Inside Marcus Samuelsson's Harlem Restaurant

Jennifer Livingston

At the white-hot Red Rooster in Harlem, Marcus Samuelsson has created the quintessential New York restaurant of the moment with grit, glamour and comfort food.

On the corner of Lenox Avenue and 125th Street in Manhattan, Marcus Samuelsson’s Red Rooster gleams. Inside, beyond the red awning lettered in the font of Harlem’s 1950s-era buses, a voluptuous curving bar rendered in mahogany, oak and copper is barely visible through the crush of people. Five large bourbon-filled glass vats conjure the spirit of the original Red Rooster, an early-20th-century watering hole and haunt of James Baldwin and Adam Clayton Powell. The happy, buzzy hum of a thousand unlikely conversations all but summon those giants from the past. At night the restaurant’s golden light warms Lenox Avenue like an incubator—which is precisely Samuelsson’s ambition for the place.

Which restaurants are hot—when, where and why—can be a tough nut to crack. Many try, only to fail. But when a place does catch fire and flame, the result can be incandescent. Think of Odeon in the ’80s, when a multicultural array of beautiful people and boldfaced names fomented a downtown arts scene, or the Cedar Tavern before that. And what of the Waverly? Past as prologue, future unknown: Right now, in New York City, there is no hotter reservation in town than at Red Rooster, a heady, heterogeneous and happening mix of “the New Yorker, the Harlemite and the visitor,” Samuelsson says. And all of them—black, white, Latin, Asian, straight, gay, older, younger—fill the room to capacity each evening. “I’m not asking you to come here to change your political party or religion,” Samuelsson adds. “I’m asking you to come and be with others.”

Some chefs are born chefs, some achieve chef celebrity, some may even have celebrity chefhood thrust upon them. But only Samuelsson seems to have been born a celebrity chef. Chic in Varvatos trousers, his own line of chef shoes and a custom denim work shirt, the 41-year-old culinary maven stands by the entrance of Red Rooster and chuckles at his own ease with American fame. “I was a black kid in Sweden,” he says. “I’ve been a celebrity all my life.”

Born in 1970 in famine-plagued Ethiopia, where he was christened Kassahun Tsegie, Samuelsson was adopted at age 3 and raised by a family in Gothenberg, Sweden. He experienced a rise that was nearly as smooth as the narrative he often unspools to tell it. Arriving in New York at 21 (the age, not the restaurant) and hired as an apprentice at the hallowed Aquavit, he became its executive chef in three years and, at 24, was the youngest chef ever to win three stars from The New York Times. He fast-forwarded through the rest of the decade, picking up the James Beard Foundation’s title of Best Chef: New York (2003); publishing The Soul of a New Cuisine (’06), which won the foundation’s Best International Cookbook award; vanquishing 21 world-class restaurateurs in Bravo’s Top Chef Masters (’10); and swinging by the White House just long enough to prepare the Obama presidency’s first state dinner (red-lentil soup, potato dumplings, chickpeas and okra, and green-curry prawns with collard greens). But it’s Samuelsson’s Red Rooster, an haute soul-food-restaurant-cum-downtown-uptown cultural jetty, that seems to be the capstone on his American enterprise.

On any given night, Red Rooster bursts with big names. The reservation book—full for four weeks—reads like a who’s who of power players. President Obama, ex-mayor David Dinkins, ex-governor David Patterson, talk-show host Jimmy Fallon, former president Bill Clinton, who had a scheduled fly-by (though he recently moved his offices from Harlem to the Financial District), Keith Richards and Bill T. Jones, as well as Harlem’s social elite. The Goncourt brothers would, one feels, be in hog heaven here. Samuelsson provided the personal effects (Chaka Khan and ABBA LPs, Converse low-tops, George Lois’s Esquire covers, his personal copy of Cooking the Scandinhavian Way) that line the cubbyholes of the bar—he calls the decor “packed deli-esque”—and curated the art from major Harlem artists like Sanford Biggers, as well as from emerging ones such as Philip Maysles, son of documentary giant Albert Maysles. For Sunday gospel brunch, Samuelsson often books musicians, and for Red Rooster’s opening night last December, there was a performance by one of his favorite groups, Pink Martini. “They sing in Turkish, they sing in Spanish, they’re transvestites, they’re everything that New York should be,” Samuelsson says, although their names probably didn’t come up when he met with Mayor Michael Bloomberg the day before.

