For more than two decades, Marcus Samuelsson has been a singular force in the culinary world. In 1995, as the 23-year-old executive chef of New York’s Aquavit, he became the youngest chef to earn a three-star review in The New York Times, the first of many accolades in his illustrious career. In 2010, Samuelsson struck out on his own with Red Rooster Harlem, a restaurant influenced by the many facets of the neighborhood. Two years later, he opened Ginny’s Supper Club, a stylish basement lounge with live music. Not one to rest for long, he’s since opened three new restaurants–American Table Café and Bar in Lincoln Center, American Table Brasserie and Bar in Stockholm, Uptown Brasserie at JFK airport–and published Yes, Chef: a Memoir, among other projects. #LoveThisCity recently sat down with Samuelsson at Ginny’s to discuss his eclectic culinary background, the roots of his love for Harlem, and his favorite place in the world to catch live jazz.
Tell me a little bit about your background.
I was born in east Africa, in Ethiopia. When I was three I was adopted to Gothenburg, Sweden. I grew up there and started engaging in food and cooking through my family. On my mother’s side, my grandmother was a cook and she taught us how to cook and be active with food. On my father’s side, they were fishermen so I knew how to fish at an early age and all the things you learn around a boat. I’ve always been cooking. I had a chance to go to Europe when I was 16 or 17 years old and worked in Switzerland and France. I always wanted to come to New York. I’m driven by diversity and New York is a place of just that.
When you came to New York you worked at Aquavit. What was that experience like?
It was great. Aquavit was the premier Scandinavian restaurant in the world at the time. I felt a familiarity because of my Scandinavian background, but also an opportunity to create something new because it was in New York. Some customers were Scandinavian but mostly they were not, so it was great to introduce things that were new to them. New Yorkers have always been very curious and open-minded, and I’m very curious and I like to think I’m open-minded. The core of a chef is to be passionate about food, but also always be curious about what else is out there.
What drew you to Harlem to open Red Rooster?
I knew about Harlem in Sweden. I grew up in a mixed family based on all different cultures and races. Our parents were traditional Scandinavians, but the fact that they had black kids, they wanted to have an identity around us that involved people of color. So they taught us African American history the best they could. This is in Sweden, so the lens isn’t so direct. But I learned through Langston Hughes, through James Baldwin, through music, through art. Harlem was always popping up in all of these books or music or conversations. It became clear that this place, this neighborhood in New York City, really means something. Whether it’s the Civil Rights Movement or other movements, Harlem’s always been at the core.
And so you had to experience it for yourself?
When I moved to New York I came up to Harlem several times. I was drawn to Harlem, but I also felt there was something missing. I thought: what if I could put a restaurant in Harlem? What would it look like? What would it be like? Where in Harlem would it be? It took me a long time. Eventually I moved to Harlem, around 2000 or 2001. That let me dive in deeper and learn more about this community that is known worldwide. We talk about Harlem the way people talk about Brooklyn or Queens, but Brooklyn and Queens are boroughs, and Harlem is a neighborhood. It’s a known place, but what is it? What does it taste like? Those things speak to me.
What do you remember from your first visit to Harlem?
There are some very strong images. I knew a lot about it from reading books and from my own imagination. I knew where the Apollo was. I knew about the churches. You can look at a block of brownstones on a postcard, but nothing beats seeing it up close when the light hits it around 3:00 in the afternoon on a spring day. It’s a very different beauty than a postcard. And I was also shocked at how not built up it was. It has beautiful architectural design, but all low buildings, so light comes in. It’s surrounded by parks, but yet a lot of blocks were not developed.
What is the concept behind Red Rooster, and what are you trying to accomplish?
Well first is that it’s not a concept. The word restaurant means to restore a community, and that’s what this is. It’s a deep engagement of something that’s in and of this community. When I thought about how to put a restaurant together, I knew I wanted to help restore the community. I wanted to build where the pillars were there before us. Harlem has always been a food-centric place. Culture and art have also been pillars, along with spirituality, through the churches. Then you have the music and dance, and the artists and the poets, whether it’s today’s artists like Sanford Biggers or the poets of before, like Nat King Cole, James Baldwin, or Langston Hughes, who lived just a couple blocks up. Or artists like Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence. Maya Angelou came here as a dancer. There’s a history here. So I knew that creating the restaurant was not about a concept, it was a total authentic experience restoring the history and creating something unique. That takes time.
How has it worked out?
I look for measures of success in many different ways. The service assistant is now a server. That’s a measure of success. We have 150 employees. That’s a measure of success. I look at who’s dining with us. What’s the percentage of Harlem residents, local New Yorkers, and visitors? We all need each other to create this magical place. It wouldn’t work without all three. I’m very fortunate that we have a busy restaurant, but I’ve worked in food all my life and I’ve always been busy. I always will be busy. So it’s not about whether or not we’re busy, it’s about the type of engagement and impact we want to have. I’m inspired by the people who were here before me, and I want this to be an aspirational workplace. There are two lines I want: a line out the door of customers, and a line out the door of staff who want to come in and work. I’ve got to look at both.
It seems like a fun place to work.
Well, it’s work. It can be fun. It’s also a place of learning. It’s beyond a job. A job is important but it’s beyond a job, it’s a commitment. I understand we work with young people on borrowed time. I hope they go on and do whatever their inspiration is, and say hey, when I worked at Red Rooster I learned this, and that gave me the inspiration or the money or the drive or the skills to do this.
It’s like a school.
As a workplace, a restaurant has everything that you’ll need outside the restaurant. It has people interaction, teamwork. It has a dose of finance, whether you’re a server or a cook. It has marketing. It’s one of the few workplaces that essentially gives you a 360 experience of what you’re going to need and bring with you wherever you go, whether you work in a bank or you’re a school teacher. There are all these interactions. As a server you’ve got to earn your tip, because you, as a guest, have a clear choice. There’s a very honest interaction and engagement. We’ve got to earn it on a daily basis.
Continue to Part 2