Soul Man: Marcus Samuelsson’s Red Rooster

By Stefan Chomka

- Last updated on GMT

Soul Man: Marcus Samuelsson’s Red Rooster

Related tags: Chef

New York chef Marcus Samuelsson opens his legendary Red Rooster restaurant in the new Curtain Hotel in Shoreditch this month. Can Harlem’s king of soul food rule the roost this side of the pond?

Portrait photographs by John Carey

It’s a sunny afternoon in Shoreditch and Marcus Samuelsson is hanging from a lamppost. Passers-by are not sure what to make of the loudly dressed American in green floral trousers, suit jacket and hat being snapped from across the street, and become even more befuddled when the Harlem chef engages them in some light-hearted banter.

People look genuinely surprised at being spoken to by a perfect stranger, with one courier almost falling off his bike in the process.

Samuelsson might not be a household name on these shores but his loquacious and sociable nature is understandable given that, back home in Harlem, he can’t walk the streets without someone trying to engage him in conversation.

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Over there, the chef and restaurateur behind Red Rooster is more than a celebrity; he’s cooked for president Obama and numerous rock stars, he is the father figure that many children never had, the businessman people look up to, the friendly face that has galvanised a community. Give it time and the same thing could happen over here.

But first things first. Samuelsson is here for the UK launch of Red Rooster, the hugely successful neighbourhood joint that he opened in Harlem in 2011. The restaurant, which serves comfort food celebrating the roots of American cuisine, has become something of an institution for locals and tourists alike, and has put him in the pantheon of New York’s culinary greats.

Now, a second version has just opened in Shoreditch’s newest hotel and members’ club The Curtain.

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Across the ponds: Shoreditch will serve American soul food that references the chef's Ethiopian and Swedish backgrounds

It’s not unusual for successful New York chefs to try their hand in London, but few will have attempted to recreate a restaurant that is so intertwined with its location. Red Rooster is Harlem, as is Samuelsson – despite being born in Ethiopia and having a Swedish upbringing, but more on that later – and it’s hard to separate one from the other.

As well as celebrating the diverse culinary traditions of the Harlem neighbourhood with its food, the restaurant has close links with Harlem’s famous jazz and art scene, and has been responsible for rejuvenating the area, and changing the lives of many people along the way. Samuelsson is even responsible for Harlem EatUp, the food festival that is held each year in May that has given jobs to thousands of Harlemites (affectionately known as his tribe).

It’s a legacy that Red Rooster Shoreditch is unlikely to even come close to matching, or even needs to. So why try?

It was never part of the grand plan, admits Samuelsson who, with a restaurant group that comprises 11 different brands spanning five countries (see the ‘Harlem globetrotter’ box, below), is not averse to spreading his wings.

“I never thought in my life I would do another Red Rooster, it is so much of the place and by my math[s], I couldn’t do it anywhere else,” he says. “But growing up in Sweden, London is your first big city love. I used to come here as a kid, with my parents and with my buddies. My first big meal was at Marco Pierre White’s restaurant. London is such an incredible food town. It’s a special place.”

Samuelsson turns down about two requests a week to open a Red Rooster elsewhere, but there was something about the offer from Michael Achenbaum, the owner of The Curtain, to bring it over here that resonated.

“When Michael asked me about London I said ‘nah, I don’t think so’, but he said he was going to do it in east London and that got my attention. I’ve known Michael for a long time in New York and I felt there was a lot of trust in the relationship.”

The Deep South via Africa and Shoreditch

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Soul salad: Tomato, watermelon and burrata

Having spent much of his time in London’s “west side”, he knew this was not somewhere where Red Rooster would fly, but out east was different.

“I came over and started walking around and said this feels right for us. A place has to speak to me, otherwise I couldn’t do it,” he recalls. “Each time I visit London I stay in a different place and walk around and I’ve really got to know Shoreditch over the past three years. I’ve probably been 25 times, and each time I discover something new. I’m excited about getting to know it even better.”

Samuelsson is aware that he can’t plonk Red Rooster Harlem down in Shoreditch and expect it to have the same impact, which is why the London iteration will not be a carbon copy of the original. The fact that it is located in a plush new hotel and members’ club notwithstanding, Red Rooster Shoreditch will be different in that it will have dishes unique to London.