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Today’s lunch crowd is just as varied. “You’re going to see where the magic is,” Samuelsson says, leading me into the dining room. “This is where the oomph is.” At one table sits the British milliner Stephen Jones. At others, serially: hip-hop giant Pete Rock, then Basquiat curator Diego Cortes and downtown music leader Arto Lindsay. Samuelsson visits a trio of gay men who are busy planning an Internet television show. “You’re from Chelsea—did you get the Harlem passport?” Samuelsson deadpans as their belly laughs fill the space.

The chef moves on to a table where an Ethiopian-raised Indian man sits with a fine-boned, milky-skinned Transylvanian woman. Samuelsson touches on that region’s soccer star Gheorghe Hagi (“He was like the Diego Maradona of Romania”) as well as life under Communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu. When the woman says it left her with residual paranoia, Samuelsson doesn’t miss a beat. “Then you’re in the perfect city,” he says. “Here, only the paranoid survive!” Then he moves on. “It’s like this every day,” he says with a broad grin.

Though a virtuoso mingler, Samuelsson keeps his customers close and his kitchen closer. “Making comfort food good in the modern era is as difficult as making the best French dish you will ever make,” he says, citing the gold standard of soul food, fried chicken, exalted on his menu with its rootsy nickname “yard bird,” the same bestowed on jazz genius Charlie Parker. “We brine the chicken in salt, and we cure it in buttermilk for three days.” As the plate arrives—a smear of hot sauce on its corner, a shaker of the restaurant’s special spice blend standing beside it—Samuelsson smiles. “That’s a year of testing,” he says. “John Legend told me, ‘Marcus, don’t overthink it—just do it.’”

As laser-like as Samuelsson’s focus is on the recipes at Red Rooster, the restaurant is apparently only phase one of the new multi-platform Samuelsson Group, which includes FoodRepublic.com, a politico-culinary lifestyle website launched in May, five other restaurants and a cookware line. Red Rooster itself—as Samuelsson tells it—is just a means to an end. “What we want to do is bring normalcy to an abnormal environment,” he explains. “Here, you have a methadone center down the street and you have drug dealers on the corner, but if you go downtown, you see Louis Vuitton has heavily invested in Fifth Avenue and is equally investing in emerging markets in Russia and Brazil. Well, Harlem is an emerging market, and Louis ain’t invested here.” At January’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Samuelsson spoke on panels titled “The Creative Workplace,” “Healthy Norms, Longer Lives” and “Cuisine & Culture”—principles he hopes to realize in his home of six years. “We want apples to be cheaper than soda,” he says. “We want more wine stores than liquor stores. These aren’t huge goals, but if I measure this corner with 23rd or 86th Street, we’re a third-world country. So instead of asking ‘Why didn’t you?’ I’m doing it.”

Samuelsson’s story is so smooth, he might have been a novelist if not for his love of cuisine. He sees stories where others see storefronts, and he has turned this one on Lenox Avenue into a chapter of his autobiography. “When I went through my transformation of leaving the comfort of Midtown and moving to Harlem,” he says, “I thought about going back to my Ethiopian name.” Ultimately he decided against it. Instead he began polishing and retelling the story of Red Rooster. “I want this place to be an instant classic,” he says, his dark eyes glittering as they scan the room. “It has to be something that’s been there forever. Harlem, for me, is a character itself. It took me a long time to listen.”

Red Rooster: The Details

Scene: Jay McInerney meets Jay-Z
Food:
Grits and shrimp, garden pickles, grilled snapper, sweet potato doughnuts, whiskey fudge
Prices:
From around $35 at lunch to $65 at dinner, including drinks
Reservations:
Absolutely necessary at tables and banquettes in back; it’s take-your-chance in the front room bar for drop-on-bys. Call 212-792-9001 or go to redroosterharlem.com. Red Rooster is at 310 Lenox Ave.