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The name Marcus Samuelsson is synonymous with Harlem cuisine. After the chef founded Red Rooster in his neighborhood in December 2010, droves of hungry visitors poured into the iconic restaurant for its comfort fare. Over the years, Samuelsson’s staple dishes—like the Yardbird fried chicken and the Mac & Greens—have peeled back the layers of American cuisine to celebrate its flavor and history, and Harlem’s special culinary traditions.
Recently, Samuelsson joined Bombay Sapphire to launch the brand’s new berry-infused Bombay Bramble. For its debut, the chef partnered with other regional chefs—Joseph Johnson (Charcoal Venice, LA), Adrienne Cheatham (SundayBest, NYC), and Tristen Epps (Red Rooster, Overtown)—on the “Bursting with Berries” virtual cooking and cocktailing series, available online through cocktailcourier.com.
In August, the festivities will continue in person with local artist-designed spaces to honor Harlem’s deep arts legacy. For the celebration, the local artists Cey Adams and Dianne Smith will honor Harlem’s rich arts legacy by transforming staid billboard spaces with large-scale artworks that reflect a Bombay Bramble-inspired summer. Additionally, as part of the brand’s mission to support and elevate the work of underrepresented creatives and Bacardi’s Backing the B.A.R initiative, Bombay Sapphire will make a donation in each artist’s name to the NAACP.
Whitewall spoke with Samuelsson about his collaboration with the gin brand, the role of philanthropy in gastronomy, and what we can expect from his new book.
WHITEWALL: Your recent “Bursting with Berries” virtual cooking and cocktailing series with Bombay Sapphire welcomed other great talents in. Why did you want to pursue something like this?
MARCUS SAMUELSSON: As the world slowly returns to a feeling of normalcy, we decided to reach people interested in cooking and mixology in their own homes. The Bursting with Berries class series is designed to explore the flavors, textures and colors expressed when experimenting with berries in both drink and food pairings. Bombay just released its newest iteration, Bombay Bramble, which combines the best of dry gin with the fresh flavors of summer berries. I’ve brought together some amazing chefs from around the nation including New York’s Adrienne Cheatham, L.A.’s Joseph Johnson, and Miami’s Tristen Epps who will showcase some amazing recipes.
WW: Why did you decide to partner with Bombay Bramble to kick start your summer tour?
MS: Bombay has a history of inspiring creativity. It has held Stir Creativity, a set of bartending competitions across the US. It’s an iconic spirit among bartenders and Bombay has always been known for innovating, both in their products and the way they engage the larger creative community. So, I was excited when they tapped me to be a part of the launch of Bombay Bramble, because it allowed me the opportunity to create some amazing food pairings. Most importantly, though, was Bombay’s interest in honoring Harlem’s rich arts legacy. We are collaborating with local artists Cey Adams & Dianne Smith to create large-scale outdoor art installations.
WW: Let’s chat about that August happening. How will these artists honor Harlem’s rich arts legacy?
MS: I’m partnering with local artists Cey Adams—who is a master in visual arts and graphic design—and Dianne Smith, whose sculptures and installations will have you in awe. When Bombay Sapphire approached me with the overall idea of being their Launch Curator and honoring Black creatives, I thought it would be an amazing way to honor Harlem’s rich arts legacy to work with visual artists who live in Harlem.
It’s always been my mission to empower underrepresented creatives and that is what I’m doing with Bombay this summer. Through the artist's efforts to transform staid billboard spaces with large artworks that also capture the vibrancy of the season and hope after a long year.
WW: How does the cultural scene in Harlem inspire your cuisine? What about the rest of your diverse background?
MS: Harlem is such a special place with a breadth of diversity in so many capacities: art, music, food. Everyone contributes to the social fabric of the neighborhood and I draw creativity from this collection of cultures. Because of my own multicultural background, hailing from Ethiopia, growing up in Sweden, and cooking around the world, my food is a mélange of different cuisines. Harlem’s cultural scene empowers me to take risks and try new things in my food.
WW: You've also embraced philanthropy and have made it a part of your practice as a chef and New York resident. What relationship do you see between cuisine and philanthropy?
MS: I’ve always been an active philanthropist because I’ve been so lucky to have experienced the kindness of others along my journey. I’m the board co-chair of CCAP, which is a non-profit organization dedicated to providing the educational framework and job opportunities for aspiring chefs in underserved communities. It’s been so gratifying to witness the students graduate from CCAP and propel into their respective careers within the industry—some of which I’ve employed within my own restaurants.
During the pandemic, I converted three of my restaurants into community kitchens in order to serve those within my community whose jobs were impacted by COVID. It was a way in which to give back to a community that has given me so much. Restaurants truly are cornerstones within our communities, and they’re needed to restore and rebuild during this time. The relationship between cuisine and philanthropy is huge since it can unite communities together. Food can be the cultural bridge between people to connect one another.
WW: What can we expect to find in your new book The Rise: Black Cooks and the Soul of America?
MS: The purpose of my book The Rise: Black Cooks and the Soul of America is to elevate unrepresented Black voices in the culinary space. My co-writer Osayi Endolyn was instrumental in interviewing the different chefs, restaurateurs and historians that are featured. I wanted to delve deeper and expand upon how Black chefs have contributed to our culinary landscape in America. Throughout the cookbook, we’ve included recipes that are inspired by these narratives. We wanted to demonstrate the many levels to our culture and open up this dialogue within the industry.
WW: What's new for Red Rooster?
MS: At the end of 2020, we officially opened our second North American Red Rooster in Overtown Miami. It’s so exciting to have a Red Rooster in the community of Overtown, one of the most historically vibrant neighborhoods in all of the United States. Our team worked through some of the most difficult conditions while opening the restaurant, so it’s fantastic to see them settled in and serving some truly delicious food.
WW: How are you celebrating the beginning of summer and the end of the pandemic?
MS: I’m excited to be spending as much time as I can with my family and friends both in restaurants and in my backyard. Last summer I wasn’t able to fire up my grill as much as I would have liked, so I can’t wait to host some cozy get togethers soon and play the role of grill master once again!