No chef’s identity politics have been the topic of more discussion than Marcus Samuelsson’s. That’s in no small part because the Ethiopian-born, Swedish-raised Samuelsson made his name on the intersection of his dual heritage, first at NYC’s Aquavit, where at 23 he was the youngest chef to receive three stars from the New York Times. Years later, it became a central theme again at his Harlem flagship, Red Rooster, where dishes like gravlax and “Helga’s meatballs” sit side-by-side with a doro wat pot pie and beef kitfo. “I realized that Scandinavia wasn’t a big place, in terms of people having experienced it, and neither was Africa, so combining the two was a way to create really original food.”
But the celebrity chef has also come under fire for taking that cultural remix beyond his own diverse experience. When Red Rooster (named after a landmark speakeasy of the Harlem Renaissance) opened in 2010 on 125th Street, just down the block from Sylvia’s, people balked. Though Samuelsson had been living in the neighborhood since 2002, his attempt to synthesize the entirety of its cultural heritage into one glossy, $2 million restaurant struck some as uncomfortably appropriative. Eddie Huang, in a piece for the New York Observer, described it as “writing the report for a book he never read.” Samuelsson, for his part, has stated that he intended for Red Rooster to honor the African-American experience he grew up admiring from afar. "Just because I'm black doesn't mean I understand Harlem," he told the New York Times. "For the diaspora of people of color, it's a much larger culture."
For Samuelsson, that kind of cultural synthesis is a natural part of his creative process. Before moving to New York, he embarked on a personal chef’s tour, traveling to Singapore, Japan, and beyond, gathering inspiration as he went. “I was never set with this idea that Europe has it all and that’s that,” he says. “I knew I had to go through Europe to get structure and training, but a good dish for me was something I’d eaten at the fish market in Tokyo, or one I’d eaten for breakfast in Singapore.” He used all of that experience at Aquavit, to great success. In that Times review, Ruth Reichl said he was “walking a tightrope between Swedish tradition and modern taste” in his use of multicultural influences like Indian curry leaves and Chinese tea-smoked duck. It’s no wonder that he approached Harlem with the same scholarly eye, spending several years researching fried chicken alone, in places as varied as the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and neighborhood icon Charles' Pan-Fried Chicken.
Seven years in, Red Rooster has settled comfortably into its place, a tourist-and-local-trafficked mainstay of the new 125th Street. Samuelsson’s second Harlem venture, the casual Streetbird Rotisserie, opened on 116th Street to fewer (if not no) fireworks, a neighborhood spot serving chicken sandwiches under the glow of the neon sign salvaged from shuttered soul-food restaurant M&G Diner. As Samuelsson’s empire expands beyond New York’s borders—including a waterfront Bermuda hotel restaurant and a taqueria in Malmo, Sweden—his persona now encompasses an ever-expanding number of identities. And while he may remain the most high-profile proponent of Harlem's food scene, it's by no means the only trick in his book.
From Ethiopian comfort food, to the most technically difficult dish he ever executed, these are the 10 dishes that made Marcus Samuelsson’s career.