By Lisa Golden Schroeder
I had the chance to visit New York City a few weeks ago, reconnecting with colleagues from all over the U.S. at a gathering of culinary professionals. We all do different types of jobs, but food is the glue that binds us. So traveling with food-obsessed friends is really fun, with few limits to where we’ll go for good eats. And New York is a mecca for all things interesting in food—a haven for super high-end (and outrageously expensive) cuisine, but also home to an infinite number of neighborhoods that embrace every style of home cooking. One of the newer spots that’s creating buzz, in a city where it can be hard to cut through the noise, is a spot in historically rich Harlem—north of the tourist hubbub of midtown Manhattan. It’s called the Red Rooster, named after a legendary Harlem speakeasy where jazz greats and noteworthy figures of the 20th century once mingled. Chef Marcus Samuelson is the creator of this new place that celebrates local farmers, artisanal purveyors, and the community at large. Considered one of the leading chefs in the U.S., Chef Samuelson grew up in Sweden but is of African descent. His story and how he cooks is defined by “fusion”—he takes the best of what inspires him, whether it’s food from his native Scandinavia or downhome Southern American cooking, to create wonderfully satisfying food. That’s not fussy at all—a departure from some of his other restaurant ventures that are more about culinary exploration.
So a crew of us got on the subway and headed to the vibrant Harlem neighborhood where Red Rooster plays a revitalizing role, hiring staff locally and inspiring better eating through community cooking classes. We were there on a Monday night and the place was jammed. We’d fortunately planned ahead and had a reservation, while others patiently stood in line for a stool at the front bar. A lower level houses a jazz club that features live music several nights a week. We settled in to digest the menu—and had a terrible time making our decisions. We knew that the food was designed to be very approachable and influenced by Southern cooking, but with unexpected twists. And we wanted to try everything, so we ordered a gluttonous selection so we could sample a lot. I won’t subject you to the slightly out-of-focus photos I took with my phone, but suffice it to say that the food was simple and delicious. The Mac & Greens was a dish of luscious, cheesy macaroni with sautéed Swiss chard that we all shared, but our favorites were the two chicken dishes—the Berbere Roasted Chicken, rich and falling off the bone, and the Fried Yard Bird, magnificent fried chicken with mashed potatoes and gravy. I’m going to try to recreate the Berbere chicken, which was rich with aromatic spices, along with a “slaw” that was barely-blanched asparagus, thinly sliced with a peanut dressing. I’ll share it with you here, once I’ve got it perfected!