Three years in the planning, Shoreditch will still serve American soul food that references his Ethiopian and Swedish backgrounds but will also take more local inspiration. “I want to
use ingredients that have a meaning in London,” he says.

This means catfish has been replaced with bream and the restaurant has herring on the menu for the first time – served with brown butter, horseradish, fermented rice and cured egg yolk – as a nod to east London’s Jewish heritage. Other dishes unique to Shoreditch include a snack of chicken scratchings; duck kitfo with foie gras ganache and jicama; steamed bass with poached egg, brisket and pickled vegetables; and Aunt Maybel’s dumplings with lamb neck, olives, tomato and gnocchi.

Many Harlem dishes have travelled, however, including Red Rooster’s legendary chicken and waffles; corn bread with honey butter; deviled eggs with sea urchin mayo and candied bacon; pork belly and shrimp hot rice; and fried yardbird with gravy, yams, hot honey and collard greens.

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Devil's in the detail: Red Rooster's devilled eggs

It’s an interesting menu and one that Samuelsson is confident Londoners are ready for, despite past failures by US chefs to popularise the cuisine of the Deep South over here.

New York chef Brad McDonald was one of the capital’s most recent advocates of Deep South cooking, but the closure of The Lockhart in Marylebone, and of his barbecue restaurant Shotgun in Soho, is an indication of how difficult it is to get Londoners to embrace Deep South staples such as collard greens, okra, grits and succotash.

“We are inspired by the Deep South and I want to make delicious food with that reference point,” says Samuelsson. “But in order to understand that, you need to understand Africa and I do think Londoners have a great understanding of Africa. You might not see the straight arrow going from west Africa to America and back but the motherland of the Deep South is west Africa. Grits are from west Africa, collards are from west Africa, peanuts came to America from west Africa through slavery and trading routes.

“How do you tell the story of migration to a Romanian line cook in London? I love that challenge. The cultural references are important but the most important thing is when you put the corn bread in your mouth, it tastes delicious and you feel great.”

True to form, Samuelsson has a trick up his denim sleeve that will go some way to addressing the different tastes of Britons and Americans. He’s found common ground in the taco – London’s current dish du jour – with Red Rooster Shoreditch home to the Rooster Taqueria.

This “big nasty taqueria” at the front of the restaurant serves a short Mexican-inspired breakfast menu and a handful of different tacos – Addis, pastor and lamb – as well as tequila and canned beer.

“We do tacos on certain nights in New York but we’ve dedicated a whole place to tacos in London. It’s fun and it’s something that starts here. I want Shoreditch to impact what we do in New York, it’s not one-way traffic.”

If anyone can get an Eastern European chef enthused about soul food then Samuelsson can. Bursting with enthusiasm and vigour, he has the presence of a celebrity proper rather than just another celebrity chef.

His love of his job gives him a motivation and bubbling enthusiasm that is a rare commodity among the cheffing community. And it’s infectious. When emailing over the pictures from our photoshoot, the photographer wrote one line: “This man is as cool as fu£k!!”

The big break

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Bubbling enthusiasm: This man loves his job

Samuelsson also has the ability to excel in seemingly everything he tries his hand at, and a can-do attitude that means he grasps the moment. This is something which could, in part, be attributed to his extraordinary past.

Born in 1971 as Kassahun Tsegie in a poor Ethiopian village, he contracted tuberculosis as a baby along with his sister Linda and mother Ahnu, and nearly died – his mother succumbed to the disease.

As a result, he and Linda were adopted by Swedish couple Ann Marie and Lennart Samuelsson and brought up in Gothenburg.

It was here he developed a love of food from his adopted grandmother Helga, eventually going on to study at the Culinary Institute in Gothenburg and embark on a career in restaurants.

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His big break came in 1994 when he moved to New York to work as an apprentice at Aquavit restaurant in Midtown and, a year later, being given the role of executive chef after the head chef suddenly died. When The New York Times gave Aquavit a rare three star (out of four) review in the same year, at 23, he became the youngest chef at the time to receive the accolade and hasn’t looked back since.

