Marcus Samuelsson has always been a trailblazer. He first made a name for himself at Aquavit with his innovative approach to Scandinavian cuisine, then left to the midtown restaurant to open Manhattan’s first pan-African spot, Merkato 55. But Red Rooster is his biggest accomplishment to date. Just this past year, Samuelsson brought American comfort food and its many traditions to Harlem, and with it put this uptown neighborhood on the culinary map.
“The most gratifying thing about the restaurant is the impact Red Rooster Harlem is having on the community and how it’s changed the footprint of the New York City dining scene,” Samuelsson says.
This week, Samuelsson is heading upstate for Chefs & Champagne, an annual tasting event sponsored by the James Beard Foundation.
“It’s such a great tradition and a very fun event,” Samuelsson said. “I like getting to see all my chef friends and have a good time with everybody.”
First things first, congratulations on the success of Red Rooster! You were already well-respected for your cooking at Aquavit, but is it more gratifying to have a restaurant that you opened on your own to become such a huge hit?
The most gratifying thing about the restaurant is the impact Red Rooster Harlem is having on the community and how it’s changed the footprint of the New York City dining scene.
Did you ever worry that Red Rooster would fail? Or that Manhattanites wouldn’t bother heading uptown to Harlem?
I’m human, so of course I worried, but at the end of the day, I one hundred percent believe in Harlem and I believe in my capabilities as a chef.
What’s your favorite brunch dish on the menu?
At the moment it’s our Lamb Hash, which is a Swedish dish with pickled beets.
Will you open more restaurants in Harlem or in other outer borough neighborhoods? Perhaps an AQ Café?
We’re not finished with developing Red Rooster yet, so right now all our energies are concentrated on that. In the future, who knows?
Do you ever think about trying your hand again at pan-African as you did at Merkato 55? (We loved your cooking there.)
Some of the dishes at Red Rooster carry the same D.N.A. as the African dishes we served at Merkato55, so I’m still cooking food inspired by Africa.
Why do you think Merkato 55 didn’t end up working? Was it the neighborhood, the space?
The restaurant worked – it was extremely busy, but the deal was difficult. Anyway, I have my feet facing forward, not backward.
What are you serving at Chefs & Champagne this Saturday?
Chilled corn soup.
Whose dishes are you most excited to try this Saturday at Wolffer?
I’m just excited to get out there! It’s such a great tradition and a very fun event. I like getting to see all my chef friends and have a good time with everybody.
This year’s chefs and champagne is honoring Emeril Lagasse. How do you think he has influenced the culinary world throughout his career?
He’s a true original and hugely influential. More than anyone else, I think Julia Child and Emeril have opened up the food space to people who aren’t necessarily ‘foodies.’ Emeril has also been incredibly open-minded with the staff he has hired, and is very good at recognizing talent and giving opportunities to people who might not have had many chances taken on them before. He is a true talent, as is Bernard, his culinary director.
What are your plans for the rest of the summer? Are you traveling anywhere interesting?
I’ll be working, but also visiting Amsterdam with my wife. I’m excited to learn more about the street food of Amsterdam while I’m there. I think it will definitely have an impact on my dishes for Fall. I’m also really excited for us to take the train from Amsterdam to Paris.
For last-minute tickets to Chefs & Champagne, click here.
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