Joys of spring: Marcus Samuelsson

The Red Rooster founder on the restaurant’s fresh new spring menu, how he continues to discover new flavours and what he loves about London

Food and Drink 10 Jun 2019

Marcus Samuelsson
Red Rooster's lobster risotto
Red Rooster Shoreditch
The dining room at Red Rooster Shoreditch

Marcus Samuelsson is the renowned chef behind one of New York’s most celebrated and storied restaurants, Red Rooster. Since the Harlem restaurant opened in 2010, it has become a neighbourhood stalwart as well as a draw for foodies from across the city and the world. In 2017, Samuelsson opened a London Red Rooster in Shoreditch’s chic The Curtain hotel and, like its Harlem counterpart, has become a favourite neighbourhood joint. Samuelsson, however, has been sure to give the London version its own distinct flavour and style, something that is influenced by his constant search for new flavours, ingredients and techniques.

Red Rooster Shoreditch has just launched a new spring menu that combines Samuelsson’s Northern European and Ethiopian heritage with the roots of American comfort food – he was born in Ethiopia, moved to Sweden when he was three and came to the US to intern at Aquavit in 1994, at the age of 23. From then on he made the country his home. ‘The menu at Red Rooster is driven by food from the South, but being in London we felt we had to be inspired by some of that, but not fully because we’re in a different part of the world,’ he says.

The menu includes a lot more seafood and vegetarian options than diners find in the New York Red Rooster, including one of Samuelsson’s favourite item, the lobster risotto, and the calamari served with a fresh tabbouleh. Other highlights include the sweet potato steak served with mushroom, spring vegetables, basil-garlic tofu and almonds, and the perfect Scandi-American hybrid of Billingsgate tuna sashimi with crispy grits and cucumber.

‘Red Rooster is all about juxtaposition,’ Samuelsson says. ‘We have the signature dishes like Obama short ribs (named for the time Samuelsson cooked for the President and First Lady in 2009), the taco truck, the beautiful whole fried chicken, the celebratory dishes, but you have to start the meal a little bit lighter and brighter before going on to the heavier dishes.’ A lighter and brighter mood is also what Samuelsson seems to look forward to when it comes to the warmer seasons arriving. ‘One of my favourite things about spring is that time when you can sit outside for the first time. It’s one of the things I love about London, actually: when people come out from the pubs and stand outside – and it’s still a little too cold, but you’re still doing it because you’re so excited that the summer is close. When you grow up in northern Europe like I did, you appreciate it so much.’

Samuelsson admits that part of continuing to discover new flavours and techniques is ‘curiosity’, and says he’s learned a lot from the UK capital, and Shoreditch in particular. In fact, when the Harlem Red Rooster opened, Samuelsson set out one of his missions as learning from the local community, and the same definitely applied when he moved to London. ‘I’m lucky enough to call both New York and London home – and I go between these major cities, but I’m about neighbourhoods first of all. When I’m in London, I’m in Shoreditch; when I’m in New York, I live in Harlem. These are very specific, artistic, narrative-driven neighbourhoods and for me it’s about being open to that. What’s new, what’s been here before, what’s coming, and where is this neighbourhood going?’ Around Shoreditch, Samuelsson has enjoyed discovering not just the food including the ‘pie shops, sandwich shops, smoked-salmon bagel joints and Bangladeshi curry shops’, but also the general atmosphere, right down to the graffiti on the walls. Not that Red Rooster Shoreditch references these things in an obvious way: ‘It’s more like the lining of a jacket: you know it’s there, but no one else does,’ he says.

Another London food tradition Samuelsson has embraced is the city’s love of Turkish food and, in fact, on 11 July, Red Rooster will host a night in collaboration with Berber & Q. ‘I love this place, from the aesthetic to the food and the grit,’ Samuelsson says. The ‘Dinner With Friends’ will see Samuelsson and Berber & Q bringing together British and American soul food for a night of feasting alongside live soul music from Harris Adams.

Bringing two of London’s favourite and best-respected restaurants together in such a friendly, unpretentious and celebratory way is very in keeping for Red Rooster – and Samuelsson, who is always looking to learn and find something new. So if you love live music, a warm environment and amazing food, try the soul-stirring weekly Gospel Brunch. Samuelsson has always encouraged sharing – whether it be ideas, flavours or food.

Red Rooster Shoreditch hosts weekly live music events and Gospel Brunches every Sunday, check the website for listings. Red Rooster Shoreditch, 45 Curtain Road, London EC2A 3PT; redroosterldn.com