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.
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You live and work in Harlem. Where are some of your favorite places to go when you have free time?
One of my favorite places, and this is a very unique place, is The Parlor, on 160th and Edgecombe. An older lady named Marjorie Elliot invites people into her apartment and you have a jazz concert every Sunday between 4 and 6. You pay if you can afford to—most people can—and it’s the highest level of hospitality. She doesn’t want anything back, but you have to applaud the musicians. She’s been doing this for a long time. If you don’t have money, you can still come. It’s one of the most magical places anywhere. There’s a commitment to restore what jazz is. World class musicians come and play for free. You have to behave, you can’t be loud. You have to listen. It’s incredible. It’s one of my favorite things to bring my wife to. I try to go once or twice a month. I travel a lot, and when I miss Harlem, I miss that.
That sounds amazing. Where else do you like to go?
If it’s springtime or early summer, another place to go is to see Charles Gabriel at his restaurant. Biking up there is one of my favorite things to do. One of the things I was surprised to learn when he tutored me was that he doesn’t use a deep fryer, he fries in a large cast iron skillet with a long handle. You get your food and then walk over to Rucker Park to watch the most magical street basketball in the world. That’s where Kobe comes to play. Where Kevin Durant got dunked on. That’s where Stephon played. You’ll see street ballers who are just as good as pros. I like to watch the young high school students, girls and boys, play. You eat chicken and sit there and it’s theater.
I love it.
You also have Vinateria on 119th and Eighth Avenue. It’s a newer place, family-owned. Nice little Italian wine bar in the neighborhood with an impressive wine list and really well executed small plates. Paris Blues on 121st and Seventh Avenue is an original Harlem Bar. They have jazz. Music bars in Harlem often provide finger food for free. This way of showing hospitality has been here forever, but to the outsider it’s new.
It’s very welcoming and makes you want to hang around.
But that’s not the core of the purpose. The core is that a lot of people have food insecurities, and they might be musicians, so they have a place to eat. That’s the purpose. That’s how Harlem takes care of the community. People who don’t come from here can’t even fathom the deep connection to music and supporting its arts. That’s why Harlem is the only place in the world that reminds me of Africa. That’s the type of community you would have in Africa. If you can contribute, whether you’re a musician, a dancer, or a painter, you have value. Your value is not if you get paid for what you’re doing. You still have a place you can go.
What farmer’s market do you go to around here?
In season there are two that I support. On 124th and Marcus Garvey Park there’s a great farmers market from June to Thanksgiving. And then you have the 125th Street Farmers Market in front of the government building between Lenox and Seventh. Our farmers markets are different because our communities are different. We have DJs in our farmers markets. It’s great. And we have culturally relevant ingredients in our farmers markets.
Are there any particular farmers or vendors you seek out?
There’s one guy, the peach guy. He doesn’t come from here but he’s committed. He drives all the way from Virginia. He does that on his own, he’s not thinking about how much money he’s going to make, he thinks that it’s a right. In peach season people should have peaches. That’s his commitment. The farmers aren’t driven by thinking: oh I’m going to go to Harlem and make, like, sixty bucks. They start their morning at two o’clock, load the car, drive for hours, unload the car, sell, pack it again. It’s clearly not about the financial stuff. It’s more about the local engagement. He feels that he can help out in a movement and be a part of it.
What else do you like around here?
It’s on the southern tip of Harlem, but I love the Conservatory Garden in Central Park, at 105th and Fifth Avenue. I love that whole area. Just across the street you have the Museum of the City of New York, and you have El Museo del Barrio, and you can walk up to the Studio Museum here. It’s a wonderful walk through the community. Right now the City museum has an incredible graffiti exhibit. Then you come to the Studio Museum of Harlem which is amazing, and you can walk straight to the Apollo across the street. Another great place is the Maysles Documentary Center. It’s on 127th and Lenox. It’s a film center where Albert Maysles teaches young students, gives them a camera for free to shoot with. He’s an American icon. He taught Martin Scorsese how to make films. This is a genius. Almost 90 years old. He’s very special. He’s helped so many people.
And of course there are the churches.
There are some incredible churches, spiritual of course but also historical. On 138th between Lenox and Seventh there is Abyssinian, then you have Corinthians on 116th. These are incredible cultural institutions besides being churches. Architecture, the music you get from there, education. Again, it’s very similar to Africa, where spirituality has a very strong core in the community.
How have you seen the neighborhood change since you’ve been here?
A place like this will always evolve and change. The great thing with a restaurant, not just our restaurant but every restaurant, is that you can’t outsource the jobs. These are jobs in this community. They’re staying here. People might come from other places. They might live in Brooklyn and work here, and that’s great. For a long time we were a bedroom community, where people slept, worked downtown, and then came back up. So now we’re becoming a more active community the way Harlem was. It’s not back to the first renaissance, but a lot more jobs have been created here. There are challenges with that—how can you do urban renewal without moving people out who were here? That’s challenging anywhere, so sensitivity around that is important.
Suppose it’s date night. Any Harlem cocktail spots you really like besides Ginny’s?
Sure, I love what Karl Franz is doing at 67 Orange. It’s a tiny but great cocktail bar that is still a hidden gem. I love the Sir Basil made with homemade basil-infused rum. If you want to go to a more old school place go to Just Lorraine’s Place on Seventh Avenue between 132nd and 133rd. They serve heavy pours of whiskey in a wine glass, and they still have Christmas lights up in July, but it’s one of those places you hope doesn’t change. To get a taste of something different, there’s a beer garden, Bier International, on 114th and Frederick Douglass. It has lots of cool beers. If you go up to Hamilton Heights you have The Grange, which is on 140th and Amsterdam, and it’s the perfect place to enjoy a fresh farm-to-table menu in a cozy, vintage-inspired spot.
When you have a day off, what do you like to do?
I love running in the park. For me it’s difficult to be by myself. Running in the park, you’re by yourself, you see people and they’re happy. Another great thing is walking from City College to Columbia’s Campus, because those are two incredible institutions in our community. Two anchors. When my nephews come over, I’m like: that’s the walk, we’ve got to do it, because it’s aspirational. They’re young, they think about it.
I crowdsourced a couple of questions from my friends. One is, why do you wear sneakers with a suit?
Things come naturally to me and I put on whatever’s there. When I was a kid, we always had to represent. We were black kids and our mom was very attentive to how we presented ourselves. When we went out, there were always people looking at us, trying to touch our hair. We always had to look a certain way. But I never think about what looks good together.
My other friend just wanted your Swedish meatball recipe.
Sure. But, the question is: recipes are everywhere. Could she still make it?