What Happens When Marcus Samuelsson Takes Harlem to London?


Since adopting Harlem as his home and choosing it to hone his skills as a showman restaurateur, Mr. Samuelsson has masterfully straddled a fine line between gentrification, appropriation and approbation. Mr. Samuelsson, born in Ethiopia and raised in Sweden, has garnered enough Harlem street cred to successfully strut out Streetbird Rotisserie, a more casual, less expensive eatery less than mile from Red Rooster Harlem, and Harlem Eat Up, an annual food festival that takes over Morningside Park each May. He has found a culinary aesthetic that’s the equivalent of the electric slide, a line dance that still prompts black families to rise up in unison at backyard cookouts but equally rouses a crowd at a predominantly white wedding.

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A Southern Heritage salad

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David Azia for The New York Times

Mr. Samuelsson said people had been begging him to replicate Red Rooster elsewhere but that he took his time until he found the right fit. “You know what? We could do another Red Rooster, but it has to be in another city that has similar DNA as New York,” he said in an interview a little over a month after the restaurant opened.

Like other hip neighborhoods turned hipster, Shoreditch has become synonymous with gentrification. It was even turned into a much-debated synonym for gentrification: Shoreditchification. In September 2015, anti-gentrification protesters surrounded Cereal Killer Café, a quirky eatery that provides patrons with nostalgia in the form of $5 bowls of cereal. The influx of luxury lofts and high-end stores still prompts sneers from some locals and creatives who turn to Shoreditch’s street graffiti and art galleries for comfort.

Red Rooster’s location somewhat insulates it from a potential backlash. It sits in the basement of The Curtain Hotel, a boutique hotel open to the general public that features a Members Club costing £250 to join and £1000 in annual membership dues. An opening page for the club reads, “We’re not about wealth and status. We don’t care who your parents are. We want members that have something in common: namely, a creative soul.”

Red Rooster is open to the dining public, as is Mr. Samuelsson’s Tienda Roosteriais, a taqueria on the hotel’s ground floor. The menu’s prices are moderate. A side of fresh collard greens, big enough to split between two people, will set you back £5, a sensible price compared to Neiman Marcus’s frozen collard greens sold last holiday season for $66, plus $15.50 in shipping.

One of the more expensive food items on Red Rooster’s menu is the £44 Bird Royale Feast. Look on Instagram, and you’ll see a happy diner delighted by a fountain candle placed in the middle of a whole fried chicken.

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Customers at Marcus Samuelsson’s Red Rooster.

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David Azia for The New York Times

And art was everywhere inside Red Rooster Shoreditch, meant to convey a curated cool. On the wall of the stairs into the restaurant, Kehinde Wiley’s “Portrait of Andries Stilte” is prominently displayed. Photographs, paintings and drawings by lesser-known artists cover papered walls inside. The décor somewhat mirrored that of Streetbird’s nods to hip-hop but took it to a next level with a glass entrance covered in a Louis Vuitton motif in which the LV is replaced with RR. It harkened to the genius of Daniel Day, better known as Dapper Dan, the Harlem courtier who reconstructed luxury brands into hip- hop high fashion and has now teamed up with Gucci.

In a lounge area of the restaurant, the real LV motif covered stools made out of buckets. Another stool was covered in a portrait of President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama. Above the restaurant’s bar, a Salt ‘N’ Pepa album hung from a clothesline along with a copper saucepan and other items.

Music has been a major backdrop of Mr. Samuelsson’s Harlem outlets, with DJs spinning regularly. On Monday nights, the Rakiem Walker Project rocks the crowd at the bar. Various jazz artists play at Ginny’s Supper Club, the space beneath Red Rooster that becomes a dance hall late weekend nights into early morning.

