Marcus Samuelsson, restaurateur, author, winner of Top Chef Masters, Vanity Fair’s best dressed and all-around renaissance man could live anywhere in the world, yet he chose to live in Harlem. The Ethiopian born and Swedish bred chef turned owner of Harlem’s famous Red Rooster Restaurant, is passionate about his neighborhood of the past 7 years and is passionate about the changes going on in his own backyard. Samuelsson, a sustainable, local food advocate and community activist is witnessing another Harlem Renaissance unfold before his eyes. Samuelsson’s one hour special, “Savoring Harlem” airing this Friday, February 24, at 8pm on the Food Network, chronicles how food is at the very heart of Harlem’s history and showcases how this eclectic community is evolving into a culinary destination.
One would think it’s impossible to glance into Harlem’s history through food, yet food is very much part of the iconic neighborhood’s culture. Once largely occupied by fast food restaurants and traditional soul food spots, the new Harlem is densely populated with new restaurants living in harmony with the cornerstones of the community. Restaurants old and new use food to embrace Harlem’s heritage while focusing on the sustainability of the neighborhood’s future. This new Harlem is giving back to the community by employing locals, supporting co-ops and farmer’s markets while shining a new light on Harlem’s past and present.
What some are calling a ‘Harlem Restaurant Renaissance’ is reflective of the diversity of the culture and constantly changing community. Samuelsson’s Red Rooster pays homage to its namesake of the 1930’s by mixing the neighborhood’s West African roots with Asian and Latin vibes topped off with a touch of Jazz. Chez Lucienne, Red Rooster’s neighbor, on the other hand, brings traditional French fare uptown along with its legions of fans, some for the first time to Lenox Avenue. Other ethnic restaurants such as Mo-Bay and Zomas also reflect the diversity of the community, and each restaurant is infused with a touch of the entrepreneur’s hometown flair. The result is uniquely Harlem.
The best part about this renaissance, in Samuelsson’s opinion, however, isn’t the food; it is the fact that this renaissance is empowering Harlem residents by providing jobs and opportunities here. It is a chance for the entrepreneurs setting up shop in Harlem to give something back to a community that has given so much to so many people.
As one ventures through the new Harlem, it is easy to see the neighborhood’s historical landscape shining through the changes. Melba Wilson has soul food in her veins; she grew up in Harlem and worked in her famous aunt’s Sylvia’s Restaurant. Years ago, Melba took a chance that the Harlem she knew and loved would shine again and she opened her restaurant of the same name on a largely abandoned block. Today, her restaurant is thriving, and Melba pays homage to her Harlem roots by serving traditional soul food fare with a healthier twist. Think barbecued turkey meatloaf or collards with smoked turkey; the same down home taste tweaked just enough to reflect the changing palate and health needs of the community. Venture into any number of soul food restaurants that pepper the neighborhood, and you are likely to find a variety of grilled options offered as a healthier alternative to the fried fare that we traditionally know and love.
Fine food pairs naturally with fine drink, so it is only natural that cocktails would play a part in this new movement. While the legendary Lenox Lounge serves up traditional Harlem music and spirits, several new local bars such as Native and 67 Orange Street pay homage by serving new-fangled cocktails inspired by Harlem’s traditional roots. These watering holes are Harlem Fusion in a glass.
Samuelsson’s vision for this new Harlem has always been anchored in local sustainable foods. A local farmer’s market, opened by Harvest Home is delivering sustainable agriculture and organic fare to the community. Harlem is going green and Samuelsson is pleased with the progress he sees happening in his own backyard.
Come savor Harlem with Marcus as he ventures through the world’s most famous neighborhood and experience a food and drink renaissance as only the world famous Harlem could do it.
Savoring Harlem airs on Friday, February 24 on the Food Network. Check your local listings.