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From Harlem to Shoreditch: the story of Marcus Samuelsson

From Harlem to Shoreditch: the story of Marcus Samuelsson

by Tom Shingler 10 December 2018

A champion of multiculturalism and all the benefits it provides communities and cuisine, restaurateur and chef Marcus Samuelsson talks to Tom Shingler about his Red Rooster restaurant in Shoreditch, why he fell in love with east London and how it reflects his passion for Harlem in New York.

Marcus Samuelsson has had a hell of a life. Born in Ethiopia, he was adopted at the age of three and moved to Sweden, before travelling the world as a chef working in high-end restaurants and falling in love with the kitchens of France. He then headed up the kitchen when he was just twenty-four at Aquavit in New York during the 1990s, receiving rave reviews and becoming a nationally renowned cook. TV shows and books soon followed, and he was invited to cook the first state dinner for Barack Obama at The White House in 2009. That’s already more than most chefs can even hope to achieve in their lifetimes.

However, it was Marcus’ own restaurant Red Rooster, which opened in Harlem in 2010, that cemented his status as one of the world’s great culinary minds. At first it sounds like a bit of an odd mix – American soul food with a few Ethiopian and Swedish twists thrown in, plus plenty of nods to the cuisine of the local area – but the rave reviews proved it was a winning formula. Buoyed by its success, Marcus decided to open a second Red Rooster in 2016; not in another part of the US, but in Shoreditch, east London. So why did he decide to venture into the UK restaurant scene rather than expand the Red Rooster name in its native home?

‘Growing up in Sweden meant I always saw London as a really inspirational city,’ he tells me as we sit down in the dining room of Red Rooster Shoreditch. ‘I’d go to west London with my parents as a kid, but when I started visiting east London I completely fell in love with it. As someone who loves music and graffiti and street food culture, it really appealed to me. Shoreditch reminds me of Brooklyn and Harlem a lot, but it has its own identity too, thanks to factors like the Jewish and Bangladeshi communities. It’s multicultural in a way only a big city can be – and I love it.’

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Red Rooster Shoreditch certainly takes inspiration from its Harlem home when it comes to the décor
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The general set-up is similar too, combining live music and a buzzing bar with a relaxed restaurant serving comfort food with an American approach

London is one of the most multicultural cities in the world, and it’s clear that it’s this that appeals to Marcus more than anything else. When he set up the original Red Rooster he was a newcomer to Harlem but quickly became a hero of the community, creating jobs and holding events to boost the local economy. East London, with its prominent arts and music scene, had enough in common with his adopted home of Harlem, but enough of its own identity to make opening a restaurant there more than just a clone of the original. ‘Shoreditch ticked all the boxes for me – music, diversity and art. We always get requests to open new Red Rooster restaurants somewhere, but none of them really appealed to me like Shoreditch did.’

Marcus is a fantastic example of multicultural success himself, which he expresses through the food on offer at Red Rooster – there’s chicken meatballs with lingonberries as a nod to his childhood in Sweden; Dorowat duck tagliatelle, which embodies his Ethiopian ancestry, and of course the now-famous fried chicken, representing his love for Southern soul food. At Marcus’ Harlem restaurant, there are ‘Block Party Ribs’ and chicken with waffles representing the local food scene, while in Shoreditch you’ll find ‘Brixton Jerk’ chicken and quintessential British ingredients like samphire on the menu.

‘Red Rooster Shoreditch isn’t just an export of the original restaurant – far from it,’ says Marcus. ‘Maybe half the customers who come here do so for the fried chicken and cornbread, but then they see all the other dishes we cook, like our ‘Brick Lane’ fried fish, which really reflects how we want to represent and become part of the local community. I looked at the Bangladeshi and Indian flavours found around east London, as well as the UK’s amazing fish and chips to create it. That’s a dish we don’t have back in Harlem, because it wouldn’t necessarily make sense there. On the flipside, in New York we have more Latin flavours because of the Mexican and Puerto Rican communities, which aren’t as prominent in London. It’s not about taking all the dishes from Harlem and simply bringing them over to the UK. It wouldn’t work.’

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Most people will head to Red Rooster to try is famous fried chicken…
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…but there's much more on offer, such as Swedish meatballs, Ethiopian-inspired dishes and other American favourites such as cornbread

Harlem calling

Red Rooster Shoreditch has been open for over a year now, and the fact that it’s still busy every night shows that Marcus’ formula is just as effective in the UK as it is back in the US. You’d think it would be a massive risk to open an American soul food restaurant halfway across the world in a city already overloaded with places to eat, but then Marcus is no stranger to setting up shop in unfamiliar locations. He’d spent a large part of his career cooking in New York, but when he moved to Harlem in 2002, he spent eight years learning about the local food scene before opening Red Rooster to make sure he got everything right.

‘I soon discovered that the best food in Harlem was often in a park, at a block party or in the basement of a church,’ he explains. ‘These places weren’t restaurants; they weren’t even food trucks. But that didn’t matter because the food was so delicious. I was trained in fine dining restaurants, so it took some time to shift my lens to something more street-related – almost like what you see in Singapore. The food there is some of the best in the world, but you don’t go for the restaurants; you go for the hawkers.’

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One of the most popular items on the menu is the short ribs, which Marcus cooked for Barack Obama in 2009
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The 'Rooster Princess Cake' is one of many bright and colourful desserts at Red Rooster

In the past eight years that Red Rooster has been operating in Harlem, the local food scene has grown immensely – thanks in a large part to Marcus’ dedication to local communities. First, he launched a series of farmers’ markets in the area. Next came a food festival called Harlem EatUp, which now sees 15,000 people travel to the area each year. ‘I knew we had to have a festival in Harlem, so we could shout about all the great restaurants, food trucks and chefs working there,’ he says. ‘I also wanted to celebrate the local culture, so every event we do also includes really great music, art or spoken word. It gives the smaller shops and trucks the chance to rub shoulders with some of the best chefs in the world, too. That doesn’t happen at a lot of food festivals.’

Marcus is a household name in the US thanks to his TV appearances and is treated like a mega-celebrity in Harlem thanks to his work in the community, but he keeps a quieter profile in the UK. However, while his Shoreditch outpost is different in many ways to his Harlem restaurant, what Marcus wants them to share more than anything is becoming part of their respective local communities. Red Rooster Shoreditch has been open for less than two years, but already it’s working with nearby restaurants and suppliers wherever it can. While Marcus says Brexit was a bit of a shock for his business when it was announced (‘Immigrants are hugely important to the hospitality industry and without their contribution London’s food scene would be completely different’), the restaurant is still thriving. Who knows, perhaps in the future we’ll see EatUp Shoreditch bring thousands to the area for some fantastic food and drink.

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