As Atlantic City’s casinos shutter this week, it seems particularly poignant to remember that there are restaurants beyond the boardwalk that will suffer. These are the small businesses that the Atlantic City Food & Wine Festival doesn’t recognize, instead importing food world celebrities like Martha Stewart, Robert Irvine, and Red Rooster chef Marcus Samuelsson to lure in tourists with staple beach eats.
The latter may have a lesson for restaurants like Chef Vola’s, The Iron Room, and the Perfectly Innocent Amusement Co.: Marcus Samuelsson knows how investing in an ungentrified neighborhood can change people’s perspective of a community, boost tourism, and attract new businesses, having opened Red Rooster in on Lenox Avenue in Harlem in 2010. We asked the chef about how restaurateurs can serve as ambassadors for ailing Atlantic City and how he came to realize opening a restaurant in Harlem was about so much more than opening a restaurant in Harlem.
What lessons did you learn in opening Red Rooster that you can impart to someone who wants to open a restaurant outside of a casino in Atlantic City?
I learned a lot, Red Rooster taught me so many more things than I thought. I thought we’d open a restaurant and hire from the community, which was the main goal. I’m happy we achieved that, but there is amazing resilience in Harlem, within the community itself, and they want the restaurant to be very successful. And I think in an area that is not always portrayed in the best way in media, I think there’s a lot of pride locally, and it can be the same here [in Atlantic City].
I think if you do good product and you hire locally, you get local ambassadors. People who come to there for the weekend, forever, they want to go to the most local authentic place. So working with the ambassadors, the local staff, it’s an asset and it’s something that [Red Rooster] taught me.
When I worked in midtown I never thought about that. I just hired the best people; I don’t care if they live in Queens, New Jersey, or Brooklyn. But working in Harlem, I think the messaging is a little bit different, and I think that can apply here.
How do you take the pulse of a community to decide to invest or not to invest in it?
The idea of working in Harlem was mine. The idea of learning — that’s why I lived there five years before I opened the restaurant — so I would know a lot. And I think that’s the idea. As you come as an outsider you have to learn first, you have to get your own masters so to speak.
And I did it by biking a lot. I biked around in Harlem. So I knew the difference between El Barrio, Spanish Harlem, versus the Italian versus the African American base, and it’s all of Harlem. It’s all units that have worked together for hundreds of years. So learning a lot helped me with the dialogue with the guy who had his fried chicken stand much longer than me, or with Sylvia’s or Lenox Lounge. Having that knowledge helped me engage in good conversations.
Then you have to do stuff. Everything is not going to work, but that’s okay. There were certain things that were given, like gospel on Sundays after church. That was low hanging fruit. But you have to do good gospel, and the price has got to be relevant so people can afford to come. Then we did things that were not so easy right away to execute on, but when you do things that haven’t necessarily been done before it’s a very humble walk, and if you’re truly invested in it for the long term, the sticky stuff will show itself pretty easy and the stuff that’s a little bit of a longer build you can continue to do even if it costs you money. I live four blocks away from the restaurant, and I know not everything is going to be great, but we’re going to come back the next day and work again.
Did you expect going in you’d feel the weight of the restaurant’s success on your shoulders but also as an ambassador for a Harlem dining renaissance?
I never feel the weight. If anything, I think, as a creative person, one of the hardest things is not doing stuff. I’ve been in various situations many times in my life, like all of us. I came to this country with $300 and just decided to work really, really hard. It’s harder when you’re waiting for your green card, it’s harder when you’re in between. You know I’ve been rejected more times than I’ve been successful. I’m sure everyone can relate to that. That feeling is always harder than anything.
When you’re working, when you’re doing stuff, you just want to work with your neighbors and work hard together, and that gives you an energy, so I never feel that as a weight. But I do feel like we have to always put our best foot forward, because you’re ambassadors for more than the restaurant. But you should always put your best foot forward, you know I was taught that since I was a little kid. So I think it’s a privilege to represent a part of New York City versus a burden.