There are few neighbourhoods that are as quintessentially New York as Harlem. Stretching from the top of Central Park all the way up to 155th Street, the area’s cultural diversity and history of boom and bust have led to its notoriety as one of the city’s roughest districts. However, over the last few years, the neighbourhood has seen considerable change. With an influx of new businesses and new residents making homes in some of Manhattan’s most impressive late-19th century brownstone houses, Harlem is enjoying a second renaissance.
Chef Marcus Samuelsson moved to Harlem six years ago and, in March this year, he opened Red Rooster on Lenox Avenue, a restaurant named after a legendary and long-forsaken speakeasy that had been in the neighbourhood. “For a long time I’ve wanted to open a restaurant in the community,” Samuelsson says. “But I knew it was really important to learn about the neighbourhood and be an active part of it before I did that.”
From tacos and tostadas inspired by the residents of Spanish Harlem, to the beef patties brought over from the local Jamaican population, Red Rooster is firmly rooted in its location. And this involvement isn’t purely culinary, it has also informed the restaurant’s business model and its clientele.
“We’ve been able to create over 80 jobs for the neighbourhood and Harlem locals make up the majority of employees,” says Samuelsson. “The restaurant celebrates the neighbourhood. The art is by artists who either live or work in Harlem, and we also host lots of classes for Harlem’s kids—teaching them about food, cooking and business.”
On any given day, the crowd filling Red Rooster’s 120 seats is markedly mixed. From foodies making the pilgrimage to Harlem off the back of Samuelsson’s reputation, to local residents and even the President of the United States (who not only held his first fundraising dinner for the 2012 election a matter of weeks ago at the restaurant, but has also recently appointed Samuelsson as Guest Chef at the White House), Red Rooster’s approach fosters a clientele as diverse as its menu.
“We make sure that every night is only half reserved, so neighbourhood walk-ins can join us for dinner. We’ve kept the prices low and people can enjoy a beer and cornbread at the bar if they don’t want a full meal, and the nook at the front of the restaurant serves goods to the community from 7am, so locals can grab breakfast before hopping on the subway,” says Samuelsson. “Like the original Red Rooster, we want our restaurant to be a place where all people can come to have a good time—whether you’re the mayor of New York or the guy from apartment 4B.”