By GLENN COLLINS, NY Times: “FOOD can be cooked from the soul,” said Marcus Samuelsson as he moved through the raw space of Red Rooster Harlem, his upcoming restaurant on Lenox Avenue near West 125th Street. “But that doesn’t make it soul food.”
And so, Red Rooster won’t be devoted to the Southern cooking that has long fueled Sylvia’s, a block away. Nor will it exclusively channel the African dishes Mr. Samuelsson once served at Merkato 55, his vast, exotic meatpacking district flameout. Instead, he will preside over what he calls “an elevated American comfort food” that borrows from both cuisines, and others. “Harlem is so diverse, and our menu will be, too,” he said.
Mr. Samuelsson, 39, was born in Abragodena, Ethiopia, orphaned at 3 and adopted by a Swedish couple in Gothenburg. But cooking in Harlem, where he has lived for six years, is a voyage home to his identity and ancestry, he said. “For any person of color, no matter where you come from, Harlem has special meaning.”
The name of his 100-seat restaurant, opening in October, salutes the original Red Rooster, a storied, long-shuttered Harlem hangout whose clientele included James Baldwin and Willie Mays. The ground floor of the new $2 million Red Rooster will have a restaurant, a breakfast cafe, a grocery, a horseshoe-shaped bar and a communal table, all of it covering 3,400 square feet. He means to fill the 1,800-square-foot basement not only with a party space that has “a speak-easy vibe with jazz, gospel and open-mike music,” he said, but also with cooking classes and demonstrations.
Mr. Samuelsson is the winner of the last “Top Chef Masters,” guest chef for the first state dinner of the Obama administration, and a city fixture who made his bones at Aquavit, where he took over the kitchen in 1995 and is still a part owner.
The executive chef at Red Rooster will be Andrea Bergquist, whose résumé includes Tabla, Gramercy Tavern and Merkato 55.
That restaurant — where Mr. Samuelsson said his role was mostly advisory, where he was rarely observed in the kitchen and which he left after six months — segued into a club and closed last year. He said he will be “a regular presence” in Red Rooster, because he owns it and “this is my neighborhood, and this is our space.”
Red Rooster will be about “affordable, well-executed food,” he said, adding that dinner checks will land in the $40 range, including drinks. Appetizers will run from $4 to $12, desserts from $4 to $10, and the most expensive main course will be $25.
His inexpensive ingredients, drawn from Harlem’s ethnic mix, reflect Mr. Samuelsson’s conviction that “through food, we can trace the history of poverty,” he said, adding that “poor white working-class people are part of soul food, too. Actually, every ethnicity has soul food.”
There will be a potato-and-celery mash, collard greens and fried chicken, a work in progress. “Our crust is there, so now it’s about the moisture factor and how it’s marinated,” he said.
Also on the menu are a duck- and chicken-liver ganache seasoned with garam masala, cardamom, ginger and port-wine reduction; flank steak with oxtail; and two Ethiopian dishes, including a spicy-egg chicken stew.
The bartenders will pay homage to the role of the mixed drink in the Harlem Renaissance, Mr. Samuelsson said, adding that bourbons “infused with peanut and tobacco and other things will be used to build cocktails.”
Mr. Samuelsson is betting that Red Rooster will be a magnet for young, striving African, Caribbean, Latin — and yes, white — Harlem, as well as the neighborhood’s venerables.
“The game changer for me?” he said, pausing during the nine-block walk from Red Rooster to his duplex near Frederick Douglass Boulevard. “That was when I noticed that there were more wine stores in Harlem than liquor stores.”