Dominion of New York


August 14, 2012

Marcus Samuelsson Fires Back at New York Observer Critic

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Written by: Kelly Virella
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Photo Courtesy of Flickr/catharticflux


emember the New York Observer’s nasty critique of Marcus Samuelsson and his new book in June? You know — the one that says the Red Rooster doesn’t belong in Harlem because real Harlemites prefer Ms. Mamie’s, Amy Ruth’s and takeout? Yeah, that silly article.

Well Marcus Samuelsson took the time in an interview with the Washington Post to clean the Observer’s clock. Here’s the relevant excerpt. The Post interviewer’s name is Tim Carman and his initials TC.

TC: This seems like an appropriate time to mention Eddie Huang’s essay for the New York Observer, which essentially argued that your perceptions of Harlem were patronizing. [Note: Samuelsson opened his restaurant, Red Rooster Harlem, in late 2010.]

MS: That’s also giving it a lot of thought. The other quick answer is that maybe he wanted to punch up.

TC: Punch up?

MS: Are you kidding me? It’s a joke. You’re dealing with a guy who doesn’t want to enter a conversation. Even discussing it is a waste of time. I trust the New York Times. I trust The Washington Post. I trust the New York Herald. I trust the Tribune. I trust the journalists that I’ve read and that have carefully thought about what to [say], and then render their judgment. I also trust my own work. I have zero interest to get into people who want to get famous. There’s two ways to get famous. There used to be one way: You worked really hard, and you were really good. That was the only way to get known. I still believe in that one. So if I poured a beer on you and we put that on YouTube, maybe we’ll get 4 million hits. I have zero interest in that.

I can tell you my reality: I moved myself from Midtown 10 years ago. I looked at Harlem, at 22 percent unemployment. I look at that block where [Red] Rooster is today, where there’s zero unemployment. I look at the 110 employees that I have, where 80 of them come from Harlem. I’m not here to defend garbage; I trust my work. It takes an incredible amount of effort, an incredible amount of skill to do that. To even answer garbage, why should I lower myself to that level? I, as a mentor, as a mentee, as an employee, as a chef, I have a responsibility, and it’s not to go bottom fishing and enter garbage. It is to rise above and be the person that I set out to [be]. So I hold myself to that standard. Garbage will come.

Criticism is part of the creative man’s journey, and I appreciate it. Garbage is not part [of it]. I see the game. The game is about punching up today. The game is about ‘Here’s somebody that does something great. Well, rather than applaud it, I can now punch up and be part of that conversation.’ What’s fascinating today is that . . . before, there was not an outlet for that garbage, and today, real platforms are actually writing about that. That’s what’s fascinating to me; the real platforms are lowering their guard.

I don’t know Samuelsson personally, but Eddie Huang’s essay was ridiculous.

Yes, other black chefs deserve attention. Yes, Samuelsson would probably get far less attention if he didn’t have white adoptive parents or if he were an Ethiopian chef serving Ethiopian food. But an article by an Asian-American man telling an African-American man that he shouldn’t open a restaurant in Harlem that employs 110 people — the vast majority of them black and from Harlem — is something that only the attention-desperate Internet can produce.

It might be hard for Eddie Huang to imagine that Harlem residents and non-residents are capable of enjoying Amy Ruth’s, Miss Mamie’s, Sister’s Caribbean, and Red Rooster. The old and the new are not mutually exclusive. Red Rooster is always packed with locals and outsiders because it’s one of the few places in the neighborhood where we can get dressed up for a night out. And what exactly is wrong with luring crowds of Upper East and West Siders to Harlem and getting them to spend money here?

About the Author

Kelly Virella
Kelly Virella lives in an East Harlem walk-up with her husband, her bicycle and her books. She's worked as a journalist for 11 years and started this website during the summer of 2011. She fell in love with New York City during her first visit here as a 16-year-old and finally made good on her promise to move here in April 2010.