But can a restaurant be both an international destination for high cuisine and a comfy neighborhood joint? That’s a dynamic the 41-year-old Samuelsson has clearly considered very carefully along the way.
His first step was to move to Harlem, something he did about eight years ago. He’d lived in various neighborhoods, but had always been drawn uptown. He wondered why many other New Yorkers hadn’t been. “Why does someone from 89th and Columbus go to Paris more often than Harlem?” he asks, speaking to a reporter one afternoon during the lull between lunch and dinner. “That’s a real challenge.”
But it quickly becomes clear that Samuelsson’s journey to Red Rooster began well before that, when he was a young black man in Europe, adopted from Ethiopia with his sister. He had a crazy plan of being a top chef.
“Being a person of color, things were very clear,” Samuelsson says. “Being a chef at that level I wanted just wasn’t an option.”
“So you have two possibilities _ you quit, or you smile and do it better,” Samuelsson continues. “I chose the second. And I said, `I have to go to America.’”
After his success at Aquavit, Samuelsson opened several restaurants, not all roaring successes. But Red Rooster is clearly his most ambitious project yet.
“It’s so hard to say that something is one-of-a-kind,” says Dana Cowin, editor-in-chief of Food & Wine magazine. “But Red Rooster truly is. It’s the food, it’s the vibe. But it’s also a cultural meeting place _ for people in the arts, for people downtown, for people of New York, for people of the world. It’s almost more like a 1920s cafe in Paris, in that respect.”
Lenox Avenue may not be the Boulevard Saint-Germain, but it was, for Samuelsson, an irresistible draw, given its rich historical associations with figures like Langston Hughes and James Baldwin. But it isn’t just history that determined his restaurant’s location. There’s a big subway stop at Lenox and 125th, a few steps from the restaurant. The bus goes right by. The express train from Times Square takes about 10 minutes.
Once he found his spot, Samuelsson filled it with tiny and telling touches _ reflecting both his own journey, like an ABBA album, and the neighborhood he calls home. Colorful art from Harlem fills the walls.
He takes us downstairs, where workers are finishing construction on Ginny’s Supper Club (the room has just opened for business). The sleekly designed space will host different kinds of music _ jazz and Latin, for example. Only this one, Samuelsson notes, “will have really good food.” Music is a theme at Red Rooster upstairs, too: The Sunday gospel brunch is extremely popular, and there’s a nook in front where a DJ comes to spin.
Even the bathrooms are sort of a display case _ filled with fraying black-and-white photos of Harlem in years past. “So if you have a boring date, you don’t need to come out of here at all,” he quips, showing off the walls.
But even a boring date, while unfortunate, wouldn’t keep most people from the dining room, which Samuelsson often walks through, shaking hands. A middle-aged white couple stops him: They want to report on a recent trip to Ethiopia. A while later, a 91-year-old black woman comes in for coffee. Samuelsson admonishes an assistant more than once to go check on her. “People need to understand why she left her house,” he says. “It’s not for the coffee.”
Damaa Bell is a schoolteacher in the area, and also writes a blog on Harlem culture, Uptown Flavor. She herself doesn’t go to the restaurant that often, but would definitely consider it as a spot to bring visitors to the city.
She notes, though, that the prices might keep some Harlemites away. Indeed, the cost of a meal at Red Rooster varies a great deal. A steak frites dish costs $31, and there’s a Sonoma County wine for $450. But there are bottles in the $30 range, a happy hour with cheaper drinks, and a lunch special for $20.12 with a menu typically reflective of Samuelsson’s background: a spicy peanut soup, his Helga’s Meatballs (inspired by his grandmother), and a devil’s food cupcake.
Technology executive Vikas Sood is eating just that lunch one day at the bar, part of an ambitious sweep of the city’s culinary hot spots before he starts a new job.