Marcus Samuelsson Is Taking on Ethiopian-Swedish-British-American Fusion
We talk to the Swedish Ethiopian chef behind Harlem’s Red Rooster about his new restaurant in London.
All photos by the author.
"When you think about a space and an experience like Red Rooster, food is at the core, hospitality and service is another building block. But those are things that you can get at any other restaurant in the world. So, what do we add that might be unique?"
I'm sitting opposite chef Marcus Samuelsson at Red Rooster, his recently opened restaurant in Shoreditch, East London. We're in the conservatory, which sits adjacent to the moodily lit dining room and is filled with indoor plants. Samuelsson relaxes into one of its patterned booths and orders a coffee, before excusing himself to give the seal of approval to a roasted cauliflower dish going out on the specials menu tonight.
"You know I would say if it needed more work," he tells his chef, who disappears with the dish back into the hubbub of the open kitchen next door.
I wonder if this attention to detail is the "unique" addition that Samuelsson mentioned. Or perhaps it's in the teenager's bedroom-esque collage of photos, canvasses, framed sketches, and paintings that decorate the restaurant walls ("It's not a coincidence why we picked Chris Ofili. He's an artist from Trinidad but living in Shoreditch and came up through the Studio Museum in Harlem.") Or maybe the stage opposite the bar that hosts a gospel choir during Sunday brunch service.
Whatever it is, Samuelsson wants me to know that it's deliberate.
"Red Rooster Shoreditch isn't a cookie cutter project that I'm going to sign and leave," he says. "When a dish doesn't come out right or the gas stops in the middle of service, you're doing it. I don't mind that, that's part of the work."
Samuelsson is no stranger to the work that goes into running a restaurant. His name is attached to ten other eateries around the world, including the original Red Rooster in Harlem. Opened in 2010, it has hosted everyone from Keith Richards and Paul McCartney to the Clintons and Barack Obama.
"One time, when we were close to opening Harlem, we had completely run out of money," Samuelsson remembers. "I tweeted out whether I should buy new plates or vintage plates. Everyone said vintage and I was like, 'Yes!' because that's all we could afford. I wasn't compromising on the product but I was letting people know that we're sweating. People celebrated our imperfections which gave us a very human face."
Born in a rural Ethiopian town, Samuelsson was adopted by a Swedish couple after his mother died of tuberculosis when he was a baby. He grew up in a fishing village on the west coast of Sweden, completed catering college, and moved to New York to stage at upmarket Swedish restaurant Aquavit. Aged 23, he was promoted to head chef there.
Red Rooster Harlem provided Samuelsson with a way to channel his Ethiopian and Swedish heritage into Southern American comfort food, resulting in crossover dishes like meatballs with lingonberry jam and ribs smothered in berbere barbecue sauce. For the menu at the Shoreditch Red Rooster, he hopes to add elements of British cuisine into the mix.
Red Rooster Shoreditch isn't a cookie cutter project that I'm going to sign and leave.
"Part of being a chef means you have to study people and study habits," he says. "When I look at Yorkshire pudding, I think about waffles. There are certain dishes that I would never dare to do, like fish and chips, because there are enough good places but there are elements of that I'm inspired by."
I'm interested to know how Samuelsson plans to execute his Ethiopian-Swedish-British-American comfort food vision in an area of the capital best known for novelty cafes and shipping container food courts. He tells me that looking to Shoreditch's past has provided inspiration.
"I'm inspired by its Jewish heritage and the Bangladeshi community. Without making the food Bangladeshi, there are notes of curry spices in some dishes. London is a very different city to New York but I think the similarities with the immigrant community is the foundation of this dialogue between London's base and what the immigrants have added. Now, you don't think about immigrants as not London cooking. It's part of London food. I think there are similarities to New York there."
Samuelsson's kitchen staff have also helped him hone this approach. The chef recounts an early meeting with the London Red Rooster team: "I talked about the Great Migration to the staff here, and this Romanian busboy looked at me and said, 'What do you mean? I moved from Romania to Italy and from Italy to here!' And I said, 'You're right, you're absolutely right.' That was the migration for him. Checkmate."
The interplay between food of the Great Migration, London's migrant communities, and Samuelsson's own background can be seen on the Shoreditch menu. Uncle T's gravlax is served with cornbread, shrimp 'n' grits sit beside Helga's meatballs, and the awase-glazed salmon comes with a serving of pea purée. "I wanted to do something around mushy peas inspired by England," he explains.
Samuelsson may feel inspired by Shoreditch and the Red Rooster website boasts that the area is "London's most creative district [...] bursting with personality," but many of those who live and work in the capital would disagree. Nowadays in Shoreditch, you're more likely to find Prosecco-pounding city bankers or tourists Instagramming street art than tortured artists. As the area slips into a caricature of its formerly edgy self, can it really be the place to foster the community restaurant vibe Samuelsson found in Harlem with the original Red Rooster?
"It was about finding a mirror magical community that was different but still had the same imperfection, lights, action, and dynamism as Harlem," he says. "With Shoreditch, people come here and do a graffiti tour. In Harlem, maybe they do a church tour. People feed off the community in front of you. It's up to us to match that energy. That's the magical platform to cook from. "
It was about finding a mirror magical community that was different but still had the same imperfection, lights, action, and dynamism as Harlem.
I'm not so sure that anywhere with pubs that serve £18 pints can be described as "magical." I also get the impression that Samuelsson isn't entirely certain in the mirror he has constructed between Shoreditch and Harlem.
"This is for the audience who might come to London all the time but might not have been out here [Shoreditch] which is awesome. That reminds me by itself of Harlem," he says. "But everything is different, we're in a different country here. What's been amazing is how appreciative Londoners have been. They see that this is very much an imperfect endeavour. They see, 'You're going to get to fixing that light bulb.'"
One thing both Shoreditch and Harlem do have in common is a love of fried chicken. Samuelsson leads me towards the kitchen to cook his signature recipe—deep-fried yard bird with sweet potato purée, collards, and green beans.
In the kitchen, he is focused on the task at hand, from carefully dropping chicken drumsticks in hot oil to ensuring the green beans are tossed with just the right amount of butter. Even setting the chicken to rest is done with purpose.
"Let the chicken rest," he tells me sternly. "Don't even look at it. Just walk away from it."
Samuelsson spoons sweet potato purée onto a plate along with braised collards and a pile of buttery beans. The crisp-skinned chicken drumsticks are artfully placed on top, along with a final sprinkling of spice mix. Samuelsson presents me with the finished plate.
"You see? It's like jazz," he says. "It's a dance between everything—Harlem, England, and back. You need each part. We're just trying to add our bit to it."
And Samuelsson is just like any great jazz musician. You're never sure what form the riff will take, but you're certain that it'll be good.