Interview

Marcus Samuelsson on Why He's Finally Releasing a Red Rooster Cookbook and What Makes Harlem Great

Chef Marcus Samuelsson speaks with Okayafrica on his new cookbook, his new D.C. restaurant, his favorite African street foods and more.

Chef Marcus Samuelsson’s restaurant, Red Rooster, is a Harlem staple. Ranked as a favorite culinary destination of New Yorkers (see for yourself on Yelp with the restaurant's diverse 5-star reviews) and Washingtonians—both famous (President Obama) and not so famous (this writer)—Red Rooster is pretty much a crowd favorite of diners across the United States.


Free tip: make your brunch reservations now.

Samuelsson has finally shared the recipes of his culinary landmark in a new cookbook, The Red Rooster Cookbook: The Story of Food and Hustle in Harlem. The cookbook reveals the secrets to the restaurant’s signature dishes, including “Fried Yardbird” (yes!), and intertwines these glorious Southern food recipes with poems, art and a historical narrative of Harlem.

His passion for food is met closely with his love of music. For one clue to this fact, look no further than Samuelsson’s Ginny’s Supper Club, the lower level to Red Rooster whose sultry ambiance is a portal to the hip and seductive speakeasies of, fittingly, the Harlem Renaissance.

Book cover via Marcus Samuelsson's Facebook page.

Samuelsson was born in Ethiopia but raised by adoptive parents in Sweden. There, he learned cooking from his maternal grandmother and formalized his skills in culinary school. After graduating, he began working in a restaurant in the United States and has since earned a litany of accolades as the owner of internationally-acclaimed restaurants, a judge on television shows like Top Chef, and the author of numerous cookbooks.

While his public Wikipedia profile reveals these details, earlier this year he gave us a candid look into his birthplace and the flavors behind his cooking, as the focus of an episode of the television show, Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown.

From my home in Washington, D.C., I spoke on the phone with the New York-based chef about his new cookbook and other new projects—notably his special custom menu he created for an upcoming awards ceremony at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, and the opening of a new restaurant in the Nation’s Capital. He also gave his suggestions on food and music pairings, and his favorite foods from around the continent.

Nadia Sesay for Okayafrica: Red Rooster opened in 2010, so why are you only now releasing a cookbook inspired by the restaurant?

Marcus Samuelsson: It takes a lot of time to make a cookbook. This book in particular took over four years. You want to create memories and tell a good story that you can’t do if you’ve been open for one year.

What are some of those memories that you have from Red Rooster?

There are so many special memories—the book is 300+ pages. It tells about why I opened in Harlem and the story of Harlem, so that’s a story in itself. One memory is when President Obama came and we talked about the history of the neighborhood and who occupied that space before me.

Red Rooster is known for some unique recipes, like the "Fried Yardbird." What’s your favorite recipe in the book and why?

The chapter called “Birdland” is a lot of fun. It shows a lot of links between African and African American cooking. At Red Rooster we serve a lot of food that looks back to the continent. The chicken recipes for example have Moroccan spices.

Why is Harlem special to you?

It’s the people and the culture—African American historical culture [like] music, the Apollo, jazz. We are learning about ourselves. There’s a rich history and present culture that reflects diversity.

You have traveled extensively outside of Harlem. Have you noticed African foods being adopted throughout the world and what are your thoughts on this?

Well, a lot of food comes from Africa that you might not realize. Over the last 10 years awareness of the culture of Africa has grown. You know, things like Peri-Peri now appear on menus throughout the world. There’s a higher awareness through travel and trading. For instance, Africans studying in the west bring culture with them. There is a way to connect. I talked a lot about that in my cookbook from ten years ago. There’s always an undertone of Africa in recipes.

In your travels throughout the African continent specifically, what are some of your favorite foods you have tried? And from where?

I love Durban, where the food has a big Indian influence. I was just in Nigeria and had great suya in a street market late at night.

As with Red Rooster, do you have particular memories from food experiences on the continent?

I have so many magical points in terms of food. So again, having street food in Victoria Street Market at night, or in Durban. These are all experiences I bring with me. Sometimes through food, sometimes through music. For example, one time at Red Rooster after the 'Fela! On Broadway' play we cooked Nigerian food. My experiences are sometimes expressed as food and sometimes culture.

I have read that you are a music lover. Which artists are on your playlist?

In terms of African heritage, Fela. I also listen to the Ethiopian artist Aster Aweke. And in terms of modern music, David Bowie and Frank Ocean.

How would you pair those artists and sounds with food?

Frank Ocean’s music is cerebral, so a meal with several courses and lasting a few hours to reflect on all the nuances. Fela too is complex; I admire the layers.

David Bowie transformed over the years, showing us that so many different artists can do that. I’ve transformed too—I started cooking in a 3-star Michelin restaurant. I would pair something moody, so that you can have a reflection on life.

Nicki Minaj met Lauryn Hill recently, and literally fell to the ground in awe of meeting her music idol. Which artist would give you that reaction?

I’ve met a lot of great artists, but I would say Prince, if I would have had the opportunity to meet him.

Latin-fusion and Asian-fusion are restaurant concepts some of your peers have explored. Will you introduce us to Ethiopian-fusion?

I think that’s for the next generation of Ethiopians. We are already seeing this in many expressions of music and art, with The Weeknd and contemporary artist Julie Mehretu. They have introduced a modern way of presenting Ethiopia. In America we have many expressions of that. Even in my new book, many recipes are inspired by Ethiopian cooking.

Speaking of art, you are designing a special menu for the First Annual African Art Awards at Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, coming up on Oct. 28. How do you feel about this honor?

The Smithsonian is always the perfect partner in bringing together people from the continent in art, storytelling, and food. Being part of the Awards is something I look forward to.

Can you give a sneak peek into the menu?

Ha ha, no. But it will be yummy and delicious.

You have another major event happening in Washington, D.C. this year, on Dec. 8—the opening of your new restaurant at the new MGM Casino at National Harbor. As a D.C. resident I think I speak for a lot of Washingtonians when I shout, “Finally! We are getting our own taste of Marcus Samuelsson!” Tell me a bit about your new restaurant in the Nation’s Capital.

I am very excited about restaurant Marcus at MGM. It’s really inspired by Red Rooster, yet it’s distinctly different. There is a festive bar to greet you, local art, and a music venue at the back of the restaurant called Sammy’s.

You’ve done so much in your career as a chef—you are an author, TV host, and not least, a restaurateur. What is one role you would like to have in the future?

To continue focusing on working in Harlem and connecting the foodscape to Africa. And, maybe, host a cooking fest on the continent.

Keep up with Chef Samuelsson and order the cookbook, 'The Red Rooster Cookbook: The Story of Food and Hustle in Harlem,' on his website.

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