Marcus Samuelsson: I wouldnt be the person I am without creativity.
And its very challenging, but its also what makes life so good and sticky.
Theres a couple of processes that I go through when I think about creativity.
I think about it through food.
I think about, its like a crescendo.
You want to build this up and then you want to drop it.
And then you want it to be very contradicting and have complexity.
But for the guest it should just be like one bite.
But theres a lot of things that needs to happen in there.
And thats my creative process.
When I think about it like being from Ethiopia, growing up in Scandinavia, living in Harlem,
theres a lot of contradictions and complexities in all of that.
So the creativity follows my experience.
Jo Reed: Thats Marcus Samuelsson, an award-winning chef, restaurateur, and cookbook author.
And Im Josephine Reed for NEA Arts online.
If you polled restaurant critics and asked them to name some of the most creative chefs
working in the country today, the name Marcus Samuelsson is sure to be close to the top
of every list.
For a younger chef, Marcus Samuelsson has already had a long and storied career.
Marcus Samuelsson: I wouldnt be the person I am without creativity. And its very challenging,
but its also what makes life so good and sticky. Theres a couple of processes that
I go through when I think about creativity. I think about it through food. I think about,
its like a crescendo. You want to build this up and then you want to drop it. And
then you want it to be very contradicting and have complexity. But for the guest it
should just be like one bite. But theres a lot of things that needs to happen in there.
And thats my creative process. When I think about it like being from Ethiopia, growing
up in Scandinavia, living in Harlem, theres a lot of contradictions and complexities in
all of that. So the creativity follows my experience.
Jo Reed: Thats Marcus Samuelsson, an award-winning chef, restaurateur, and cookbook author. And
Im Josephine Reed for NEA Arts online. If you polled restaurant critics and asked
them to name some of the most creative chefs working in the country today, the name Marcus
Samuelsson is sure to be close to the top of every list.
For a younger chef, Marcus Samuelsson has already had a long and storied career.
Here are some of the highlights: At 24, Samuelsson became executive chef of
Aquavit, and soon after that became the youngest ever to receive a three-star restaurant review
fromThe New York Times. In 2003 he was named "Best Chef: New York City" by theJames Beard
Foundation. Marcus served as a guest chef at the White
House under the Obama administration, where he planned and executed the administrations
first state dinner, which honored Prime Minister Singh of India and 400 guests.
Hes been a UNICEF ambassador since 2000. And when he competed against 21 other chefs
in the Bravo TV Series Top Chef Masters, winning the competition, he donated the $115,000 prize
to UNICEF. He owns a number of restaurants around the world.
His first and the one closest to his heart is the wildly successful Red Rooster
Restaurant in Harlem. And hes written award-winning cookbooks
and has just released another called Red Rooster Cookbook: The Story of Food and Hustle in
Harlem. Food has clearly been Samuelssons life,
and he traces it back to his own family in Sweden.
Marcus Samuelsson: On my dads side, they were all fisherman. So every summer when school
was out we went up to the village of Smgen on the west coast of Sweden and we were fishing
from June to August. And not just fishing because once youre done with the fish youve
got to clean the boat and then youve got to also take care of the mackerel and the
crab and the lobster and the cod. And that led me to preparing food, whether we smoked
it, whether we cured it, whether we cooked it. My grandmothers house, the first thing
that hits you is the smell of food, whether its chicken stock, chicken soup on in the
kitchen. Whether its fresh mushrooms thats been picked or berries on the kitchen table
that needs to be picked. There was always a season for something.
Jo Reed: After graduating from the Culinary Institute in Sweden, Marcus trained in kitchens
around the world, most particularly in Switzerland and France. It was a tough regimented education.
There was no sympathy or patience for the commis, the name for the young apprentice
chefs. They were supposed to shut up, do exactly as they were told, do it quickly, and do it
perfectly. So where was the creativity in all of this?
