Charlie and I thought that visiting the Red Rooster in Harlem was an amazing mixture of flavors, aromas and good cheer. We had read the chef/owner’s memoir, Yes, Chef and promised ourselves to try out his restaurant on our next visit to New York City. This chef/owner, Marcus Samuelsson, was born in Ethiopia and adopted by a couple in Sweden and his book is about growing up Swedish despite the fact that he was born black, becoming a world-renowned chef, and ending up in New York City. Nowadays he is an international entrepreneur. One of the reasons that Marcus Samuelsson piqued our curiosity was that he has dedicated his life as a successful chef to diversity and to calling attention to neighborhoods that most people wouldn’t think to visit much, or stay to enjoy the culture if they did visit. Nowadays, he has quite a few restaurants in boroughs or neighborhoods that are off the beaten track. Marcus Samuelsson believes that people should dress just as they would create a good recipe, and you can see that Charlie is a bit more stylish since meeting him.
He was born in Ethiopia in 1971 and named Kassahun Tsegie. You will have to read his book to get the full story, but basically, he and his sister were separated from their family during the upheaval of Ethiopian Civil War and adopted by a Swedish couple in 1973. He was only 3 years old when he was shipped off to Sweden and renamed Marcus. He became interested in cooking because of Swedish grandmother Helga (yes, grandmothers are important and sometimes even influential!) and eventually managed to be admitted to the best culinary institutions in Europe. He went to the United States in 1991 as an unpaid apprentice for the Manhattan restaurant, Aquavit. Aquavit is a Scandinavian restaurant and Marcus worked his way up in it. Aquavit was awarded a three-star rating after Marcus became executive chef there; he was only 23 years old at that time and the youngest chef ever to receive such a rating. But despite his emerging fame, he was only able to buy his first suit a year after he received that award. Marcus continued to receive other awards as a chef, and in 2000, almost 30 years after leaving Ethiopia, he returned there and met his birth father and eight of his half-siblings – his mother had died during the civil war. After returning to New York City, he continued to ascend in the world of celebrity chefs and he was even chosen to cook the first State Dinner for President Barack Obama in 2009. His White House dinner was unusual in that it was mostly vegetarian in keeping with the guest of honor, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, and largely sustainable, using regional foods and vegetables and herbs from the White House garden. That was the same year he married an Ethiopian-born model that had grown up in Holland. Maya, his wife, has used her success, just as Marcus has used his, to take advantage of opportunities to get involved in humanitarian causes, particularly in Ethiopia. Their son, Zion Mandela, was born in 2016.
Marcus Samuelsson, a relatively new immigrant who was working towards the American dream, writes that he was deeply moved by the attack and destruction of the World Trade Towers that happened in 2001. He has written that the tragedy changed the way he felt about cooking and about the community he was living in. This eventually led to his idea of the Red Rooster and he was able to open the restaurant in 2010; he has said that he chose Harlem because he wanted his restaurant to be in a neighborhood where people from all walks of life would come together. Judging from our visit there, he got it right. What we saw were a bit of a revival of Harlem jazz, gospel music, important executives, politicians, startling tall athletes, neighbors from Harlem, some fantastic comfort food, observant tourists like us; in other words, what appeared to be people from every socio-economic level. None of the patrons seemed to be trying to let others know how important he or she was through dress or attitude.
After Red Rooster got established, he opened other restaurants around the world, totaling 15 and some in partnership with other chefs. Some of his restaurants are inside hotels or other public places, so look for them when you travel. His book, “Yes, Chef” was published in 2012 and it became a New York Times bestseller, and named one of the best books of the year by Vogue Magazine. Chef Marcus Samuelsson, his wife and son live within walking distance of Red Rooster, his first and flagship restaurant. He can often be seen walking around the neighborhood, or riding his bike. Yes, he is probably making a lot of money, but he is working harder than most of us can imagine, and revitalizing the neighborhoods where he chooses to open his restaurants. His second restaurant in Harlem, Streetbird Rotisserie, used to be one of the biggest crack houses in Harlem. Now it employs the neighbors and is a great place to eat street food while seated comfortably indoors. Ginny’s Supper Club is downstairs, under Red Rooster. It is a modern version of the glamorous speakeasies that thrived during Prohibition during the Twenties.
Marcus Samuelsson has also taken Harlem to London. Red Rooster Shoreditch has recently opened in London in what is supposed to be a very hip venue, the Curtain Hotel. He opened a taqueira on the ground floor of that same hotel, which offers everything from an early Mexican-style breakfast to tequila up until 2.a.m. every night. He already has restaurants in Maryland, Chicago, Bermuda, the JFK Airport, Sweden, Norway, D.C. and one in Newark, New Jersey. None of his restaurants are the same, but they all serve food that you can’t usually find in restaurants, they all have flavor and atmosphere, and they all have excellent music.
“I’m very inspired by him – it was my father who taught us that an immigrant must work twice as hard as anybody else, that he must never give up.” Zinedine Zidane