I first met Marcus Samuelsson five years ago when he opened Red Rooster in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City. Today is the first time I’ve been back to the restaurant, to support Harlem Helps, a benefit for the families of Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. I got a chance to talk to Marcus about what’s changed (and what hasn’t) in the past five years for the restaurant that The New York Times has described as “that rarest of cultural enterprises, one that supports not just the idea or promise of diversity, but diversity itself.”
What made you open Red Rooster in Harlem in 2010, at a time when there weren’t yet many upscale restaurants in the neighborhood?
I knew I wanted to open a restaurant in Harlem for a long time before I moved there in 2005. I was immediately attracted to the vibrancy of the neighborhood: the community, the history, the art, the food! But, first I needed to study it, to become a part of it, to learn as much as I could before I started to feel ready to open Red Rooster in 2010. I wanted to create a place that would be in and of the community.
I remember dining at Red Rooster about five years ago. How has the menu evolved and matured since its inception?
The restaurant scene has grown significantly since I’ve lived uptown. Myself and other chefs/owners have only brought what people have been hungry for. Harlem used to be a restaurant Mecca. We’re only restoring that.
As long as the flavors and influences in the neighborhood and beyond are constantly evolving, so will the menu at Rooster. We are always learning, and getting inspiration from new flavors, new traditions and new dishes.
The menu is influenced by your unique background. What was your experience like being Ethiopian-born and growing up in Sweden, adopted by Swedish parents?
I had an amazing childhood and am very grateful to my parents for the way I was raised; with locally-grown ingredients, on the ocean in our summer house fishing and foraging, and getting a great introduction to cooking with my grandmother (her roasted chicken and meatballs I still make today). I’m also very grateful for by heritage- Ethiopia is such an amazing place and I am lucky to be able to travel there frequently to visit my family, and of course the flavors and traditional dishes influence me so much to this day.
What was the biggest challenge you faced when you decided to open your own restaurant after being the executive chef of critically acclaimed Aquavit?
The challenge is that you have to be willing to take a risk and a real leap of faith to bring your ideas to life. The reason I decided to open Ginny’s Supper Club was that music has always been such an important piece of Harlem culture, and I wanted to create a modern space still reminiscent of the old speakeasies and clubs that were popular in the early 20th century, to provide the same feel while celebrating local up and coming artists, as well as legends.
How did you get involved with Harlem Helps?
So many people in the neighborhood were deeply saddened and affected by the tragedy. Like anyone, I’m shocked and sad that this has happened and It is hard to imagine how this could have happened under these circumstances; in their place of worship.
As a restaurant owner in the community, I feel it’s integral to provide a platform for people to gather and show their support. We have the ability to bring people together to show support, and thus a responsibility to the community and to the families to do so, to help in the face of this adversity.
The Harlem Helps Benefit Dinner is on Wednesday, July 15th at 8pm at Ginny’s Supper Club, 320 Lenox Avenue in New York City.