Marcus Samuelsson: Well, my creative process is the notepad that Ive had with me through
all of my life, right, because at that point there was no creative outlet for me. I was
a number as a commis. Every year they had about 60 commis come in, 20 got fired, 40
got to stay. But no one really asked you, Hey, does anyone have an idea? That
wasnt the time. It was not the time for me to do that. The time for me there was to
be a very committed commis that can deal with the task at hand. On my spare time, thats
when it was the outlet for me to be creative. So very often on our days off we cooked. And
it could be the Malaysian roommate that wanted to know more about Swedish herring or it could
be our friend from South Africa that brought up a dish from Cape Town. So it was these
potluck dinners that we all as chefs and commis, you know, we played cards, ate, drank and
were 21 and you did stupid stuff. But it was through food but also the narrative where
we came from. So those were our creative outlets. And we started to ask questions: what if I
mixed this Malaysian curry with grilled turbot? Simple things like that. What if I used the
galangal that this Maria from Singapore brought mixed with the brandade, that is very French,
what happens? Everything didnt work, but it was through these sessions you started
to think about, Whoa the world is a smaller place. What if I mix?
Jo Reed: Marcus learned what it takes to cook in a restaurant.
Marcus Samuelsson: Cooking is this constant dialogue between artistry, craftsmanship and
also a long marathon, right. Cooking is every day. So its a marathon. Its the brutal
long sport in that sense. But you also get better as a craftsman if you stay on it. And
youve got to make sure that you dont crank it so hard so you kill your artistry.
But its also a wonderful place of camaraderie, family. When I think about your family, your
tribe, you know, cooking is a tribe. Its tribal. You could have completely different
starting points in life, completely different religions or languages or political views,
but in the kitchen youre coming together because you need one another.
Jo Reed: When Marcus decided to open his own restaurant in New York City, he took his time.
He knew he wanted the restaurant to be in Harlem. He wanted to honor the neighborhoods
traditional food and its history, but not replicate it. He had to perform a creative
juggling act to make this happen. Marcus Samuelsson: I have a lot of respect
for what came before me. I lived in Harlem for a long time before I opened the restaurant.
I always say like the menu of Red Rooster is freely decided by Harlem. Obviously, we
cook it. But what I mean with that is that I would say 40 percent of the menu is always
inspired by the African-American migration. Its the soul, its the base, its the
core of our restaurant. Forty to fifty percent has that inspiration. Its Harlem. It should
have. Then as Harlem is moving constantly, el barrio east of us, Puerto Rican based but
also Mexican now, so there are a lot of dishes that has both Puerto Rican influence but also
Mexican influence. Then Harlem is also a place for immigrants, other immigrants. So Im
an immigrant. So a lot of the food has inspiration from immigrants like theres a West African
community in Harlem. Theres a Jewish community in Harlem. Theres always been an Italian-American
community in Harlem. Thats why we always have several dishes that has an Italian spin
on it. So that is how I think through the menu and constantly juxtaposition these things.
Jo Reed: When Marcus Samuelsson opened the Red Rooster in 2010, Harlem was undergoing
rapid gentrification and many of the local people, seeing skyrocketing costs and a neighborhood
that seemed to have no place for them anymore, looked at the newcomers suspiciously. Marcus
did not want the Red Rooster to be an interloper in Harlem. He wanted it to be a neighborhood
restaurant, but one that also had an international reputation. Once again, it took a marriage
of experience and imagination to come up with a solution.
Marcus Samuelsson: How do we create trust from the neighborhood and the community? And
that for me came down to allowing walk-ins to come in because pretty quickly we realized
we had three customers. We had the visitor that was from either Kansas or Stockholm or
Paris and they very much booked Red Rooster online that third day, second day when theyre
in New York. Then you had the New Yorker that was still pretty traditional that called or
maybe booked online but it was a night out. Were going uptown and we might go to the
Studio Museum or the Apollo. And then thirdly it was to Harlem they just said, Hey, this
is my neighborhood. Im not making a reservation in my own neighborhood. Why would I do that?
Which perfectly makes sense. Right? So it was really about understanding the three behavior
of customers and allowing all three to be celebrated at the same time.
