A Q&A with Chef Marcus Samuelsson
A Q&A with Chef Marcus SamuelssonJanuary 18, 2012
To say chef Marcus Samuelsson been “busy” in the last few years is akin to saying William Faulkner “wrote some stuff.” At 24-years-old, Chef Marcus Samuelsson was the youngest chef ever to receive three stars from the New York Times. The James Beard Foundation attached the accolade of “Best International Cookbook” to his 2006 African-inspired title, The Soul of a New Cuisine, and he served as the guest chef at the first state dinner held by the Obama administration in 2009. In 2010, Samuelsson won BRAVO’s hit cooking show Top Chef Masters, and simultaneously opened his Harlem Soul Food restaurant, Red Rooster. The secret to success at Red Rooster, however, has not been in the sauce, but rather in The South.
Photo: Paul Brissman
He serves what he terms “poor man’s cooking,” which he learned at the knee of his adopted Swedish grandmother and adapted over countless trips to the South and to his native homeland in Ethiopia. The menu tempts New Yorkers north to Harlem via items like blackened catfish over fried pickles, crab cakes and country ham with currant mustard. There’s fluffy cornbread (with honey butter and tomato chutney, of course), alongside Samuelsson’s tour-de-force Yard Bird: several pounds of dark-meat fried chicken with white mace gravy (Warning: it takes at minimum two grown men to polish this dish off).
The success of Red Rooster is a feat many felt would be hard to pull off, given the neighborhood’s past reputation (and its distance from … well … everything else in Manhattan). But inside his dining room, visitors meet a mix of cultures only New York City could provide and only Samuelsson’s heartfelt cooking could retain.
At Red Rooster, you have several items on the menu that are “Southern” staples – like cornbread and fried chicken. But in Harlem, it’s deemed “Soul Food.” Can you define the difference? Is there one?
The two are not necessarily the same thing, but they are the same in spirit. Soul Food is a pretty young cuisine. It comes from Soul music and started in urban areas like Chicago and Harlem … from the migration from the South. So, it is built on Southern cuisine. Southern cuisine itself, though, is very old. You know, it’s similar to the way Italian food in Italy tastes versus the way Italian food in New York tastes. Both are great, but there are those distinguishable differences. These are actually the questions I want to evoke with my food at Red Rooster. Yes, we have the same staples – fried chicken, catfish – but let’s dig deeper and find the plate’s connection to the urban setting, to our history.
Where did you first get connected with Southern food?
My grandmother. She used what I call “poor man’s cooking” techniques to create a rich experience. I think that’s the root of Southern cooking. For example, I studied to be a chef in France. There, so much time and effort devoted to only cooking with the center cut or the best piece of meat. In the South, poor man’s cooking means not having the best piece of meat, but using everything you know to make it the most amazing meal. My first trip down South was to New Orleans. I remember eating and listening to this completely different vocabulary I’d never heard before. It’s like if you grow up only listening to classical music and then someone puts on Tupac … well … that’s going to change you. It changed me.
What are your favorite Southern dishes?
For me, I love simple fish and grits because it’s so different from the fish I grew up eating in Sweden. Porgy goes great with grits. I love some fried chicken. It took me six months to figure out our fried chicken dish for Red Rooster. I stressed out. Light meat or dark? Bone in or bone out? I’m also a fan of rich, sipping bourbons and love finding nuances in collards based on how you cook them.
Anything you dislike in Southern cuisine?
I love and hate the pace. That slow pace is also exactly what I need. The first time I went to visit Ethiopia, I had five meetings to set up. The guy that met me there was like, ‘Are you going to be here for a month? That’s how it will take.’ The South is that way, too. Slowing down is a great thing for the soul.
Have you tried a Southern cuisine on the menu at Red Rooster that didn’t go over well with your New York audience?
Yes. Chitlins & Champagne. I love that combo of rich and poor. I love the oxymoron. Now, my customers here are coming from all over. And a lot of them were like ‘What is this?!’ It took more than a minute to convince them.
Who are the Southern chefs that most inspire you?
First of all, when I travel, my goal is to try those unknown cooks. I want to go eat with the anonymous African American chef that no one knows yet. I want that guy … in the back of some place … cooking something crazy. But established, it’s Leah Chase from New Orleans. She can break down a fish, tell you the exact border where Southern food stops and Creole/Cajun cuisine takes over. And The Lee Brothers in Charleston. They are some of the first that pushed me in this direction with their books. I love hanging out with cooks who are writers. There’s definitely a new, young movement coming from the South, and it’s exciting that we are seeing the beginning of that scene.