Marcus Samuelsson

Chef

Red Rooster Harlem, photo: Paul Brissman
Interview: by Kenan Gunduz

The Ethiopian-born, Swedish-raised, French-trained Marcus Samuels-son was, at 24 years old, the youngest chef to ever receive three stars from the New York Times for his work at Aquavit. He was named “Best Chef in New York City” by the James Beard Foundation and seved as guest chef for the first state dinner of the Obama presidency. The savvy and prolific restaurateur is currently at the center of Harlem’s resurgent dining scene with Red Rooster, his most recent creation. 

The film buff—and, we hear, mean footballer—could also teach a class on how to handle celebrity with dignity and cool if he had time between slow-cooking, community building, “city stretching,” and helping to solve Harlem’s food desert problem.

Kenan Gunduz: How did you initially connect with food? 

Marcus Samuelsson: I was born in Ethiopia into a situation where we didn’t have food, and in many ways I think that defines how I relate to food. I was later adopted and grew up in Sweden, where my grandmother worked as a maid. She had become middle class, but her roots were in poverty, so the way she cooked reflected that.

KG: There was respect for what you had. 

MS: Yeah, she never grew up with butter. She had the grease that was in the pan, and today we’re all using duck fat. She always used the fish liver; you go to the best sushi restaurants today and they serve Ankimo, monkfish liver. Pig feet, too, all that stuff. Then I went to France and realized the beauty of the highest, most luxurious food, but a lot of it was thrown away and that was shocking. Incorporating the highest ingredients and traditions, being born with very little, and cooking with my grandmother who knew how to work with little, but always eating well—that’s what I’m all about. 

KG: Those cuts that get thrown away in traditional fine dining are seeing a resurgence, but doesn’t it take more time and expertise to make them work? 

MS: I think most things I really dig take time. We’re all looking for a journey, something that’s more than what is presented. Some of my favorite filmmakers are Terrence Malick and Ingmar Bergman because they take their time. Sometimes it’s painfully slow, but I like things that have been through the tumbler for a while. When I make doro wat, a spicy stewed chicken dish from Ethiopia, just chopping the onion takes a while, and then you braise it and let it sit maybe one, even two days. The same with split pea soup in Sweden; my grandmother used to start it on Sunday and we’d eat it on Wednesday. 

KG: That’s a lot of days for soup. 

MS: Yes, but it tastes better, and slow cooking doesn’t mean you’re there the whole time. You can pickle, do crosswords, whatever you want. 

KG: Why did you choose to open Red Rooster in Harlem? 

MS: I think there’s an opportunity to have a dialogue with all the boroughs and neighborhoods, and that conversation can happen in Harlem. It can activate Harlem. I’ve been in New York for 15 years and I feel Harlem is still a part of town that’s mysterious and under-evaluated. But Harlem still wants to be seen, you know, like “We can do it, too.” And if you activate 
that, and do it with dignity, everyone’s better for it. You create jobs, people come up, see something that’s unique and authentic, take part in the dialogue, and the whole city becomes larger. For me, Wiley [Dufresne] did it on the Lower East Side. 

KG: Opening wd~50 was a big move on Clinton Street at the time

MS: Roberta’s in Brooklyn is another great example. It’s so deep in Brooklyn, once you’re at Roberta’s you’re completely somewhere else. And it’s a reflection of that community. Before these restaurants, The Odeon was the ultimate. 

KG: They were pioneers in TriBeCa. 

MS: Yeah, and it stretched the city. The personalities and the interaction with the creative community that The Odeon fostered is the sort of dialogue we want to have. When you get that interaction, that kiss of creativity, you have something. 

KG: What do you think about the trend toward seasonal, locally grown food that Brooklyn has become synonymous with? 

MS: I don’t know anything about trends. I need to go back many, many times to know that it wasn’t just a first love thing, that it was more than that, and by then the trends have moved on. But I do think that Brooklyn as a whole—if you can speak about four million people or its many neighborhoods—is an indication of good things, and an appreciation for what’s around you, whether it’s locally grown food or the cultural communities on your doorstep. 

KG: How connected were you with Harlem when you moved here? 

MS: At first I didn’t understand Harlem fully. I had to live here for five years to understand. I had to walk every block and understand why there’s a food desert. Why is it harder to find an apple in September than junk food? I had to understand what my contribution could be. 

KG: I understand there is now a farmer’s market in Harlem. 

MS:  Our market is not like Union Square, but we didn’t have a farmer’s market before and now we have one. And it’s growing, thanks to the commitment of a lot of smaller farmers who think the ‘hood deserves fresh produce, too. There’s the peach man who drives from Virginia every weekend to sell fresh peaches in Harlem. He doesn’t have to do that; there’s an easier way to sell peaches, but that’s his commitment. There are a lot of people like that. It’s really remarkable. 

Marcus Samuelsson's NYC


photo: Michael Halsband
  • “When this Puerto Rican diner is gone, New York is over. It’s so important to keep these joints. It’s for the community, and even if you don’t speak Spanish you’re welcome here. This place is a reflection of what Chelsea’s Latin culture is all about. It’s an important part of New York City and lets celebrate it.”
  • “I like the flea market on 25th Street and 6th Avenue, and right in front of the market there’s an Ecuadorian couple selling really good Latin food from a cart. They have great food, especially if you’re a flea market junkie like me, and you’re exhausted and you want something small but not greasy. The beauty with this type of street food is that it’s home-cooked food served on the street, not junk food. I love this place.”
  • “This guy has fried chicken all over Harlem. He was working freelance for the best places until he finally opened his own spot. I get fantastic soul food here, then bike over to Rucker Park and watch the basketball players. That’s when you’re really in Harlem. You just sit there and enjoy.”
  • “This movie theater, opened by Albert Maysles in 2005, is for the community, by the community. Here you have a legendary filmmaker essentially teaching film—for nothing— just for the community to learn how to cut and about lighting and such. What other city has that? It says a lot about Harlem, but also about Maysles. Albert’s intern was Martin Scorsese. He always says, ‘You know my intern made a new movie, Marcus. Did you see it?’ And he moved from The Dakota. He moved his whole family here to work in the community. That’s commitment.”
  • “There’s a great Dominican place in Washington Heights on Broadway where the cops, drug dealers, and everybody else comes out to eat. You see people pulling giant rolls of cash out of their pockets and the owner comes out and feeds everyone, and she doesn’t care what side of the law you’re on. It’s an amazing place.”
  • “Shopsin’s for me has so much of what you move to New York City for; it’s original and it’s all over the map. If people call asking ‘Is this Shopsin’s?’ Kenny, the owner, might say ‘No. It’s a shoe store,’ and hang up. Why do you live where you’re at? You live in New York because people are in and of this place. He’s truly in and of New York.”
  • “They have one of these things that all bars should have—free food if you drink. You get what you pay for, but I love it. And they have incredible jazz. The proprietress has owned Showman’s for a long time, and she’s really the thing that makes it work. It’s almost like you are part of the theater of the place; you listen to some incredible music, people don’t yell or get rowdy, you get to be part of it, but no one person gets to take over.”
  • "If you come here in the summertime, one of the most amazing things you can do is to go to Rockaway Beach. Go early, around six or seven in the morning. You see the surfers, some of whom are Wall Street guys, skater kids, laborers, people from all different communities. You don’t think about New York City as a surf town, but it is.”

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