On our April trip to New York City, we wanted to be close to Columbia University, where our son is going to school, and the best accommodations we found based on price and location was the Double Tree by Hilton on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River. To get to New York we had to cross the Fort Lee Bridge, the same bridge the was part of the 2013 "Bridgegate" scandal involving New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. Lucky for us, the bridge was open and traffic was flowing nicely, at least as nicely as it flows in that area.We decided to leave our car at the hotel and try out Lyft for the first time. As new users, we got $20 of credit towards our first rides, and our son got some credit for referring us. It's a great system--we ordered a ride through an app on my phone, and we could see where the driver was as represented by a moving dot on a map on the screen. The app gave us a picture of both the car and the driver, along with the make and model of the vehicle. The price is established by Lyft, so there was no worry that we were being cheated, and tipping is not expected. The map continued to show our progress once we got in the car, so we could see that we were going directly to our destination. Our driver was polite and efficient, and our ride was pleasant.
Later on we saw this billboard:
. . . to an LDS chapel suddenly appearing out of nowhere on Malcolm X Boulevard:
Our destination was Harlem"s Red Rooster, the #1 item on my list for this trip to New York City (aside from spending time with our son). I know, I know--it's usually my husband who focuses on food destinations. What's so special about Red Rooster?
For the last couple of years I have been using Marcus Samuelsson's memoir, Yes, Chef, as a text for a college-level English Comp class I teach. My theme for readings and student writings has been "We Are What We Eat: The Culture and Politics of Food." Samuelsson's book has been perfect--something the students relate to because Sameulsson presents himself honestly as a driven but sometimes flawed man who didn't have everything handed to him, but who was able to get past significant setbacks (a child born after a one-night stand, the death of a close friend in a car accident that he too was in, a restaurant closure) and make something of his life through hard work. As they read Samuelsson's story, students also learn about many other cultural and political aspects of food, such as the diets of different cultures and countries, problems of hunger in Africa, organic gardening, fine dining in the restaurant world, and our complex relationship with what we eat.
Samuelsson was born in Ethiopia and was seemingly orphaned at age three when his mother died of tuberculosis. Not much later he was adopted with his older sister by a Swedish couple who already had another adopted black daughter. Samuelsson developed his love of good food and its preparation in his Swedish grandmother's kitchen. As a young man (after he realized he would never become the professional soccer player he had always wanted to be), he threw himself heart and soul into the culinary world. He studied at a local culinary institute, and then trained in high-end restaurants in Sweden, Switzerland, and Austria before coming to New York City, where he became the executive chef at Aquavit and the youngest chef ever (age 24) to win three stars from the New York Times. Along the way he battled significant racism, and he was the first person of African descent to break through many barriers in the cooking world.
After he discovered his biological father was still alive, Samuelsson returned to Ethiopia to meet him and his numerous half-siblings. As his biological family became a significant part of his life, Ethiopian spices and foods became an important part of his repertoire.
In 2009 he served the first state dinner of the Obama presidency in the White House, and in 2010 he opened his restaurant, Red Rooster, in Harlem. His book covers fairly extensively his philosophy behind Red Rooster:
"Food memories give people something to talk about--our food, our culture, our journey. . . . The restaurant had to be a place that honored and mirrored the mystique of the renaissance but showed the new Harlem--inclusive of both old and new. The menu had to tell the story of all of Harlem's residents--Latin, Southern, Caribbean, Jewish, Italian. When I cook, I see faces. When I make meatballs, I see my grandmother and her smile. When I make my flan with condensed milk and whipped chocolate, I try to honor all the young Latinas from Spanish Harlem for whom this is a signature dish. My take on dirty rice--shrimp with curry rice--is a tribute to all of the many multiracial Jamaican families who are a mix of black, Indian, and Chinese. I want to do them all justice. I wanted the menu at Red Rooster to reflect all that Harlem has to offer . . . ."
While Samuelsson's life had some major bumps in the road (which is one of the reasons my students relate so well to his story), he had and continues to have an incredible work ethic that has carried him to success (what I hoped my students would absorb from his life). Among his many messages is the one that sometimes to make a dream come true, you have to be willing to work longer hours, make more sacrifices, and take more risks than the others around you.
And so that's why we ended up at Red Rooster in Harlem for brunch. How could we NOT go there?
We had tried to get dinner reservations, but we waited too long and they were booking several weeks out. However, they told us that if we came early for brunch, we should be able to get in. We were there when the restaurant opened at 10:00 AM and were among the first people to be seated.
The front area of the restaurant is a colorful bar. In Yes, Chef, Samuelsson notes that they "built the bar in front to reflect the construction of churches." I'm not exactly sure what he means by that--an anteroom before the chapel, perhaps? He also states that they "used copper to echo the regal nineteenth-century history of Harlem. . . . The bar had to be a horseshoe shape that practically screamed 'Just come on in!'"
Samuelsson continues, "From the beginning, we filled the space with our personal treasures. There are recipes on the wall from Andrew's aunt Ginny and my grandmother Helga. Behind the bar, there's a gigantic bookshelf filled with things that meant something to me."
The main dining room is even more colorful than the bar. It was nice to be there early enough to gawk at the decor:
This lovely old quilt with paint drizzled and smudged all over it is by the artist Sanford Biggers. At first I was horrified. I have a fondness for old quilts, and it pained me to see this one covered in paint. But then I learned that the artist uses quilts that have been given to him by descendants of slave owners. His art represents "the history and trauma of Black America." (See this thought-provoking four-minute Ted talk. For information specifically about Biggers's quilts, see this site.)
. . . and the kitchen was hopping:
The food was beautifully presented. Check out these deviled eggs with duck salami, for example. That's the right ratio of egg yolk to white, in my opinion:
We had an order of moist, sweet cornbread served with honey butter and tomato jam:
Red Rooster's food brunch menu that day a decidedly Southern bent, so our son ordered the quintessential Southern dish: fried chicken and waffles served with a fried egg topped with fried onions and a dish of gravy. In Yes, Chef, Samuelsson said he knew fried chicken had to be on the menu, but it was one of the toughest dishes for him to master and to reinvent. American-style fried chicken had no place in his culinary history, and "because so many people have made versions of the dish that are so good, it was almost too daunting to take that dish on." I think he had a pretty good job with it!
I had "El Jefe," which consisted of a short rib and two eggs garnished with black kale and cheese. YUM!
Bob had another classic southern dish but with an African twist: cheddar grits and piri piri shrimp, probably the best of all our main dishes. Piri piri is an African chili pepper:
It was getting late in the morning, and I felt we were close enough to lunch to order some dessert, so we ordered two to share: a pretty incredible coconut panna cotta with mango and pistachio:
. . . and a beautifully presented cookie pie with marshmallow ice cream, a praline, and hot fudge:
Red Rooster is a fairly expensive restaurant, and it's probably a good thing we were there for brunch rather than dinner. Its $$$$ rating has caused some controversy as Harlem doesn't love the idea of gentrification driving out the traditional Harlem population. They also don't like the idea that the borough's own residents can't afford this food. However, the restaurant brings some of the best flavors of Southern American and African culture to haute cuisine, and what better environment for that than Harlem?
After having read Yes, Chef multiple times, it was especially fun to eat at Samuelsson's restaurant. I was a little disappointed that he didn't put in an appearance, however. The wait staff told me they thought he was going to be in later in the day. I think if he had been there, I would have gone into paparazzi mode and embarrassed my husband and son by asking for a photo with him. Oh well, I guess I will just have to show this picture to prove to my students that I was there: