Three years ago this week, I visited New York City in the midst of a late winter snowstorm, and made a pilgrimage to Marcus Samuelsson’s Red Rooster restaurant in Harlem for a decadent fried chicken lunch.
Samuelsson, the acclaimed chef who was born in Ethiopia and raised in Sweden, opened Red Rooster in 2010 after a stint as the executive chef as Aquavit, for which he was named New York City’s best chef by the James Beard Foundation. In his riveting 2012 memoir, Yes, Chef, which I finished last month, Samuelsson recounts that he wanted Red Rooster’s cuisine to tell the story “of all of Harlem’s residents – Latin, Southern, Caribbean, Jewish, Italian.” And the menu he offers today still nods toward those communities, with dishes such as sweet potato and coconut soup, bucatini with crab, shrimp, and lobster, and a grilled caesar and shrimp ceviche with green chile.
What I was most eager to try at the time, though, not knowing much about Samuelsson except for seeing him win Top Chef Masters, was his version of soul food. My lunch started with cornbread served with honey butter and tomato jam, as well as a plate of luscious deviled eggs whose exact preparation is lost to history. From there, I devoured his signature fried chicken and waffles, served with greens and pickles. Was there dessert? I don’t recall, but if I were there today it would be hard to pass up either the salted caramel donuts with sweet potato cream and raspberry-lime jam, or the rum-chocolate cake with roasted pineapple and red velvet cream.
In his memoir, Samuelsson explains that he knew he had to include fried chicken on the Red Rooster menu, but because he didn’t grow up eating it, he had to experiment with it during “an entire summer of my own private fried chicken master class.” The recipe he describes involves a complicated process of marinating the chicken in coconut milk, curing it in lemon, steaming it, and then frying it. The result was memorable – a well-seasoned leg with a crunchy coating and a juicy interior, served over a crispy cornmeal waffle and offset by sharp pickles.
Samuelsson mentions in the book that when he opened Red Rooster, he made a point of accompanying his fried chicken with pickled watermelon rind, an element that might otherwise traditionally have been discarded. He said that he wanted the restaurant to have a “waste-nothing mentality,” so he also used the rind as an accompaniment to an Ethiopian coffee-crusted duck, and broccoli stems for a citrus-glazed side dish. In a 2019 interview, Samuelsson expanded on the theme of food waste, noting that more than a third of edible food is wasted. He asked chefs and home cooks to think about how they might use “that one tomato that might be a little beaten up but is still packed with flavor, or avocado that’s just a little bit darker than the rest but not spoiled.”
At a time when food insecurity is still prevalent for many people, it’s worth keeping Samuelsson’s message in mind and attempting to reduce the amount of produce we waste. And hopefully soon, we’ll able to return to Red Rooster and savor his fried chicken again, appreciating even more the effort it took both to create the dish and to incorporate elements that might otherwise have been thrown away.
What I Ate: Fried chicken leg and waffles at Red Rooster in New York City