On Marcus Samuelsson and Red Rooster: What it Means to Be a Harlem Restaurant

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Marcus Samuelsson at Ginny's Supper Club, his new venture in Harlem. [Photograph: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

Note: Here at SE World HQ, we've been spending a lot of time discussing New York bad boy chef Eddie Huang's piece in the New York Observer that is critical of Harlem chef, restaurateur, and resident Marcus Samuelsson (Red Rooster, Ginny's Supper Club), and his new memoir, Yes, Chef. Out of the blue I got an e-mail from friend, fellow serious eater, and terrific writer Lolis Eric Elie, with his own incredibly perceptive take on Huang's story. Lolis, currently the story editor of the HBO series Treme, is as trenchant an observer of African-American culture, culinary and otherwise, as I know. He also knows his food; he's the author of Smokestack Lightning, the best book on barbecue that I have ever read. So when he talks about the Harlem food scene, we should listen. Take it away, Lolis.—Ed Levine

With regard to Eddie Huang's New York Observer piece about Marcus Samuelsson's autobiography and restaurant, my position is admittedly compromised. I accompanied Marcus Samuelsson on his first trip back to Ethiopia some three decades after his adoption and move to Sweden. I am mentioned favorably in his book, Yes, Chef, and I consider Marcus a friend. All of this would suggest that anything negative I would say about the Huang piece would be an attempt to glorify myself or protect my friend.

Marcus is a big boy and a successful one. He knows or should know that one price of his success is the occasional bad review. Moreover, there are legitimate grounds on which Red Rooster and Marcus himself can be criticized. Huang argues that Marcus's new restaurant is ill-conceived, ill-placed, and insulting to its neighbors. My ultimate concern here is not with Marcus Samuelsson, his restaurant or his reputation. I am concerned Eddie Huang's critical criteria. By what standards were Marcus, his restaurant and his autobiography being judged?

Huang's piece has some glaring contradictions. In essence he accuses Samuelsson of failing to connect with two types of Harlemites: those who are too poor to afford $28 chicken plates and those who embrace the hip hop aesthetic and thus are not apt to enjoy themselves in places that serve $28 plates of chicken. If Harlem, and by extension the African American community, was composed of only those two types of people, then the chef might be guilty as charged. When Samuelsson waxes eloquent about the old photos of well-dressed Harlemites, Huang criticizes him for his "ride to the intersection of Stigma St. and Stereotype Blvd." Is Huang saying that such Harlemites don't exemplify real Harlemites? Is he saying that Roy DeCarava's photos of middle class, black Harlemites are inauthentic? Did Langston Hughes, everyone's favorite Harlemite, make a mistake in choosing DeCarava's as his partner in "The Sweet Flypaper of Life?"

I think not. Harlem has always consisted of several classes of black people. That was as true when I lived on 136th Street in the mid-1980s as it is now. Sugar Hill. Striver's Row. These were not fictions, these were neighborhoods. Are middle class Harlem residents less deserving of a restaurant that appeals to them than are their poorer neighbors? Huang seems to think answer is yes.

In a piece that is largely about the dangers of stereotyping, it's surprising that Huang fashions himself into a piece of stereotypical perfection. Here we have an Asian guy (stereotype: weak, school smart, street stupid) who chooses to bring a black rap producer (stereotype: tough, ignorant, streetwise) to be his trusty native guide in a restaurant that ironically is calculated to be inviting to people who are not necessarily black or tough or hip. Red Rooster falls short, according to Huang's reckoning, in part because Shiest Bubz, his rap producer friend, "didn't seem to be enjoying himself." What, one may legitimately ask, are Bubz's credentials for evaluating Red Rooster? If he has any, Huang didn't bother to mention them.

Reading of Huang's adventure with his trusty native guide I am reminded of all the people who say, "That Chinese/Indian/Haitian restaurant must be good because plenty of Chinese/Indians/Haitians eat there." It's as if every member of every ethnic group is a legitimate arbiter of their native foods. Anyone who has ever traveled abroad knows that every country has its share of bad restaurants. Which is to say, looking like the chef is not sufficient qualification for judging his food.

The other anecdote that came to mind as I read Huang's piece was told to me in the 1980s by a former Coca-Cola advertising executive. He was one of the first black men hired to work in that capacity at the company. One day his white boss came into his office and criticized an ad he had created because one of the black secretaries didn't like it. Of course, the white executive would never have assumed that a white secretary was qualified to evaluate a marketing campaign aimed at white consumers and created by a white marketing professional. But in that world, much like the literary world of Eddie Huang, color is king.

For any reader unmoved by the opinions of Huang's trusty native guide, fear not. He actually has two trusty natives to guide him through the world of Marcus Samuelsson. In one section of Samuelsson's book, the chef dismisses the gold teeth of rapper Lil Wayne. Huang writes, "I ran the passage by journalist Sacha Jenkins of EgoTrip and VH1's The (White) Rapper Show." Jenkins concludes that Samuelsson lacks an "understanding about what the black experience in America is."

Does Eddie Huang know any black people outside the hip hop community? There are lots of black people who, rightly or wrongly, disdain the hip hop aesthetic and the gold teeth, baggy pants, shallow thinking, egocentrism and ghetto glorification that go with it. Were these black people insufficiently authentic to be consulted for Huang's essay? It should be noted that Red Rooster is very near the Studio Museum in Harlem and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Would Huang argue that these institutions are out of place because so many members of the hip hop community are uninterested in contemporary art and serious research?

While issues of race and racism are as omnipresent as air, I would suggest that Huang and his readers take a step back in evaluating Red Rooster and Marcus Samuelsson. Chef Joe Randall, also a friend of mine, is quoted in Huang's piece saying that many African American chefs can cook, yet they still fail to get much attention. True enough to be sure. But there are lots of white chefs who can cook who don't get attention. I currently live in New Orleans, a city where, despite our reputation for having a good restaurant on every corner, many excellent restaurants are empty while tourist traps have people lined up down the block to pay good money for bad food. Black chefs face their own set of obstacles to wider recognition, but Marcus Samuelsson's status as the nation's most visible black chef should also be considered in the context of Mario Batali being the nation's most visible Italian chef or Rick Bayless being the nation's most visible expert of Mexican cuisine. Life isn't fair for black people, true. But, pray tell, for whom is it fair?

It's a shame that a larger percentage of Harlem residents can't afford Red Roster. I lament that fact. But how often does any one complain in print that many white residents of lower Manhattan can't afford to go the Modern or Eleven Madison Park or Le Bernardin? I suppose we people of color should be glad that we have Eddie Huang to fight for our right to restaurants that don't make no never mind about wine lists and white table clothes and international influences.

I, for one, am as thankful to him as self-respect will allow.

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