At Red Rooster, Marcus Samuelsson builds community, one plate at a time

November 29, 2020 | Marcus Samuelsson's new cookbook and building a community with a restaurant (WTOP's Rachel Nania )

WASHINGTON Marcus Samuelsson opened Red Rooster six years ago and in that time, he’s had his fair share of memorable moments.

One of Samuelsson’s favorites is when the Obamas stopped by his Harlem restaurant for a special dinner of braised short ribs, lobster salad and cornbread with honey butter.

The kitchen was buzzing during the visit, but the real excitement happened outside the dining room where neighbors lined up to catch a glimpse of the president and the first lady.

“The party was just equally as much outside the restaurant as in the restaurant,” said Samuelsson, who passed out doughnuts and coffee to the crowd during the event.

Next on his list is when musician Roberta Flack opened at Ginny’s Supper Club, the basement lounge at Red Rooster. But right up there with the commander-in-chief and a major celebrity is when any of his staff members advanced to the next position.

“There’s everything from the president to music to just a server becoming a manager that’s magical to me,” said Samuelsson, who is a frequent face on Food Network’s “Chopped” and Bravo’s “Top Chef.”

“There are small goals that we have that from the outside don’t look big, but they are evolutions for us.”

That’s because when Samuelsson, 46, opened Red Rooster in 2010, he did so with the intent to build a community.

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 16:  Chef Marcus Samuelsson poses with his cookbook at a signing during the Grand Tasting presented by ShopRite featuring Samsung culinary demonstrations presented by MasterCard at the Food Network & Cooking Channel New York City Wine & Food Festival presented by Coca-Cola at Pier 94 on October 16, 2016 in New York City.  (Photo by Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images for NYCWFF)
Chef Marcus Samuelsson poses with his cookbook at a signing during the Grand Tasting presented by ShopRite featuring Samsung culinary demonstrations presented by MasterCard at the Food Network & Cooking Channel New York City Wine & Food Festival presented by Coca-Cola at Pier 94 on October 16, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images for NYCWFF)

Before establishing the restaurant, the Ethiopian-born and Swedish-raised chef purchased an apartment in the upper Manhattan neighborhood. A few years later, his mother encouraged him to start his business there.

“My mom always said to me, ‘Hey, you should open something that’s more affordable, and you should also open up something that is where you live. Why do we always have to travel to where you do stuff?’” he told WTOP at a recent event at Macy’s Downtown-Metro Center.

“As African-Americans, we’re always used to the good schools being out of [our] community, the good jobs out of the community. Why does it have to be like that?”

So the James Beard Award-winning chef opened a lunch, dinner and brunch eatery on Lenox Avenue and 125th. From day one, his goal with Red Rooster was to build a home.

“I was looking for a community, you know? And Harlem has become both home and community,” he said.

In fact, 70 percent of Samuelsson’s 150 employees are from the neighborhood and he takes pride in that.

“People see that all good jobs are not downtown,” he said.

He considers Red Rooster a place of opportunity and growth for those who need a job and want to learn hospitality. In addition to kitchen and front-of-house employees, the downstairs lounge allows Samuelsson to bring in the neighborhood’s musicians, dancers and other artists.

The restaurant’s menu reflects the community, as well. Many dishes are Southern inspired, but heavily influenced by other cultures.

“It’s also a reflection of how Harlem has changed. So you have Puerto Rican, you have Mexican, you have Jewish,” Samuelsson said.

The restaurant’s history — and that of the neighborhood — is chronicled in Samuelsson’s latest book, The Red Rooster Cookbook. The recipes tell the stories of the destination’s most iconic dishes, and lengthy essays dive into the neighborhood’s past.

“I look at good food as a civil right; this is our civil rights movement toward that,” Samuelsson said about his restaurant and cookbook.

Expect to find recipes for everything from Red Rooster’s fried yardbird to its crunchy quinoa salad with pears.

For those who want to catch Samuelsson’s cooking first hand, there’s no need to book a ticket to New York. The chef is opening a restaurant in National Harbor’s MGM casino, called Marcus.

“We’re definitely going to have crab on the menu; we’re going to look at some of the grits from Virginia coming up. You know, I love the idea that we’re getting closer to the South here, so we’ll have even more Southern influences,” he said.

MGM and Marcus is scheduled to open Dec. 8.

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