Marcus Samuelsson’s Overcooked Memoir Makes His Pricey Harlem Discomfort Food Hard to Swallow

The Chickens Come Home to (Red) Roost

“It’s upsetting, because a lot of our good spots like Strawberry closed down, but then this opened on 125th, the President came, and it got all the attention along with a whole wave of new restaurants. In Harlem, we take pride in having little spots that wow people. They over-deliver. This place is like a factory. People from other neighborhoods come and they think this is what Harlem is about, but it’s not. Who in Harlem pays $28 for chicken?!”

Asked for suggestions of spots that better represented the Harlem he loved, Shiest namechecked Amy Ruth’s, which was mentioned by the Times in an article about the last influx of new Harlem restaurants back in 2000. “Harlem’s new restaurants exert a home-grown charm,” Eric Asimov wrote, “aimed mostly at Harlem’s longtime residents, staying true to Southern and Caribbean themes.”

That’s the type of restaurant you want to see build a foundation in the neighborhood. It’s a gathering spot, an amenity, and a job provider for the people actually living there. Mr. Samuelsson is to be commended for having a predominantly if not all black wait staff, but here’s how he speaks about them in his memoir: “The women of color and the gay men of color really thrived in the early days,” he writes, but “the straight black men came in with a chip on their shoulders the size of Lil Wayne’s gold teeth and they stepped to me with all the impatience and fury of men who did not know how to deal with authority figures.”

They stepped to you, did they?

I ran the passage by journalist Sacha Jenkins of EgoTrip and VH1’s The (White) Rapper Show.  “It’s awesome that he’s able to employ people, many of whom I imagine are of color,” Mr. Jenkins said, “but clearly this Lil’ Wayne analogy is really racially insensitive, and it speaks to his lack of understanding about what the black experience in America is.”

Marcus Samuelsson is a supremely important global voice in America, but that shouldn’t give him license to speak for Harlem. By catering to diners outside Harlem and talking down to the ones who live there—promising things like “elevated” soul food—he treats the place like a museum exhibit. He speaks in stereotypes, desperately trying to capture snapshots of villagers dancing, praying, and bespoke-suiting to display in this playhouse of a restaurant.

In his memoir, Mr. Samuelsson seems more worried about catering to a downtown clientele. “In the weeks before the restaurant opened I wondered at times if people would come,” he writes. “For our potential clientele on the Upper West Side and Upper East Side, it’s just ten minutes in a taxi. But people keep asking me ‘Is it safe? Will I be able to get a taxi home?’”

He continues, “We wanted and needed three types of diner to give the Rooster the flavor that we considered the yummiest: Harlemites, the men and women (regardless of color) who are our neighbors, whose very existence provides the culture and color that is Harlem; downtown diners who love restaurants and great food; and out-of-towners who have traveled from as far away as San Francisco, Sweden, and South Africa.”

In fact, he’s done little to appeal to that first category. With 2000 requests a night and just 600 covers, he gloats, “We’re in the ‘polite no’ business.”

Shiest tried to get a reservation without success—until his publicist reached out and scored us a table. It’s not hard to see the problem: Red Rooster takes reservations 30 days out, which means that for the most part, only diners who plan the excursion well in advance will nail a table.

After reading Mr. Samuelsson’s memoir and dining twice at Red Rooster, I can’t help but conclude that the eager culture vulture and self-proclaimed global flavor chaser is missing the point. What he doesn’t realize about Harlem, soul food and perhaps himself is that they’re all good enough already. It’s the rest of the world that needs to catch up.

His talk of elevating soul food is an absurd joke to anyone who’s ever dined at spectacular neighborhood restaurants like Miss Mamie’s, Charles’ Country Pan Fried Chicken, Londel’s, or even the slightly more expensive Mobay Uptown. And then there are the numerous cuchifritos joints and lechoneras that blanket the neighborhood, serving rabo guisado, mofongo, arroz con pollo, and bacalao. My favorites are the ones that pickle their own chili sauce.

And yet: “In Sweden, we do a lot of cross-country skiing,” Mr. Samuelsson writes. “And when you ski, just in the woods, not in a resort, the first skier has to plow. That’s how I think of myself—with the restaurant, with the Harlem dining scene. I’m the guy who has to plow.”

He has entirely bought into the establishment idea that table clothes, square plates, and stars define an objectively good restaurant. The value system he applies to Harlem is not one the community has ever accepted, and frankly, the rest of New York’s neighborhoods and food scenes are rejecting it as well. While the rest of us are busy winning over New York City with fistfuls of cilantro, funny glasses, and raw dining rooms, Marcus is up in Harlem plowing for the old guard—trying to carve out a new market for an outdated sensibility. He’s importing a concept on its last legs and trying to convince Harlem it’s new and worthy. Red Rooster might work better in a place like Las Vegas’ New York New York Hotel, a sorry attempt at recreating the city for people walking around with souvenir drinks. It doesn’t belong in Harlem.

Which isn’t to say that the man can’t cook. Aquavit remains an impressive achievement. And while Red Rooster served a myriad of misses—the Berbere roasted chicken came swimming in broken-down murky brown sauce, the cornbread was stale, and the $18 dirty rice, with five measly U26 shrimp, was tepid—the Swedish-inflected offerings, like Helga’s Meatballs with lingonberries, were excellent. Mr. Samuelsson’s longtime friend and business partner at Red Rooster, Andrew Chapman, is Swedish as well, and this is where it becomes tricky understanding Samuelsson.

The majority of the book—and a large portion of his life—are devoted to finding his past in Ethiopia, and his efforts are at once admirable, heartbreaking and confused. No one can tell you who you are but you. As the first of my family born in America, I’ve at times felt lost, and you can’t fault a man for trying to find his home. As Mr. Samuelsson writes, “I spent so much of my life on the outside that I began to doubt that I would ever truly be in with any one people, any one place, any one tribe. But Harlem is big enough, diverse enough, scrappy enough, old enough, and new enough to encompass all that I am and all that I hope to be.”

The problem with Red Rooster is that it’s about more than just Marcus Samuelsson. In his quest for a home and a business success, he’s doing a gross injustice to a neighborhood, a culture and a history that has already seen its share of struggles.

Then again, to hear Mr. Samuelsson tell it, things are looking up. At one point, he writes about noticing how much the neighborhood had changed in the six years since he’d moved in. “People were walking with Target bags now,” he notes. “It made me smile.”

Comments

  1. Josh Filbin says:

    I live in Harlem, read his book, and wasn’t so offended. I also get atke-out from Red Rooster on the daily and have been doing so since they open.
    I then read your article.
    Full of holes and clumsy fact checking, but flowery.
    Get a clue sir.