Jo Reed: A lot of thought and imagination went into the designing the restaurant so
that it would be part of the neighborhood. The whole restaurant is an open designneither
shutting out the street nor the kitchen. Marcus Samuelsson: I thought a lot about Lenox
Avenue and how we can celebrate this iconic boulevard. And I wanted the kitchen to be
the theater, so the stage that pulls you in. So theres light, theres open fire that
you see whether youre outside Lenox and looking in. So the focal points are really
the big bar. So it says, Hey, yeah, youre welcome. And its not a service bar.
Its a bar that whether you have a ginger ale or a cocktail in the middle of the day,
you are welcome. And so its a moving piece, right. The bar is big. And things happening.
And then you come into the dining room and you constantly, theres a dialogue of energy.
So its very transparent. When I started working in restaurants everything was closed
off. You were not supposed to see the kitchen. The dining room was behind the curtain so
to speak. The service bar was over here. Everything was hush-hush youre not supposed to see.
So we built the opposite of that. We built a very transparent restaurant where you can
see the chefs. You can see into the dish wash pit. And you can constantly be connected to
the energy in the bar. So that says, for me, brasserie, fun, excited, community, versus,
Oh, whats behind that wall over there? I worked for so long in a restaurant that
was all behind that wall over there. Jo Reed: The walls of the restaurant are covered
in art that changes regularly. And then theres the music. Live jazz with a funky edge every
night. Marcus Samuelsson: I feel like were inspired
by Harlem. And when I think about Harlem as a culture, iconic neighborhood, music and
art, its very up front and center. Our art and our music its not based whats
popular, its part of the piece. Right now, we have an art exhibit by Ms. Lana Turner
that is her clothing exhibit, clothing that shes been wearing for the last forty years.
Shes a major figure in our community so it fits. Then after that were going to
go into Gordon Parks. But we also have art from Ebony Patterson, to Laura Simpson to
just iconic figure thats been part of the Harlem artistic scene for a long, long, long,
long time, whether they worked at Studio Museum or they sold art down the street. Musically,
same thing. You know, when we walk in a neighborhood where so much of coming to the Apollo, coming
to Harlem to play and perform was a big deal, it still is a big deal. So to honor that I
felt like having the music experience really sets the tone on how you dine and celebrate
in this place. Were competing with different things today that we didnt compete with
before. The attention span of people not being on their smartphones. So sometimes you need
an interruption like music set. When you dine with us, put your phone down, be social, be
seen, talk to your neighbor. Jo Reed: His vision works. When I visited
Red Rooster, there wasnt a cell phone in sight. The communal tables were filled. There
were conversations between tables and on a rainy Monday night, the place was packed,
the bar was jumping, and the floor and kitchen staff joined the customers in nodding and
moving to the beat of live music. Marcus Samuelsson: I think that allowing our
guest, and allowing our staff to enjoy all experiences is important because we want to
be an upbeat place. Days like yesterday, its hard days. Its hot. Its July in New
York. Its rainy and stormy. But once youre inside, it doesnt matter. Youre welcome.
You come in. Forget all of your troubles of the day and start celebrating.
If you think about the word restaurant, it goes back to the word what restaurant means.
It means to restore a community. And you do think about that, right, because restaurant
jobs cant be outsourced. Very few jobs can be outsourced in a restaurant. So you
have this incredible opportunity to bring in people from the community service, cooks,
host, et cetera, vegetables, farms, local fish from the community. And you can then
present it to the locals and theyll kind of have to be checked by the locals first.
And then both the restaurant and the locals say, Hey, this is our place. We built this
together. Once youve created that, which is very rare for a restaurant, once youve
created that its magic. Jo Reed: Thats Marcus Samuelsson, an award-winning
chef, restaurateur, and author. You can find The Red Rooster in Harlem at Lenox Ave off
125th Street. Or you can pick up Marcus recently published Red Rooster Cookbook: The
Story of Food and Hustle in Harlem. For NEA Arts online, Im Josephine Reed. Thanks