Marcus Samuelsson can’t recall anyone who thought that opening a fine-dining restaurant in Harlem was wise.
“Most people said this was a bad idea,” Samuelsson says in his lilting Swedish accent of Red Rooster, the 140-seat, bi-level restaurant he plans to open in October. The space, located at 125th Street and Lenox Avenue, steps away from Harlem landmarks like Sylvia’s and Lenox Lounge, will also include a bakery, grocery store and, later, a downstairs lounge. “This is the biggest climb I have ever done,” Samuelsson says. “But not doing this would be even more dangerous.”
Harlem, where the Ethiopian-born Samuelsson has lived for five years, has experienced a development boom in the past few years: Manhattan’s first Target (for which he designed a kitchen accessories line) recently moved in, and on the day of our interview, Samuelsson learned a Hyatt hotel will go up across the street from his restaurant. He believes he has been given an invaluable opportunity to make over the neighborhood’s dining landscape.
“I want Harlem to be converted to a brand,” he says. “I want telling someone you worked at a restaurant here to be significant. If you’re a jazz musician and you tell someone you’ve played in Harlem, that means something all over the world. There is a shot, a slight opportunity, that the same can apply to fine dining, that cooking in Harlem can really mean something.”
If anyone has the chops to take on this task, it’s Samuelsson. The James Beard Award-winning chef brought upscale Scandinavian food to New York City with his restaurant, Aquavit; prepared President Obama’s first White House state dinner; and recently won the second season of Bravo’s Top Chef Masters. He somehow also has the time to oversee an upcoming “food website geared towards men,” called Foodrepublic.com.
Samuelsson is still putting Red Rooster’s menu together but says it will offer “affordable luxury” — like coffee and a homemade muffin for four dollars. A version of a prawn and basmati rice dish he served at the Obamas’ state dinner will be on its appetizer menu for nine dollars. Though he will serve cornbread and other Southern classics, he eschews the term “soul food,” since he “can’t think of any other food that instantly describes an entire race. Black people are diverse. We don’t just eat one type of food, listen to one type of music. That’s just not the narrative here.”
The Red Rooster menu, Samuelsson says, will tell a different tale. “Food tells a story, just like Kehinde Wiley tells a story with his art or the Talking Heads tell a story with their songs. I want it to taste like I took a bike from the east side of Harlem to the west side of Harlem and told the story of everything I saw. I want to capture the Latin community, the Caribbean and African-American communities, the Italian-American community, the Jewish-American community and the Columbia students. That, to me, is so representative of American food and Americans today.”
For Red Rooster to be successful, he says it’s paramount that the restaurant be deferential to Harlem’s history and its residents. (The restaurant’s own name comes from a former speakeasy in the neighborhood.) “There have to be real people from the neighborhood at Red Rooster. They have to feel connected to the space,” he says.
Red Rooster’s china will come from Harlem antique shops, murals on the walls will be painted by local artists, and ingredients will be purchased through a local farmer’s market. Shopping for food locally, however, has proved difficult. “Grocery stores here are fabulous and horrible at the same time. I tell my wife all the time, ‘We can’t cop out. We can’t hop on the train and go down to Whole Foods for everything.’ Otherwise we’re importing our groceries and saying, ‘Here, look, we live in Harlem.’ I welcome people to come up and open some green markets. There are so many opportunities.”
Harlem’s lack of good, fresh food has inspired Samuelsson to visit local public schools as part of Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! program
, teaching kids about fresh fruits and vegetables. “You go into these schools and there is no sign of a fresh vegetable. Fresh food has been stripped out of their lunches. It’s highway robbery.”
Many in Harlem clearly support Samuelsson’s efforts in the community — exactly seven people greeted or stopped the chef during our interview, including a young woman who placed her hand over her heart as she told Samuelsson she loved him. Yet residents do not always greet him warmly. A man recently approached him on the street to accuse Samuelsson of raising his rent. “I listened and said, ‘I’m actually going to be creating a lot of jobs in the community.’” It’s an exchange like this that reminds Samuelsson that gaining the neighborhood’s trust will perhaps be Red Rooster’s biggest hurdle. “If we offer cooking classes to the community, an after-church program, hold Monday supper, we’re really asking for license to come into their living rooms. That’s our most important relationship to maintain. But that’s going to take a while. We’ll fail in some regard. But then we’ll pick ourselves up and try again.”
Some of the responsibility for Red Rooster’s success, however, lies with the people of New York to expand their “fine-dining footprint,” Samuelsson says. “This is a test, not only for me and my cooking, but it’s a test for everyone, the entire city.”