Mr. Samuelsson wanted to take that same energy to Red Rooster Shoreditch, but it could not be duplicated. The restaurant enlisted the House Gospel Choir, a 40-member group that boasts itself as “the choir that house built.“

Gospel choirs in Harlem embrace the black church as a foundation and inspiration, but the House Gospel Choir, with no direct link to the organs, rousing sermons and other traditions of other black Christian church, has created something altogether different. A handful of members, wearing black T-shirts and black slacks, serenaded patrons with big gospel-ish vocals over electronic dance music. The members are of different faiths and backgrounds.

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The final touches on a dish of roasted cauliflower at Red Rooster restaurant.

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David Azia for The New York Times

The group has focused on the word gospel, said Raff, the choral director. “It really means good news,” he said. “It wasn’t about taking Red Rooster Harlem and plopping it down. You become part of our family. I see Red Rooster celebrating the rawness of the art that was here.”

Raff said he had never been to Harlem. “It’s on my wish list,” he said.

If he went to Red Rooster Harlem, he would see other differences. The bartenders and servers seem to be able to make their own choices when it comes to fashion. At Red Rooster Shoreditch, several servers had uniformed vests emblazoned on the back with the Red Rooster logo, a silhouette of the bird, but it was bedazzled in sequins, a touch that took over-the-top into cheesy.

Speaking of which, there’s macaroni and cheese, collard greens and other soul food staples on the menu. Deviled eggs. Cornbread. Chicken and waffles. The greens were vinegary for my taste, and my brunch guest – a teenage daughter with a palate refined on classic southern, soul food cuisine – wondered why the biscuits tasted like scones. (My personal trick is equal parts butter and Crisco.)

Kyle Gibson, assistant general manager, admitted that it has been difficult to introduce Britons to an American cuisine, particularly when a word like biscuit there conjures up an image of a flat, rectangular, edible stick possibly dunked in a cup of tea and not a flaky round bread smothered in gravy.

There were some adjustments to the Shoreditch menu: peas and eggs and quinoa porridge. The shrimp and grits on the Shoreditch menu ditched the gumbo of okra and Andouille sausage.

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The bar at Red Rooster

Credit
David Azia for The New York Times

Grits. “Some people just don’t know what they are,” Mr. Gibson said.

“Grits? What’s that?” asked Campbell Addy, a fashion photographer, founder of Nii Journal and Nii Agency, who has pushed for diversity and the representation of black people in the fashion industry. His portrait of Brooklyn rapper Joey Bada$$ is on the most recent cover of the catalog of Asos, the online British clothing retailer.

Mr. Addy, 24, happened to have a show of photos from the latest issue of Nii Journal in Protein Studios, a gallery a block or so away from Red Rooster Shoreditch. He and friend Georgina Johnson, a 24-year-old clothing designer and artist, spoke fondly of Shoreditch despite their disappointment in the gentrification and of visits to Harlem.

Though Mr. Addy was confused about grits, wondering whether it was porridge, he remembered eating collard greens when he was in New York. He doubted that a kitchen full of Britons could get them right. “I wouldn’t eat collard greens in London,” Mr. Addy said.

Ms. Johnson was unaware of Red Rooster’s opening, but she said she admired Mr. Samuelsson for trying to introduce Britons to a culture so steeped in blackness. Gentrification continues “with black and brown communities and businesses being pushed to the margins,” she said, adding later, “As a person navigating London and central areas, it’s always nice to see something owned by someone that looks like you in that type of space.”

Mr. Samuelsson said he asked himself several questions as he entered Shoreditch. Among them was “Where is it going? Who is it for?”

“Harlem is an aspirational culture for the rest of the world,” Mr. Samuelsson said, citing James Baldwin and Romare Bearden among the writers and artists who have drawn people from all over the world to Harlem. He went on later, “I wanted to make sure it was built of Harlem but is for everyone.”

I’m not sure it’s for this black Southerner. I had a good time. I enjoyed most of my food and drink. If you’re in Shoreditch, go. But know that it is Harlem-light, and you may be working your mouth up for a sweet tea and realizing there’s no sugar. Maybe Harlem just can’t be spread.

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