PHOTOGRAPHY BY CHARISSA FAY
Newark, New Jersey, is nicknamed the Gateway City for good reason. For many people, it’s synonymous with rail and air transit. But Marcus Samuelsson saw it as a destination in its own right.
Samuelsson, 47, is arguably the most recognizable black chef in America—if not the world—thanks to his many TV appearances and books and his flagship New York City restaurant, Red Rooster. When it came time to find a location for his latest restaurant, Samuelsson was drawn to cities with robust black communities. Newark, he quickly realized, is an axis of black history and culture and a bastion of the arts—host to the National Conference of Black Power in 1967 and home to a robust blues, jazz, and gospel music scene that birthed legends like Whitney Houston and Queen Latifah. Even today, he says, “You could feel the history.” Walking the streets past jazz radio stations, music venues, and churches and museums left him feeling he was in a “hub for the black community.”
So, at the end of last year he opened Marcus B&P on a stretch of Halsey Street dotted with colorful storefronts and restaurants—just a 15-minute walk from Newark Penn Station, but decidedly warm and neighborhood-like in its vibe. The restaurant is as much an ode to local black culture as it is a dining establishment. The walls practically exhale this heritage. There’s an enormous portrait of onetime Newark resident Lauryn Hill on the dining room wall, vintage Queen Latifah records in the bathroom, and color-block paintings by local artist Faith Ringgold. The food also grows out of traditional African diaspora cuisine, but with influences from Newark’s Italian and Portuguese communities: Shrimp is served with grits and polenta, white elf mushrooms are cooked jerk-style, and rigatoni comes with a doro wat sauce (a shout out to the chef’s Ethiopian heritage).
The restaurant’s name is derived from the Swedish concept of a BP, or “back pocket” casual gathering spots for friends—exactly the feel Samuelsson and his team are seeking to foster. “I want this place to be the black Newark Cheers,” says Marcus B&P general manager Chris Keys, himself a resident of the city. “Newark has this vibe and this feel of community—from the guy on the corner playing guitar to the seamstress making beautiful African garments. I wanted to feel like we were a part of that soul.”
For Samuelsson, it goes even deeper than that. Opening restaurants in neighborhoods with thriving black communities is woven into the fabric of who he is as a chef. He wants to create spaces that celebrate his identity and heritage, and to create opportunities for black people in an industry where they are still underrepresented in positions of power and influence.
“We are creating the next generation of hospitality and showing people of color that there is now a place for them that they can aspire to,” he says on a cloudless April afternoon in Harlem, as he greets guest after guest on the patio at Red Rooster. (The chef splits his time these days between Harlem and Newark.) Clad in a yellow and blue scarf, along with matching Nike high-tops and a red hat emblazoned with “Barrio” (Spanish for “neighborhood”), he stands out among the fashionable diners streaming in. “I am the most well-known black chef in the world. I don’t say that with arrogance—I say that thinking about what that entails and what responsibilities come with that.”
Samuelsson’s connection with black American culture can actually be traced to his international roots. Born in Ethiopia, he was adopted by Swedish parents at a young age. Growing up in Gothenburg, a city of around half a million residents on Sweden’s southwest coast, he was not surrounded by many people who looked like him—“To say the least!” he says with a hearty laugh—but his adopted parents went to great lengths to make sure he could explore his identity. He grew up listening to Prince, reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X, watching Showtime at the Apollo. As he learned more and more, he kept finding himself drawn to one place: Harlem. “It was the center of black culture,” he says.
It took him a while to find his way uptown, though. After attending culinary school in Gothenburg and working as a cook in Europe and Japan, he landed in Midtown Manhattan, at the high-end Scandinavian spot Aquavit. By age 23, he had taken over as executive chef, and rave reviews started rolling in. He became the youngest chef to get three stars from The New York Times and won a James Beard Award for Best Chef: New York City. This was followed with countless appearances on TV shows such as Chopped and Iron Chef; an award-winning memoir, Yes, Chef; cookbooks; and product lines. Still, Samuelsson felt something was missing.
“When you’re cooking other people’s food, it’s almost as if you’re not supposed to have an identity,” he says, sitting on the crowded patio of Red Rooster, nibbling on a piece of cornbread smeared with honey butter. “I was starting to think about the idea of what a black chef can look like and evolve like, what their food can taste like. I was always told in Europe that as a black chef, you can never own a restaurant—but I wanted to come to terms with my identity.”
As his renown grew, he wondered how he could use his platform to effect change. “Why don’t people in the industry look like me?” he thought. “What can I do about that?”
So he quit his secure job at Aquavit, moved to Harlem, and in 2010, after eight years of studying the neighborhood—cooking with the jerk chicken guy in the park, attending church picnics, taking cooking classes—he opened Red Rooster, an unapologetic celebration of black culture and the Harlem community just feet from the famed corner of 125th and Lenox Avenue (aka Malcolm X Boulevard).
