Marcus Samuelsson's Harlem

Oct 26, 2016

Marcus Samuelsson takes The Splendid Table's Melissa Clark on a personalized tour of Harlem, the neighborhood he has called home for over a decade.

[Ed. note: You can read the second half of our interview with Marcus here.]

Melissa Clark:I am so excited to talk to you about Harlem, which is also dear to my heart. I want to hear how it's dear to your heart. Can you take us through a tour of your Harlem?

Marcus Samuelsson: I think you would come on the 2 or the 3 (train), I would meet you on top of the subway, and maybe we'd have a cocktail at the Rooster. Then we'd walk straight to the counter at Sylvia's and sit at the counter that I know you've been to many, many times.

MC: Yes.

Marcus Samuelsson (Photo: Bobby Fisher)

MS: We will have oxtail. Maybe we'd argue about who's going to suck the bone or not--all these things. We'll listen to this background noise of conversation at the counter because everything's happening at Sylvia's counter. Later on, we'll probably walk down by the Studio Museum, check out the new show, and take a left on Adam Clayton Powell. I would point out the Apollo and who's coming up. We would take a left and go down to Paris Blues, which is always open for the most amazing late-night music. We'll go left from there down to 116th, and we'll just touch a little West Africa, where it smells a little funky from the fermented shrimp paste, and you can have really good jollof.

MC: What's jollof?

MS: Jollof is a Senegalese dish. Throughout West Africa, you have incredible jollof rice and this incredible Senegalese food between St. Nick and Frederick Douglass. We'll head left and go to La Marqueta. La Marqueta is this beautiful East Harlem market where you can find the roots of Puerto Rican Harlem, but now, through immigration, it's really evolved into a Mexican Harlem and an immigrant Harlem that is so delicious.

We'll walk down 116th. I'll take you for some good Puerto Rican food. We'll keep on walking, go down to Pleasant Avenue, and I'll point out the Patsy's (Pizzeria) that's been there forever. You might even see some of the new Mexican street food that is there. Then, when we get all the way down Pleasant Avenue, we'll stop at Rao's and get a seat at the bar, listen to some Italian-American music, and get some good meatballs. That's my Harlem.

MC: That sounds like a heck of a night. 

MS: That's a good night. That's a good night.

MC: Who do we see? Who do we pass on the street? Tell me about the people.


The Red Rooster Cookbook

MS: We see uptown's Anna Wintour, who is Lana Turner, and she is probably coming with a big hat and is impeccably dressed. We'll see a lot of musicians that I know. They have a saxophone or a guitar on their back, or a trumpet. They're coming or going from a gig, but they're always in conversation about the next gig, talking to another musician about what space was happening, which supper club was cooler than the other.

You're going to see some dapper men in three-piece suits and blue hats. Blue hats only make sense in Harlem. It's clownish in other neighborhoods. You'll see a hint of Senegalese patterns at the African market, the Nigerian patterns. Also young kids on bikes and skateboards racing each other. Some strollers and young, new families talking, sipping the latest latte or frappuccino. They're engaging in talking to each other, not just at each other.

MC: That's what makes Harlem so vibrant.

MS: Absolutely.

MC: How long have you been living in Harlem? Have you seen a lot of changes?

MS: I've lived in Harlem for about 12 years, and have seen an enormous amount of change. But the core of it is really protected like a flower. People have worked to protect the core through community boards, through churches, and through the small businesses.  

You can see it as a David-and-Goliath fight in terms of whose Harlem it is. Where does gentrification land? How hard does it push? All of this is part of the changes. When you walk on Lenox and see the brownstones, who do they belong to today? Who built them? You see the new condos and co-ops on top of them, you see Central Park to the south, and you see Schomburg to the north. It's America. When you see Harlem, you see the world, but you also see America.

MC: Race is so much on our minds today. We're always thinking about how people are connecting to one another. What are you seeing from Harlem?

(Photo: Bobby Fisher)

MS: People from the Black Lives Matter movement constantly come to our restaurant, and I think it's beautiful that they want to express themselves. They look at our restaurant as the place to do that, and it's always peaceful.

Race was definitely on my mind when I built the restaurant. We take for granted today that we all can eat together because of the civil rights movement, because of Leah Chase and Sylvia's and so on. I wanted a restaurant that was of African-American culture, but it was for everyone.  Think about that big, voluptuous bar. It has every nationality and race you can possibly think of at any given time. That's an important statement.

There is a stigma that comes from only seeing black people in entertainment or in negative news. It's important to have other places to meet people, have a glass of wine, and see that you're like-minded. There's a reason why those tables are very close to each other, so people are talking and hearing conversations and can say, "You know what, we are more like-minded." A little restaurant can actually create a dialogue of seeing each other versus talking at each other.

MC: There's nothing like breaking bread amidst different people, right? It brings everybody together.

MS: Absolutely. Some bourbon on top of that is not a bad idea.


Fried Yardbird