Vibrancy is not only a color palette that defines Marcus Samuelsson’s bespoke couture, it defines his way of life and vision for the blueprint of the “Renovation Renaissance in Harlem.” He has instilled Ethiopian/Swedish culture, French culinary upbringing, and training to create a brand as well known as Langston Hughes’ modern cuisine. She shares with Social Lifestyle Guest Contributor Tracey Smith how she leverages her culture, family values, and journey to create rich relationships and unique dishes that cultivate a loyal following of supporters for the continuous quest for excellence.
1. Tell me a quite simple fact about yourself.
I’m very interested in Harlem.
I’m clearly very excited and enthusiastic about living in New York City, and Harlem. I appreciate the New York City spirit! You’re at all times around the hustle and bustle of NYC, creativity, and that I love that! I am unable to imagine living anywhere else and it is something I cherish every day, and that I love football too.
2. It looks like you have really found a home in New York.
Yeah, particularly Harlem, I just think it is a gem in New York, it is such an iconic American neighborhood, people know about Harlem but now they’re reinventing what it’s and something that I love about bringing people to Harlem, and asking them to found it. their favourite plate.
3. What do you like about Harlem?
I like it excited. There are people hanging out in the park, I live in front of the park and there are Haitians playing drums, Farmers Markets on the weekends, people playing basketball, kids running, walking the dogs, I just love garden life, you know.
4. So you’d say it is as lively as your wardrobe, I had an opportunity to observe your style and I’d love to know where you got it too.
Clothing is very personal and virtually tribal where I’m from in Africa, you can tell where someone is from, and what tribe they’re by their clothes. I wear something Swedish or African-Ethiopian very often and I believe Harlem style. Quite a lot of times I could be Midtown, I could be Downtown, I could be in Harlem, I’d be in a restaurant at night, I’d must be in lots of different worlds, I’d must get organized in the morning and have something ready for them many various environments. So rather than trying to “fit in”, I just put one thing on and it was like this is “me” and this is “me” and that I carry it around everywhere, and it takes me a while to get there. Style is something you develop, it isn’t a season, it isn’t a skill, style is something you develop, and it is a person’s style.
5. Tell me something about cooking. Cooking is very beneficial. I love the creativity of cooking and eating.
What I love about cooking is someone can share it, you can cook a meal and can share it, you can share places you have been on a trip, you can share where you are going, you can share what you are passionate about, it can getting spiritual depending on the time of year, you can really bring your mood into the food which is something that’s really thrilling, but also something that’s still a craft and an art.
6. When did you realize you had a “knock” for preparing pretty good food?
I noticed this when I was a teenager – I started making food for my family, and everybody loved my food, even the pickiest. First of all I practice cooking virtually every day! So it is a craft that you must practice, and then it is an art so you are born with a talent and then you must work on it, so it is a combination of work ethic and craftsmanship and artistry. You know my grandma helped me find that passion, and then my parents through their work ethic guided me and showed me a little little bit of what it takes, and then working in France taught me what it takes and then came to this incredible environment here in New York City encourages me even more to work with cooks from Harlem EatUp and other local cooks like Jonathan Waxman, Daniel Boulud, and Melba Wilson, they’re the ones who motivate and encourage me every day.
7. How did it feel to experience the “Big Apple” for the first time?
It’s incredible to experience the “Big Apple” for the first time. It’s gritty, it is cool, it is multicultural, and it is competitive. For the first time it felt like real life.
8. How is cooking different for Americans than for Europeans?
Is there a difference? I believe that there’s a difference. In America you have a multicultural culinary base with many various consumers, which makes it more interesting. In America, first of all the biggest difference is that we have variety. There is variety in sexuality, ethnicity, so the greater the variety, the more you must consider it. Maybe there will not be lots of pork on the menu, maybe you should consider whether there will be more vegetarian dishes, and you just must consider options for people to feed a more diversified nation than I’d say in Europe.
9. Do you remember the first time you stepped into Harlem?
What do you feel? Yes, I absolutely remember the first time I stepped into Harlem. It was in 1995 and it felt like anything I had read of Baldwin and seen in movies. But it is also very thrilling to walk around; it instantly sparked so many great ideas.
