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.
What are some of the notable dishes at Red Rooster Harlem? What would you recommend to someone who comes for the first time?
I learned all I could about making perfectly fried chicken before I opened Rooster. Being up here in Harlem, you have to have your fried chicken stand out among the rest. I asked chefs, friends’ mothers, the woman on the corner of 125th and Lenox, “What’s the secret to your fried chicken?” I even got a tutorial from Charles Gabriel of Charles Country Pan Fried Chicken, up Frederick Douglass Blvd., and after that I was proud to put the Fried Yardbird on the menu, one of our most popular dishes. After that it’s our Swedish Meatballs (named after my grandmother, Helga), and our Mac-n-Greens. I would recommend first timers come with a large group so they can order a lot and share it family-style.
It’s also inspired by the neighborhood.
The menu is also driven by Harlem itself. The history, where Harlem is today, and how we move forward. There’s a large percentage that’s inspired from African American history, and specifically immigration. So it’s American history that we stand on. The migration, which really started in 1917 and finished in 1980 and moved six million people from south to north, brought food with it. Then you have the young history of the West African community, which has been here from the ‘80s on. And you have the Latin community that’s been here longer and is shifting, with the original Puerto Rican community and now also the Mexican community. And then you have, before that, the Italian community, the Jewish community, and the Irish community. Within the black community is also the Caribbean community. So you have nuances, and these are the things that inspire our menu.
I certainly see food of different cultures on the menu.
So yes we have fried yardbird, but we also have dirty rice and shrimp that is really inspired by the Caribbean community. We will always have some type of taquito on the menu inspired by the Mexican community. There will be the immigrant culture of my experience, so there will be meatballs, but there will also be African dishes that will reflect what’s going on Eighth Avenue. This is a tapestry that is carefully put together the way Alvin Ailey performs. It takes time, effort, and teamwork.
What is the common thread between these disparate elements?
Commitment of the public, first of all, to support us. Teamwork, vision, drive, and passion are important. When all those interests align, you have a magical place.
This space, Ginny’s, is very cool, your lounge with live music. When you opened Red Rooster, was there already the idea for Ginny’s?
Yes, but we couldn’t afford it. We didn’t have any money, so we had to earn it, which is fine. I come from humble beginnings so I like when you have to earn it. Nothing feels greater than the day when you can finally do something. We had to earn it, but even before it looked like this we still had music. I remember when we only had a disco ball. We served the president down here when it wasn’t even ready.
We’ve been fortunate that people have supported our intent more so than where we were at the time. Now our intent has to move forward a bit. I remember when Mastercard and Target and other companies came in and said we’re going to do our dinner here anyway, even though there was just a basement with no AC. Now we have a gospel choir every Sunday for Sunday brunch. Local kids learning life skills through gospel. We’ve had Lenny Kravitz and Alicia Keys perform. African punk bands. Ne-Yo. It’s music at its core. Living Color and incredible jazz. As long as it’s of Harlem and of music and has flair, we support it.
A tribute to the original Red Rooster.
The original Red Rooster was where the layman and the politician and the celebrity and the writer met. That is the North Star. Red Rooster was a small bar, a footprint on 138th and Seventh Avenue, but it was very important in terms of its impact on the community, just like this place.
Having Ginny’s as an extension of Red Rooster weaves you further into the fabric of the community. It’s not just a place to eat but a place to hang out and socialize and listen to music you might not be familiar with.
It’s also curiosity. That’s one thing that Mastercard does very well with Priceless Experiences. It speaks to people’s curiosity. The Harlem local has to be curious about who’s going to be at Red Rooster tonight. The New Yorker has to be like, I can’t wait to go up to Red Rooster, I want a different experience. And for visitors that come from Japan, Belgium, or Kansas, it speaks to their curiosity. They seek out diversity.
Continue to Part 3