Chef Marcus Samuelsson is trumpeting the next Harlem Renaissance. The sharply dressed Food Network star is helping turn the neighborhood back into an international destination with his comfort-food restaurant Red Rooster, its downstairs music venue, Ginny’s Supper Club, and the brand new urban diner Streetbird.
Samuelsson’s latest project is Harlem EatUp, a food and culture festival taking place May 14 to 17. The fest includes neighborhood walking tours, private meals and panels featuring chefs from around the world and leaders in the local arts community. We chatted with Samuelsson about the future of Harlem and why he thinks it can learn from Austin, Texas’ example.
Why did you want to start a food and culture festival in Harlem?
We need a spiritual and cultural and hospitality conversation in Harlem. A festival is a great way to start that. Back when I opened Red Rooster [in 2010], I did a lot of research, and when I looked at the old images of Harlem I saw that it was a vibrant restaurant and hospitality community. I thought Red Rooster could be part of jump-starting that community again.
Harlem EatUp is really part two of that evolution for me. This festival helps us show that weʼre here and it’s real. It’s about connecting people, creating jobs, having Harlemites look at it and say, “we can do it,” and also having New Yorkers and out-of-towners say, “hey, Harlem’s a great hospitality destination. Let’s go there and let’s enjoy this historical neighborhood.”
A new restaurant opens in Harlem every week. What kinds of cuisines are gaining in popularity there?
It started with traditional soul food at Sylvia’s and Melba’s, and now weʼre very diverse. We have Jin Ramen, Rao’s—which is Italian-American—B.B.Q., Mexican, Streetbird… And places are opening pretty evenly all over. Some things are bigger and louder, and some things are quieter, but it all enriches the community. It creates this hub.
Is the festival also a way to draw chefs north? To encourage them to open more restaurants in Harlem?
Chefs have a very entrepreneurial spirit. When people come up for our festival, theyʼre going to draw their own conclusions. Iʼm humbled and excited about the support for the festival from fellow chefs, both from Harlem and from around the world like Daniel Boulud, Sean Brock and Paul Qui. We’ve got the best of the local talent and the best of what America has to show.
Brock and Qui are coming up from the great Southern cities of Nashville and Austin. Can Harlem learn anything from those cities’ examples?
We can learn a lot. Both of those cities have great festivals and vibrant restaurant scenes. You go to the Austin Food + Wine Festival and it has great music and great food. Music and food also work hand-in-hand in Harlem; my restaurant wouldnʼt work without the great music at Ginny’s Supper Club. Nashville and Austin have authenticity and spirit, too. Harlem EatUp is going to be about great music and great food, but also the spirit and the arts community.
In your vision of Harlem’s future, Red Rooster was part one and Harlem EatUp was part two. What is part three and what is beyond that?
Well, I just opened Streetbird and weʼre just embarking on Harlem EatUp, so I can’t think about what’s next. But I own a restaurant that has one foot in its past and is situated in the future. Streetbird is an urban diner that’s focused convenience. It’s also starting the necessary conversation about take-out and delivery. There is a lack of lunch options for locals and those young business entrepreneurs who work in offices during the day. We now have an app where our guests can order and pay quickly from their phones and we can deliver to them. That’s the next evolution: amenities. Hopefully we can inspire other communities to do the same.
For tickets to Harlem EatUp events, visit HarlemEatUp.com.
Alyson Sheppard is the resident hangover specialist at Playboy.com. Follow her on Twitter: @amshep