EBONY: New York City is full of street festival food markets like Smorgasburg, Atlantic Antic and New Amsterdam Market. Do you have your personal favorites?
Marcus Samuelsson: Street food and street markets are very much inspirational in Off Duty. But what I’m really excited about is Harlem EatUp!, our food festival that we’re gonna have in May here, that all the local restaurants here can be involved in, and also chefs from all over the country are gonna be involved in. You should come.But that was obviously inspired by street markets like that.
You know my favorite street market in the world? It’s in Barcelona: Boqueria. First of all, historically very important for the place. But then aesthetically, it’s beautiful. I love Borough Market in London. Every major city should have a market.
EBONY: Did you make specific menu adjustments at the Red Rooster at the beginning, to accommodate the community?
MS: We’re very fortunate. The Harlem community has embraced us. Without them, we wouldn’t be here. And that fact that we’re fortunate enough to be so busy every night and the repeat… How do you measure greatness in a restaurant? Repeats of the customer. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t have to listen, that we don’t have to improve something.
If you think about how you put up a building, you put up a building and then pretty much the building’s done. A restaurant is the opposite of that. A restaurant is, you could’ve had a great meal and your neighbor could’ve had a not so great meal. And guess what? You both care about the restaurant. It’s a daily, very living, day-to-day thing.
When I opened Red Rooster, the two things that mattered to me was to do a neighborhood joint, but also a lively joint that reflected where Harlem came from and where Harlem is today. So I felt the best way to do that is, tell the story through a brasserie, because it’s very open. Now, if we would’ve done it through a fine dining point of view, which is a much more controlled environment… But then, what that says to 90 percent of the Harlemites is, “You’re not welcome.”
So my intention was never to do that. My intention was to say the opposite: “Hey, this is your restaurant. Walk in.” And when you open yourself up to that, you have a much higher chance of ups and downs. But being such a public restaurant the way we are, and being a part of the community, is a very humble walk. The fact that people are honest about things, I like. Because it means that people care. And it’s an evolution.
EBONY: How did you meet Jarobi White of A Tribe Called Quest, and what made you include him in the launch of Off Duty?
MS: Well first, I’ve known Jarobi for years. He worked at a restaurant in the West Village for a long time, August, and I knew him. But for me, it was very important not to talk about that until Jarobi talked about that. That’s the beauty about being friends. It’s like, “I’m not going first on this. Whenever you’re ready to talk about this, we’ll go.” And it’s not until Jarobi put himself in that situation where he wants to talk. He did that pop-up in L.A. Now he’s very verbal about it. Now it’s time for us to talk about it.
But I would never ever think about anything like that until Jarobi was there. And he’s a really good cook. And I’m glad that he has these two bases, these two loves. And it just again shows the creative person you can do many things. You can paint and write. You can be a chef and be an amazing, iconic, one of the most iconic rap groups ever.
EBONY: Why now for a cookbook?
MS: I felt like I’m home in so many different ways. I’m home because I live in Harlem; my wife and I live here. This is the restaurant I always wanted to do, so I’m home in that sense. And Off Duty is the first time the restaurant was inspired by the home. Normally when you do cookbooks, it’s like, we gotta change the restaurant for the home cook. Here actually, most Off Duty recipes are home recipes that I tested them at home and then that inspired the restaurant.
So I’ll give you a good example. My wife showed me about a week ago how to make a certain bread. So that started off that we made that bread at home, I walked the bread in here, and then I used cooking techniques that’s hard to do at home to do a restaurant recipe for it. Ten years ago, I would’ve started with, “Hey, I did something in the restaurant and I brought it home.” And I would be very frustrated because I couldn’t execute it the way I wanted at home.
The home is now very much a starting point for me. Also, being off duty is also a lifestyle. I enjoyed the moment of where I’m at right now. I enjoy eating, I enjoy cooking, I enjoy celebrating with friends and family. It’s around the music that we have here and the food that we have here. I’m very at peace with where I’m at, after I’ve travelled for so many years.
EBONY: Bevy Smith has Dinner with Bevy, and Questlove does dinners. Do you think dinner parties are becoming more fashionable?
MS: We work hard online so we can have an active life offline. But y’know, food is very basic. For 4,000 years, it’s brought people together, right? And with that, it’s also very tribal, right? This is who we are, and I want to share that with you. That need will never go away. There will hosts and there will be a cook, and sometimes they’re the same. And as long as there’s that, there will be some music, there will be some good times. And there will be someone in that room who said, “Oh! I can do that! Let me host that.”
So I think this dance between the fact that we have more platforms to upload what that is is different. But I just love the fact that people get together around food. In Cuba it would’ve been paladares, salons, whatever you want to call them. We need that urge for, “Oh, that was really delicious. I want to tell a story around that.”
Miles Marshall Lewis is the Arts & Culture Editor of EBONY.com. He’s also the Harlem-based author of Scars of the Soul Are Why Kids Wear Bandages When They Don’t Have Bruises, There’s a Riot Goin’ On and Irrésistible. Follow MML on Twitter and Instagram at @furthermucker, and visit his personal blog, Furthermucker.