10. Red Rooster was born in 2010. Tell us about his evolution and what you came up with.
Well the idea was most likely born in 2000 when I moved to Harlem and that I felt like it took me six to eight years to consider it and study the neighborhood and it took me two years to put it together, so it took a long time, and that I felt like I did not know enough about community to open up restaurant. I wanted to put in place an iconic and significant grassroots environment that celebrates the food of Harlem, but also the people and the culture and the music and the arts so that’s why we have Ginny’s Supper Club which celebrates the music also that’s why upstairs in the Rooster we have an arts program where we work on our food and hospitality every day, so it isn’t just a restaurant, it is more than a restaurant. After 10 years of studying community, it was crystal clear to me that it had to be both in and out of Harlem. Everything has to be good; from the environment, music, food and hospitality, to the great art!
11. Are you trying to keep the Harlem Renaissance alive?
I’m here because of the Harlem Renaissance! I can cook and live freely because of the right moves and lots of people plow the road and I do not take anything for granted and that is why I do it a lot.
12. What dishes would you recommend for first time visitors?
When you are in Harlem I’d recommend the catfish otherwise you should try the yard fry, but also try something from the snack stations like our meatballs and Swedish tripe, or the rotating pasta dishes. They all talked about Harlem; it is past, present, and future. I love the proven fact that you can come here with five bucks and have an excellent time and still be a part of it just as much as if you had a big budget. Our restaurant is here because the community has embraced us, and the New Yorker shows up and diners and Rooster work best when all three are home! (laughter)
13. When creating a menu at Red Rooster, what inspired you?
Harlem, the community, because some of the dishes we had were Alaskan, clearly the feel of the restaurant is migration based and telling the story of migration, and Harlem has lots of immigrants. I’m at all times inspired by the seasons. I looked at all this and made a menu. I also looked into what was in the community, while still ignoring the past. The idea of Harlem EatUp is actually to experience all of Harlem, to explore food and culture throughout the community.
14. What is your favourite new ingredient?
I’m drawn to seafood – even the simplest ones, like soft shell crab, I also love rhubarb. It’s spring now, and it is an excellent time for cooks, in a few weeks you will see a lot on the menu.
15. Have you found a home in Harlem yet?
What do you like about it? Yes, I must have found a home in Harlem, my wife and that I live just down the street. For me, the gardens, the brownstones, the art and the music make me feel at home here.
16. Do you have a favourite cookbook?
White Heat is my favourite by Chef Marco Pierre White. She showed me a different path, she was in France, she had long hair, she just showed that she can be different and that can be allowed. Until then I did not know a twenty-five year old cookbook anymore, I did not know the rest. And I love Leah Chase’s cookbook And I Still Cook, she was one of my mentors.
17. If you could create a menu for couples on “date night” i.e. Head Over Hills for one another, what would it be?
They must have food to share. The menu will start with oysters, so they will must share. I assumed there must be champagne, there must be bubbles. I love anything that talks about the journey they’ve shared together like the Caribbean, grilled lobster on rice which adds a Caribbean touch and that I like to think that they’re sharing and eating together. They finish with strawberries and a few buttermilk or buttermilk sorbet, also brings back childhood memories. Intimate and delicious but also the journey they take together.
18. When you are not cooking, what do you prefer to do?
Maya and that I love participating in art or cycling through Central Park, from the museum to the concert at Apollo.
19. What is it like to cook on television (Top Chef) or to be on The Taste?
Cooking has come so naturally to me that the camera does not change the way I cook. I used to get nervous when I was cooking, but now I’m not so nervous anymore, I just want to at all times make the best food I can. It does not matter whether you are cooking on television or not, you must do your best, that is the key, have a sense of personal pride.
20. If you could prepare dinner for five people you have yet to meet, who would they be?
I love my neighbors and that I love the neighborhood, this isn’t a fame game. I will be preparing dinner for a homeless person in Harlem, because it will mean a lot and that I will learn something. If I could return in time I’d want to cook for James Baldwin because he was in the neighborhood that would be incredible and Nina Simone and Nelson Mandela and Louis Armstrong. Conversation, food and music will make for an excellent evening. Today I want to cook for Prince.
21. I believe careful cooking is love right? ~Julia Child
How does this quote apply to you Marcus? I totally agree and it’s a way of caring. I believe that applies to everything we do. Everything I know and each place I’ve been has revolved around cooking. Whether I’m breaking bread with my family in Harlem or in Ethiopia, for me it is the same thing, and that I love it –
Written by: Tracey Smith