Distinctive inflections from African and European cultures combine in a soft-spoken cadence that captures the heart and soul of Chef Marcus Samuelsson’s heritage, even as his every sentence is delivered with a sense of passionate urgency—a trait indigenous to the city he now calls home.
Born in Ethiopia, raised in Scandinavia, today Chef Samuelsson, 44, is every bit a New Yorker—and proud of it, relishing his newly planted roots in Harlem.
“I’ve lived in New York most of my adult life,” says the chef, “but obviously I have a lot of global influences. Being from Africa will always be a part of my food, being raised in Scandinavia was an incredible opportunity that I bring to my narrative. My grandma’s meatballs are in my restaurants in Gothenburg [Sweden] and in Harlem.”
Asked to describe his driving passion, Chef Samuelsson replies: “To do change … it’s not talking about change, it’s doing change.”
How does he “do change”? One way is by creating jobs in his acclaimed Harlem restaurants, Red Rooster and Ginny’s Supper Club. “I am proud we have restaurants with great food in Harlem, but the fact that we provide jobs in a community that’s at 18 percent* unemployment, that’s something I take a lot of pride in,” he says. “We hire 150 people [in Harlem] and this gives people aspiration and inspiration. In this way, we’re not just talking about change, we’re doing change—and it’s in the community where my wife and I live.”
At Red Rooster, Chef Samuelsson homed in on American cuisine, and in particular Southern cuisine. Prodded to define his cooking style, he says it’s simply Americana, which by definition means there’s nothing simplistic about it.
“Americana—it’s an immigrant-driven cuisine,” he explains. “We have all been influenced by immigrants bringing major change to our palates, and Harlem is immigrant-driven as well. There are different types of migrations—people from the South coming up North, and now people from the North moving down South—it all affects our palate.”
Ironically, Chef Samuelsson’s Scandinavian upbringing in some ways mirrors the initial founding of Harlem as a Dutch community—but one that evolved over the centuries into a melting pot of multi-cultural dynamics.
“This great migration has always had an impact on Harlem as a place, and I want to capture that migration in terms of its food,” he continues. “I’m not Southern, but I’m inspired by the [Southern] culture, and when you look at a map of Harlem today, there is a great West African community that’s been a part of Harlem for 20 years. There are also great Irish, Jewish, and Italian communities in Harlem—and these combine with the African-American heritage.”