sas gravlax (cured salmon), among other specialties. Other shelves hold cookbooks, such as Samuelsson’s New American Table and Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Simple Cuisine. There’s a copy of Monocle magazine, Richard M. Dorson’s book Negro Folktales and the CD Tokyo Reggae Classics.
Unlike in the dining room, the tables in the Nook are communal. You may well be seated next to strangers. “I don’t want you to eat alone because you’re by yourself,” he says. “Those are two different things.”
Community is a key word in Samuelsson’s current vocabulary. It means many things: making the restaurant a part of the Harlem community, bringing the wider New York and international communities to Harlem, and exporting the Samuelsson-Harlem aesthetic to the rest of the world.
Poor man’s cooking
On one Saturday morning, community relations consists of teaching a cooking class to a group of 10-year-olds from The Spence School, an Upper East Side girls’ school. One of the parents has won the class at a charity auction.
“Poor man’s cooking is actually the most delicious food,” Samuelsson tells his pupils as he teaches them to make Swedish meatballs much as his Swedish grandmother, Helga, taught him. These girls, whose favorite foods include white truffle pizza, dig their fingers into the mixture of ground beef, pork, egg and breadcrumbs.
Samuelsson repeats his praise of poor people’s food several times, but these pre-teens aren’t particularly interested in the sociology of cuisine. Perhaps the teacher is speaking as much to himself as to his students.
It’s an ironic twist that Aquavit — where the chef first gained attention — is a fine-dining restaurant, elegant and expensive. Samuelsson left the restaurant in 2008 and all but severed ties with Håkan Swahn, the owner. While he still worked there, “poor man’s cooking” only made it to the menu after being fancified and coupled with ingredients and techniques that poor people wouldn’t have time or money for.
That’s not to say that Red Rooster is inexpensive. Entrees range from $18 for macaroni and cheese to $37 for a 16-ounce T-bone. But the menu draws its flavors primarily from the African diaspora.
Pikliz, the quintessential Haitian condiment, is little more than vinegar, peppers and vegetables. It comes served with Caribbean spiced pork belly and eggs (click here for the recipe). Fried catfish and grits is a typical fisherman’s dish from the South Carolina coast. Bunny chow (lamb curry on bread) is a working-man’s plate from Durban, South Africa. The Berbere roasted chicken (click here for the recipe) and the tacos of kitfo-spiced tartare are inspired by Ethiopian cuisine.
And of course Samuelsson’s own adopted heritage comes through in the Swedish meatballs, gravlax and pickled beets, and ligon buller (brioche dough rolled with lingonberry jam).
The combinations and details of these dishes aren’t the same as would be served in their places of origin, but that’s not the point. These are interpretations of simple, local traditions the world over.
A chef’s focus
While Samuelsson will talk readily about food and culture, he has historically been less eager to talk about personal matters — this despite his recent acclaimed memoir, Yes, Chef, which discusses the racial and political implications of his adoption by white, Swedish parents and his rise in the kitchens of Europe and America.
It seems that now that he is successful, he is working harder to make room for the personal. He has reconnected with his birth father, Tsegie, and is helping to support and educate his younger siblings in Ethiopia. He visits his adoptive mother, Anne Marie, in Sweden, and she has even traveled to Ethiopia with him to meet Tsegie. He has also connected with Zoe, a daughter he fathered while briefly working in Austria in his early 20s.
Samuelsson admits in the book that he is able to maintain his focus by pushing personal issues to the back of his mind. When he does interviews, he has a story to tell, and the focus of this story now is Red Rooster — not the other intimate details of his life. It’s not so much that he declines to speak about these issues. His words just rush past them en route to the things he wants to highlight.
Forget that Samuelsson cooked the first state dinner for U.S. President Barack Obama at the White House, or that he won three James Beard awards while at Aquavit. It’s Red Rooster Harlem that comes readily to the lips. And if his newest restaurant succeeds, that success may well, in his eyes, dwarf all that he has previously accomplished.
But success is not a guarantee. Samuelsson has had some failures: Aquavit in Minneapolis closed, as did Merkato 55 and Riingo.
Yet he has a string of successes. The Samuelsson Group owns a range of restaurants in a range of locations, as is the trend among celebrity chefs. In addition to two fine-dining establishments in Sweden (Norda in Gothenburg and American Table Brasserie and Bar in Stockholm), there’s American Table Cafe and Bar in New York’s Lincoln Center complex and Marc Burger in Chicago and Costa Mesa, California.
And of course there’s Red Rooster Harlem. If you want to dine here, you need to choose your time carefully or plan far ahead, as the place is crowded every day. When he is at the restaurant, Samuelsson often greets patrons and signs cookbooks. These interactions can range from a brief “how are you?” to much longer conversations with regulars or friends. But in either case, it’s always clear that half of Samuelsson’s attention is on what’s happening in the restaurant.
He’s very much the New Yorker in the sense that New York City is all about business. And if Samuelsson himself is something of an assemblage, it is only fitting that he make his home here. In this city of many cultures, in this neighborhood dripping with rich, eclectic history, in this restaurant brimming with divergent flavors, he masterfully finds a way to blend in while making his name — and his food — stand apart.
Gediyon Kifle is an award-winning photographer who has traveled throughout Africa, Asia and the United States photographing subjects ranging from food to music to lifestyle. He collaborated with Marcus Samuelsson on two books, En Smakresa: Middagstips and The Soul of a New Cuisine, which received the James Beard Foundation Award for Best International Cookbook.