Marcus Samuelsson Knows (Almost) Everyone


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Marcus Samuelsson, in a jaunty red hat, at the Red Rooster Harlem.

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George Etheredge for The New York Times

As he made his way down Lenox Avenue, sporting a brightly colored shirt and tie, a gray tailored vest and a Louis Vuitton messenger bag, Marcus Samuelsson couldn’t seem to stop greeting people.

The 45-year-old chef and restaurateur, who owns 11 restaurants and has written seven cookbooks, shook hands with the dexterity of a politician and handed out smiles like candy. His mission: to give a Brooklyn resident a proper tour of central Harlem within the very crunched time span of an hour.

The stops on his list: Sneaker Pawn, a store that specializes in rare sneakers; Harlem Haberdashery, the brick-and-mortar extension of the custom label 5001 Flavors; the Studio Museum in Harlem; Flamekeepers Hat Club, which sells men’s hats; and Paris Blues, a spot for live jazz.

Spotting a man outside one of his restaurants, Mr. Samuelsson clapped his hand and invited him to a party that night in honor of his latest project. “That guy I said hi to, it’s just as important to be connected to him as it is to be connected to Thelma Golden,” Mr. Samuelsson said (Ms. Golden is the director of the Studio Museum). “They’re all messengers of information and connectivity. Without that, there’s no restaurant.”

The restaurant he was referring to is Red Rooster Harlem, on Lenox Avenue (also known as Malcolm X Boulevard) near 126th Street in Harlem and the culmination of years of thought and effort on Mr. Samuelsson’s part. The party that night, held at Ginny’s Supper Club in the basement of the restaurant, would celebrate “The Red Rooster Cookbook: The Story of Food and Hustle in Harlem,” released on Oct. 18.

“I came to this country with $300 and a vision, but that was to be a great chef and to hopefully get some stars,” said Mr. Samuelsson, who arrived in New York in 1994 for an apprenticeship with Aquavit, a high-end Scandinavian restaurant in Manhattan. Just one year later, when Aquavit earned three stars from this newspaper’s restaurant critic, he was its executive chef. He was 23 at the time.

At 27, Mr. Samuelsson won the James Beard Award for rising-star chef. With so many accomplishments under his belt before he even turned 30, Mr. Samuelsson wondered what would come next.

He considered his personal concerns with the world of fine dining. “There were no women and everyone who taught me cooking was women,” he said. “And there were no people of color. I wanted to make sure those narratives were in the movie.”

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Diop Chinnery, 9, and Mr. Samuelsson walk down the street together in Harlem.

Credit
George Etheredge for The New York Times

“I realized if you have this platform, it can’t just be about how much dough you keep in your pocket,” Mr. Samuelsson said. He turned his eye to Harlem.

Born in Ethiopia in 1971, Mr. Samuelsson, along with his sister, were adopted by a Swedish family after his mother died from tuberculosis when he was a baby. Growing up “the only black kids not just on the block but in school,” as he described it, Mr. Samuelsson looked to American black culture early on, inundating himself in the works of James Baldwin, Malcolm X, Miles Davis, Q-Tip, Jean-Michel Basquiat and others.

He finally moved to Harlem in 2002 to begin establishing the kind of restaurant he could build as a gathering place for the community and not just a destination restaurant for visitors from downtown (or out of town).

“Just because I’m black doesn’t mean I understand Harlem,” he said. “Harlem is larger than the village. For the diaspora of people of color, it’s a much larger culture.”

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Mr. Samuelsson shakes hands with a street vendor not far from his restaurant, Red Rooster, in Harlem.

Credit
George Etheredge for The New York Times

In 2010, a year after he cooked the first state dinner for the Obamas, he opened Red Rooster.

At Harlem Haberdashery, Louis Johnson, a creative director there, discussed his volunteer work cleaning up Lenox Avenue.

He stepped over to Mr. Samuelsson to check the size of the jacket Mr. Samuelsson was trying on. “Is that a large?”

Dismayed, Mr. Samuelsson responded: “I never get a large in anything. That would be accepting a reality I’m not ready to accept.” Sticking to his size choice, he paid for the acquisition and headed out.

He wore it proudly later that night at his dinner party at the Red Rooster as he posed for photos and vigorously introduced guests to one another. Among them were Lana Turner, a Harlem preservationist and hat collector (she owns more than 500); Bevy Smith, the host of “Bevelations” on Sirius XM radio; Dapper Dan, the famed Harlem-based designer, and Ms. Golden.

“If you’re a musician, there’s a clear beacon that you want to be a part of, which is the Apollo,” he said. “If you’re an artist, there’s the Studio Museum. In cooking, I felt there was a space there we could create that would be inspired by the past but very much about the present and future. That’s Red Rooster. When you’re in doubt, you come in here and you get it.”

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