What motivated Marcus Samuelsson to move to Harlem and open Red Rooster, his acclaimed restaurant? He tells The Splendid Table's Melissa Clark that 9/11, his mother, and the Great Migration all played a part. He also discusses the challenge of making fried chicken in the same neighborhood as legendary spots like Sylvia's and Charles' Country Pan Fried Chicken.
Melissa Clark: How did you end up with a restaurant in Harlem?
Marcus Samuelsson: There were many steps to it. After 9/11, I think the restaurant scene was very confusing for a lot of people, particularly for me. I'd just cooked at the World Trade Center, and I felt lost in many ways. That was the first time when I started thinking about a question: Why am I in New York? Why am I here?
I come from the most comfortable country in the world: Sweden. I'm not a refugee; I'm an immigrant, and that's a luxury. It's a slight difference, but it's a luxury, and I started to question that. After thinking about it, I really fell in love with New York more. I came here because I'm deeply in love with New York City and America, and I started talking a lot to my mother about community. Eventually, I said, "Where have I had the best time in New York City?" Harlem always came up, not necessarily from eating, but from music and friends. So I said, "I'm going to move up to Harlem."
After I moved, my mom said, "You sound really happy. You should open a restaurant in your community." That was the idea of it, but it took another six or seven years for me to open Red Rooster because I felt that I didn't know enough. Being black, I had some ties to Harlem, and I felt connected to Harlem through the African-American history, but I didn't know it. I wanted to discover it, and the first thing you realize is that, like a lot of African-American communities in inner cities, it's completely off the grid.
MC: What do you mean by that?
MS: It has a couple of places that are on the grid: Apollo, Studio Museum, Sylvia's. They're on the official map of New York City, along with Central Park and Schomburg, maybe. But there was incredible food in between all of those places. It's almost the way you can say that Brooklyn was off the regular map and grid 15 years ago.
(Photo: Bobby Fisher)
MS: I understand that people needed these cliffhangers to hold onto, but in between those places, that's where I found Crab Man Mike shucking oysters, and I thought he would be on that corner all the time. He said, "No, why would I do that? I'm right where the people are at," which makes sense if you're a merchant.
The food that came after church sessions was so delicious. The incredible bars that were serving food for free but charging for the drinks, and there were always musicians, and you had to put money into the baskets or the cup. It was these traditions that everyone there knew, but I didn't, and there was food wrapped around all of these places that wasn't ending up on a blog or on Zagat's.
I thought, "This is magical." What if I can create one place where my food is a response to all these different images? What if we open a place where it's diverse, not from a name tag, but the true essence of diversity--it more reflects the subway. New York City is extremely diverse, yet true diversity is very hard to experience. You find it on the subway, but what if we can open a place where diversity just comes natural? That's what we worked towards, and that's what we created.
MC: When you talk about capturing that diversity, I know that you started with the menu. Can you talk about how you came up with that?
MS: The (Great) Migration is so core to Harlem. Think about what we got from it. We got be-bop; we got jazz; we got, eventually, hip-hop; we got gospel.
MC: "Migration" meaning black Southerners coming north.
MS: Absolutely, and that happened from 1917 to 1970. If I wanted to ask you what it sounded like, I can give you different notes, from Dizzy Gillespie to gospel to hip-hop. If we wanted to talk about, orally, what that sounded like, we can go from Maya Angelou to James Baldwin. Even visually, we can talk about Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden. But how it tasted? It was the term "soul food" that I wanted to give a nod to but also have it live in the present.
How does soul food taste with the farmers market in mind? How does soul food taste with a modernity that haa a slightly off-center call to it, because part of it is the migration, but part of it's also the immigration, and I'm an immigrant? Soul food cooked with soul, but maybe with Swedish ingredients or African ingredients. Constantly looking at African-American history but also adding the immigration tale to it--that's the menu.
MC: Can you talk about some of the dishes?
MS: Protein-wise, it's a balance between the bird and the pig, because those were the things that were sent from South Carolina and Virginia. They were pickled, they were roasted, they were preserved, and they were sent up north. It's all about the chicken and the pig.
We have fried chicken. I knew it had to be a staple, and it intimidated me. How do I serve fried chicken in Harlem when you have Charles' Country Pan Fried Chicken right up the street, and you have Sylvia's a block away? It had to be very different, and I had to make clear decisions. Our fried chicken will always be bone-in, dark meat, thigh, skin-on, and when we marinate it, it has a little bit of coconut milk instead of only buttermilk. It slightly hints to Africa. It's a little bit different, but these left turns make it taste completely different.
MC: I know that you're buying ingredients locally. You're shopping the farmers market, but you're also staffing your restaurant locally.
MC: The term "green" is so different in an urban area. For me, the greenest experience I can give to our restaurant is the hiring policy, so 75% of my staff comes from Harlem. That was a very big difference for me, too. It makes sense because, if you have dinner with us, and you ask one of our servers, "Where can I go after this?" you want someone to say, "There's a really cool place two blocks from here. Tell them that I sent you, and the first round is on me." That is curation, but it's also valuable information if you're 50 blocks away from your normal neighborhood.
MC: That's so great. I know you were telling me earlier that you have a rule that 75% of your staff needs to either be born in Harlem or living in Harlem or have some kind of connection.
MS: Yes, because this idea of being in and of the community is really the true essence of Red Rooster. When we started, there was a 38% unemployment rate for black males. Overall unemployment in Harlem is around 19%. We hired 165 people; 70 musicians on top of that call Red Rooster home every week.