It wasn’t too long ago that Samuelson was a model of propriety himself. His previous signature restaurant, Aquavit, is a white-tablecloth establishment in Midtown serving delicacies like duck tongue and sea urchin. It is still one of the hottest (and most expensive) restaurants in Manhattan, and it won him two James Beard Awards plus a three-star review from The New York Times (at the age of 23, he was the youngest chef ever to receive the honor.)
Samuelsson told of his remarkable journey from a child in war-torn Ethiopia to high-dining society in his 2012 memoir, Yes, Chef. But this month, his newest book, The Red Rooster Cookbook: The Story of Food and Hustle in Harlem, delves into the most recent chapter in his life: his decision to forego the rarefied air of luxury dining for a casual joint above 96th Street, woven in between recipes and narratives from other prominent Harlem figures. A book full of Samuelsson’s favorite recipes, from chicken and waffles to whoopee pies. But interwoven between colorful pictures and measuring instructions, Samuelsson includes his own narrative—no, ode—to the Red Rooster and the Harlem neighborhood he calls home.
There’s not one sole reason, really, that Samuelsson hung up his chef whites at Aquavit. He writes about an existential crisis brought on by 9/11 in the Red Rooster Cookbook and to me, he says that it took him a while to understand what restaurant he “needed to engage with.” But partial credit must go to Samuelsson’s mother, who told him, “Why do you always have to travel so far to cook in your restaurant? Not just fine folk would like to eat your food.”
That made him think. “Food is a civil right. That’s a fundamental belief that I have,” he says. “[Communities] that are off the grid . . . are going to get cut off.”
Samuelsson wanted to change that about Harlem. The neighborhood had a rich history—but there was also one beset, he thought, by misconceptions. His new restaurant needed to reflect that Harlem shouldn’t be a place that you drove by or flew over, but a place you went to stay awhile.
But The Red Rooster Cookbook moves beyond lofty, heroic origin stories to ones with true grit. Its cover line is “The Story of Food and Hustle in Harlem,” which, Samuelsson says, is actually an understatement. It should read “double hustle.” Because here’s the thing, he says, about Harlem: restaurants are never just . . . restaurants. “They could be great food after church; they could be what I call the ‘sometimes restaurants’—guys on the corner, chucking oysters,” says Samuelsson. No, good restaurants are something more in Harlem: they are communities.
He made the Red Rooster have a dining room, a massive bar, and a downstairs supper club that doubled as a meeting room (and during late nights, became its own entity). He turned the walls into art galleries, with rotating installations. He also hired a majority of his staff from the neighborhood.
In the book, he writes about how, for two years, he immersed himself in all things chicken. He stopped random people on the street. He taste-tested dishes in dozens of restaurants. He dug into the archives at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. And he fretted . . . a lot. Not just to himself, but to everyone around him. Including his friend John Legend.
The Red Rooster opened in December 2010. It received universally acclaimed reviews—and not just for the food. “The racial and ethnic variety in the vast bar and loft-like dining room are virtually unrivaled,” wrote Sam Sifton in The New York Times. “It is that rarest of cultural enterprises, one that supports not just the idea or promise of diversity, but diversity itself.” Samuelsson attributes this to the way he takes reservations—30 percent of the restaurant is always open to walk-ins, the rest by phone or OpenTable. It may also be due to Samuelsson himself: the bilingual, world-class, Ethiopian chef from Sweden.
“Once you come up at the subway you’re always welcome,” says Samuelsson. “For example, Black Lives Matter [members] come into our restaurant all the time. I love that because it shows in a very peaceful, but high-energy way, that we are an important part of the community. You also change with time and allow voices to come through.”
And does he allow those voices to come through. This May, Michael Henry Adam’s New York Times op-ed “The End of Black Harlem” brought to light a fierce debate over the neighborhood’s gentrification. Samuelsson lets that dialogue rage on in The Red Rooster Cookbook. “We just keep asking, how does all this new shit fit with the old?” writes New Yorker critic Hilton Als, in the book’s forward.
Four months after opening, the Red Rooster hosted President Barack Obama for a fund-raiser. Samuelsson describes the evening like “the Yankees and the Knicks won basketball and baseball at the same time.”
While thousands of New Yorkers flooded the street to celebrate the president in Harlem (“Our president in Harlem!,” says Samuelsson) he whittled away at his menu: lobster salad with spring peas, poke, braised short ribs, and an “Obamatini” for cocktail hour. Details of the evening were picked up by The New York Times, People, and CNN, making Samuelsson even more “foodie” famous then he already was.