His relationship with Aquavit eventually ended on bad terms, but Midtown’s loss was Harlem’s gain. Samuelsson instead decided to do something in the area he lived and, rather than try to replicate the cooking style of Aquavit, decided to do food more akin to his surroundings. Red Rooster became a neighbourhood brasserie designed to serve the community through food, music and art as well as to bring his own varied upbringing to the table.

It was a smash from the off. Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood were the first two customers through the doors and it has been blessed with musicians and artists ever since. “Musicians are not afraid of Harlem,” he says. “They have been there, they have played there.”

The Harlem of Red Rooster’s early years was very different to that of today, though. “There were four jails and four methadone centres between where I lived and the restaurant. And no farmers’ markets. Six years later Harlem has five farmers’ markets and the biggest issue is finding staff because everybody is now working with food.”

As for plan B...

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Fry days: Whole fried chicken, waffle jou jou biscuits and hot honey

Back to London, and will Samuelsson find it strange that people won’t know him on the streets of Shoreditch as they do in Harlem? The association with The Curtain will no doubt mean that famous faces will pass through his doors but, on UK soil, most people will walk past the stylish chef without any sense of recognition.

Will he be downcast if Richards and Wood don’t pay his London outpost a visit? As you might expect, the seemingly perpetually upbeat chef isn’t too bothered about the prospect of anonymity. Cooking might have brought him celebrity, but he insists it is the work behind the stove, not the status it has afforded him, that gets him up in the morning.

“Cooking for me has gone from an anonymous labour to a visible labour. In London, I will have more time to focus on the food. Cooking is not a career choice, it’s deeper than that. If you take it away from me I’d have no clue who or where I’d be. There’s no plan B, there never has been. I’m not good at a lot of other stuff. I’m privileged about being fucking super excited about going to work every day.”

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He’s more concerned about how Londoners will take to Red Rooster. “Am I scared? Of course I am. But you’ve got to be confident in your quest. I’ve cooked since I was seven years old, I’m now in my mid-40s. I need to open the door and start working and learning. It’s been a very humble journey but we’re getting there. I’m excited about making it real, making it sticky.”

When you’ve cooked for the president of the United States of America, you have a right to a modicum of confidence. In 2009, Samuelsson was guest chef for the first state dinner of the Obama presidency in honour of Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh. He says he was chosen for the gig because his menu reflected the best in American cuisine but also used Indian ingredients and was largely vegetarian.

“Until that point, state dinners were all French food. That makes sense if the French president is coming over, but for every other person, we should highlight American food and that of the country of the guest of honour. I looked at it from the guest’s point of view. If a vegetarian is coming to your house, you cook vegetarian food. I wasn’t thinking about the location but about the guest.”

Two years later, the then-president visited Red Rooster, and the dish he ate, Obama’s short ribs, has been on the menu ever since.

So what does he think of Trump?

“I know one thing, I’m not going to get asked to cook by Trump,” he says with a wide grin. “I have a taco joint and I like immigrants so I don’t think I’m the first on that list. But we’re both completely fine with that.”

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How Marcus Samuelsson built an international restaurant empire

Red Rooster might be Marcus Samuelsson’s most famous restaurant creation, but it certainly isn’t his only one. The Harlem-based restaurateur oversees a group of various different restaurants in the US and Scandinavia, with everything from fine dining and fast casual to fast food covered.

Harlem is home to his Streetbird Rotisserie that focuses on rotisserie chicken and globally influenced street food and also Ginny’s Supper Club, modelled on the glamorous speakeasies of 1920s Harlem that sits below his Red Rooster restaurant.

New York is also the location for his American Table Cafe and Bar brand, located at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall.

Outside of the US, Samuelsson has restaurants in Bermuda, Sweden, Norway and Finland, the biggest brand being Kitchen and Table, of which there are 19 locations in city centres and airports across Scandinavia.

Kitchen and Table melds the flavours of New York with the cuisine and local ingredients of Scandinavia.

Other group restaurants include Norda Bar & Grill in Gothenburg, which combines the best of the food cultures of New York and Gothenburg; Eatery Social Taqueria, which brings street food from Mexico, New York City and Los Angeles to Stockholm and Malmö; and Marc Burger in Chicago.

This article originally appeared in the June issue of Restaurant magazine, and was adapted for the web by Hannah Thompson. Subscribe to Restaurant magazine​ from just £63 per year, here! 

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