Chef Marcus Samuelsson Opens Red Rooster Overtown in Miami
The opening comes nearly a decade after the debut of Red Rooster Harlem.
I was born in Ethiopia, but my sister and I were adopted by a family in Sweden when I was three years old, after our mother passed away from tuberculosis. My childhood memories of growing up in Sweden are centered around fresh seafood—mackerel we smoked and herring we caught to pickle. It was common for my family to do that, and I realized early on that by doing it ourselves the food just tasted better. My grandmother Helga constantly had my sisters and me in the kitchen, making cookies, jams, meatballs and more. As a teenager, I purchased my first Bob Marley album and embarked on my lifelong love of soccer. I’ve been doing two things my whole life—playing soccer and cooking.
I took my passion for cooking further by studying at the Culinary Institute in Gothenburg, Sweden, and apprenticed in Switzerland and then France. One of my chef mentors suggested I should go to America—he said my ambition was far greater than what the culture at the time would permit, and that I would be able to work in a restaurant if I stayed there but would never own one. After a thorough discussion with my dad, I was off to New York City with $300 in my pocket. Being a Swedish kid, I spoke English and had grown up with the culture of America—seeing it, reading it. In 1994, I became a sous chef at Aquavit, but a few weeks after I arrived my head chef, Jan Sendel, suddenly passed away. So I became a chef as a young person—but I wasn’t ready. I forged ahead, beginning to craft my culinary voice here in America through fresh seafood, pickling and preserving, the same techniques my grandmother had taught me as a child. A year later I became the youngest chef ever to receive a three-star review from The New York Times, and a year after that I was finally able to buy my first suit.
Several years went by, and then 9/11 happened. The desire for super fine-dining experiences waned, and I began to craft more comfort food. I really started defining myself as a chef. I continued to evolve and met my future wife, Maya, at my housewarming party when I moved to Harlem. It was also around this time that my dream for Red Rooster began, coming to me as I would bike from 145th Street to Central Park North.
Fried chicken and waffles at Red Rooster. / Jason Bailey Photography
In 2009, Maya and I married in Ethiopia, and that same year I received a call from White House chef Sam Kass asking me to cook the first state dinner for the Obama administration. It was for Manmohan Singh, the prime minister of India—he was a vegetarian and First Lady Michelle Obama had really started her initiative, so the menu was planned with the garden in mind. The First Lady was right there tasting and giving her feedback. Thankfully the Obama family was very open-minded. We focused mostly on vegetarian dishes inspired by Indian culture.
The next year I opened Red Rooster in Harlem. My dream of serving the community in which I live was finally a reality. A few years later, Herb Karlitz and I took the philosophy one step further with the creation of Harlem EatUp!—which, in addition to originating from attending festivals like South Beach, is really about people coming together and honoring the rich culture of Harlem.
I’ve approached the latest iteration of Red Rooster in Miami’s Overtown neighborhood the same way. This project has been five years in the making, and several people suggested the location early in the process. We’ve spent a long time learning about the surrounding communities. Red Rooster should be a reference point in celebrating great African-American culture. With the Lyric Theater across the street, and the neighborhood’s rich history—where Muhammad Ali stayed when he trained, and where Sam Cooke recorded a live album—this is exactly the place where we can contribute to Miami’s burgeoning scene.
And now, after 15 years of coming to South Beach for the festival, I’m celebrating the opening of Red Rooster in Overtown. It’s not just about what happens on the Beach—I got to learn the whole city. Without the festival, I don’t think I would have done the restaurant. And to be honored this year—it humbles you. You get to see the front room—the guests and the chefs—and it’s about being a part of this food community. And you see the students helping out—who’s to say they aren’t the next Bobby Flay, Leah Chase or David Chang?
Lee Brian Schrager is the founder of the South Beach Wine & Food Festival. For more information, visit sobewff.org.