Even before it played host to President Obama’s $1.5 million fundraiser dinner on March 29, 2011, Marcus Samuelsson’s Harlem soul food restaurant Red Rooster was a runaway success. Which unfortunately says more about America’s inability to grasp the nuances of race, neighborhood and food than it does about Mr. Samuelsson’s skills in the kitchen.
With Red Rooster, the Ethiopian-born chef behind Aquavit has given himself a difficult assignment—writing the report for a book he never read.
But it’s the book he wrote, his new memoir Yes, Chef, out June 26 from Random House—that most glaringly demonstrates the shortcomings of his approach to Harlem. As successful as the restaurant has been as a business proposition, it fails utterly in its goal of paying homage to the neighborhood, coming off instead like an embarrassing exercise in condescension, much like the book.
“I had seen the photographs of Harlem in its glory days,” Mr. Samuelsson tells us at one point, “stylish men in bespoke suits, women so well dressed that they’d put the models in Vogue to shame…. I knew that Harlemites loved to dance, to pray, and to eat.”
Thank you, Marcus, for that ride to the intersection of Stigma St. and Stereotype Blvd., but we’re not looking for the Cotton Club.
Here’s what the chef has to say about the area today:
“Harlem is not a playground for rich bankers and consultants. It’s got students of all colors. It’s got old people who keep history and tell tall tales. It’s got musicians and artists and I swear I know a guy who is the next incarnation of Prince…”
The entire book reads like it was ghost-written by Rudyard Kipling with an assist by Girls heroine Hannah Horvath, who infamously never encountered a black person in all of season one (except that homeless guy).
“People speak to each other on the street in Harlem,” our intrepid explorer reports. “They’ll tell you when they like what you’re wearing and when they disagree with the slogan on your t-shirt. Men compliment pretty women and women either respond in kind or tell them to keep on stepping.”
Honestly, I thought the next line was going to be about the sweet smell of cocoa butter on Malcolm X Blvd, but luckily, Mr. Samuelsson spares us any olfactory reveries.
Still, who am I, a Taiwanese-Chinese Stuytown resident by way of Pittsburgh, Orlando, and D.C., to stick up for the real Harlem? I had a feeling there was something anachronistic about Mr. Samuelsson’s take on the area, but to be sure, I dined at Red Rooster with rapper-producer Shiest Bubz (Purple City Byrd Gang) a Harlem native, whom I’ve known since ’08. It’s been two years since Rooster opened, but Shiest had never eaten there. Why? “Because every time we come it’s some extra-bougie extravagant event,” he said, “and then you can’t even get takeout up in there!”
Interestingly, Mr. Samuelsson was schooled on how important take-out was to Harlemites, who prefer not to dine on clusterfuck 125th Street.
“The old ladies thought we were stupid for building a restaurant on the block next to Sylvia’s,” he writes, “and all the young businesspeople in the neighborhood kept telling us to make sure we had takeout.”
He should have listened. Most locals tend to avoid 125th Street, especially when they’re looking for a relaxing evening. Opening a restaurant there is like buying your Chinese grandmother an apartment marked No. 4; the fact that you don’t accept her superstitions says more about your environment and upbringing than anything else. She’ll most likely blame your parents for your ignorance, but in Marcus’ instance, I blame the media and the puppeteers enabling this fairytale.
It is an appealing story: Marcus was born in a clay house in Ethiopia; his mother who died of tuberculosis when he was just 3, and he was adopted by a “caring Swedish couple and given a nice middle-class Swedish life,” as he puts it. He came to America at 22, landing a job at Aquavit, where he quickly rose to executive chef. Within a few years, he became the youngest chef to ever receive three stars from the New York Times. With those looks, that skin, a warm heart, and skills to match, he became a star overnight. Soon he was opening Aquavits in Stockholm and Tokyo, along with Riingo, and Merkato 55, in the Meatpacking District (both since closed). Reflecting on the Samuelsson phenomenon, culinary historian Michael Twitty, whose blog, Afroculinaria, is dedicated to preparing, preserving, and promoting African American foodways, called it an example of “the one negro syndrome.” The problem, as he put it, is that “when there is an exceptional person of color, he automatically becomes the figurehead. I think our job as people of color, through writing, cooking, selling, should be to put that stereotype to death. It becomes a thing where they say ‘Why can’t you be like Jessica Harris?’ ‘Why can’t you be like Marcus Samuelsson?’ We walk a very fine line between exceptionalism and tokenism.”
As Chef Joe Randall, the proprietor of an acclaimed cooking school in Savannah, told CNN, on the subject of Mr. Samuelsson, “There are plenty of African Americans who cook and cook well in this country, they just don’t necessarily get the notoriety that some people get.”
Indeed, though we’re often led to believe there are only a handful of black chefs in New York, this is simply untrue. Where was the foodie media before Jerk City closed? Peter Meehan wrote a great review of Zoma, one of two Harlem restaurants receiving Michelin Bib Gourmand recognition, nobody ever seems to interview Henock Kejela, the owner.
I asked Mr. Twitty why more journalists weren’t seeking insight from people like him. As we spoke, he was in Louisiana, wrapping up his Southern Discomfort Tour, a series of cooking demonstrations and events at former plantations. “My phone ain’t ringing,” he said.
Back at Red Rooster, Shiest ordered roasted Berbere chicken. He didn’t seem to be enjoying himself.