To Samuelsson, opening here was not a play to change or revitalize the neighborhood. “What good would that be? It’s already a beautiful place!” he says, laughing. Instead, it was about shining a light on what was already there—he decorated the dining room walls with hats by Harlem style icon Lana Turner and hired Harlem bands like the Rakiem Walker Project to come play—and creating employment opportunities for the neighborhood’s black population. “You can come to Red Rooster and learn how to make pastry and make a sauce, and you don’t have to get on a train to go to your job,” he says. “That has a huge impact.”
The restaurant’s executive chef, Edward Brumfield, points out that until Red Rooster, kitchen leadership opportunities for black people were very limited. “They were always labeled for people from France or from London,” he says. “It took a very long time for me to get noticed, even though I felt like I was more skilled. Marcus gave me a platform to show what I can do.”
The menu at Red Rooster too embraces the dishes and flavors that have long been Harlem staples: fried chicken, cornbread with honey butter, shrimp and grits. Just as he does at Marcus B&P, Samuelsson rounds out the menu with a few Ethiopian flourishes, like pasta with flecks of injera bread or roast chicken with misir wat (spicy lentils).
“If you think about American cooking, black chefs are at the core of one of the original cuisines that we have: soul food,” Samuelsson says. And yet, “we haven’t put value to that in the way we put value to Southern Italian food or French food. We haven’t figured out a way to value-proposition okra or grits in the same way.”
As both a destination restaurant and a local watering hole, Red Rooster is changing that mentality. Eight years in, the place is still always packed. In 2012, Samuelsson added Ginny’s Supper Club, a lounge just downstairs. (Last year, he also opened an iteration of Red Rooster in Shoreditch, a rapidly changing neighborhood in East London with a thriving arts and culture scene.)
The chef’s imprint on Harlem goes beyond his brick-and-mortar establishments. In 2015, he launched Harlem EatUp, which has grown into an 11,000-plus-person festival that shines a light on the neighborhood’s restaurants, artists, musicians, and makers. Instead of just a laundry list of celebrity chefs (though there are a few of those), the majority of the vendors Samuelsson brings in are neighborhood favorites: Charles Country Pan-Fried Chicken, Lolo’s Seafood Shack, Melba’s soul food.
Of course, despite these efforts to promote longtime locals, Samuelsson is used to hearing that loaded word: gentrification. There’s always the worry that the very people he wants to spotlight by opening a restaurant in Harlem or Newark will get priced out as the arrival of a celebrity chef–backed place brings along media coverage, expensive boutiques, and higher property costs. Samuelsson jokes about how there are now Whole Foods locations near both Red Rooster and Marcus B&P—but then his voice deepens. “I do worry about it,” he says. “Yes, I do. It is always on my mind.”
But, from the sunny Red Rooster patio, between pauses to pose for selfies with eager tourists, he points down the block, toward 125th Street: “There were maybe one or two restaurants there before I opened. Now there are 15. That means there are 1,200 jobs on that block that were not there before, and most of them are held by locals.” More important, he says, “there are now 2,000 guests of those restaurants spending their money in Harlem.”
Not everyone is impressed. Samuelsson recently had a lawsuit leveled against him by a former employee, alleging that he discriminated against black bartenders. “You can never control what people are going to say,” he responds. “But people know how hard we work on diversity. When you look at my body of work, it’s the opposite.”
What’s more, Samuelsson has another new project that underscores his commitment to diversity. This month sees the premiere of No Passport Required, a PBS show in which the chef explores immigrant communities across America: Arab-Americans in Detroit, Vietnamese in New Orleans, and Indo-Guyanese in Queens. He sees the show as being particularly relevant right now, when, he says, “It’s clear that inclusion is something we need to work on. America looks more like Queens than Manhattan. I want to have an impact by telling rich, unique immigrant stories.”
One of his favorite filming locations was another thriving hub of black culture: the Ethiopian community in Maryland, Northern Virginia, and Washington, D.C. He ate at Arlington’s Dama restaurant, “a joint that is jumping from 6 a.m to 11 p.m. with families and fanfare. It’s just like, ‘Boom!’” He also met legendary Ethiopian keyboardist Hailu Mergia and got a lesson in eskista, an Ethiopian shoulder dance, from renowned choreographer Damtew Worku.
For Samuelsson, being a prominent culinary figure is about more than just having a successful business. He wants to change the culture. “There was such a stigma around African-Americans in serving culture because they worked in it for so long,” he says. “Now, when restaurants become a big business, they are struggling to come back in.” Restaurants are only one segment in a much larger battle for equality, but Samuelsson thinks they are a uniquely promising place for making change.
“I believe in bridging through food,” he says. “That’s the whole point of the word restaurant. It means ‘to restore.’ How can you restore your community?”