For several years, Marcus Samuelsson has created a special menu in honor of Black History Month at his Harlem restaurant, Red Rooster (310 Lenox Avenue, 212-792-9001). But this time around, he had a particularly strong dose of female inspiration standing in front of him: his chef de cuisine Adrienne Cheatham.
“Adrienne is pushing; she’s strong,” Samuelsson tells the Voice. “We have a goal that she’s going to become an executive chef of her own one day.” The two chefs started brainstorming a menu that would celebrate female chefs of color who had either made an indelible mark on American cuisine or who, like Adrienne, will be a force on the scene very soon.
“I wanted to acknowledge the goddesses from the past, present, and future,” Samuelsson says. The result is a $62, five-course dinner menu to be served at Red Rooster during the month of February, each dish highlighting a different chef’s story. Capturing the breadth of women’s contributions to the hospitality industry, from line cooks to legends, was an important element in the creation of the series.
After an amuse of “Miss Adrienne’s Macarons,” filled with duck liver and aged balsamic and topped with sea salt, the first course is broiled oysters with sea beans, fennel, and black-olive aioli, inspired by the esteemed “Grande Dame” of Southern cooking, Edna Lewis, whose career spanned restaurant work, teaching, and writing cookbooks.
CJ Grant, a line cook at Red Rooster, inspired the second course of charred octopus with plantains, chickpeas, and curry vinaigrette. “CJ is the best line cook,” Cheatham tells us. “Octopus is hard — it can get messed up easily. CJ, she loves octopus because it’s so technique-focused. She is really inspirational and super cool. She’s always motivated. She comes to work and kicks ass, every day. She never has a bad day. It’s exciting to work with people like that.”
The next course, blackened catfish with Creole red beans and turnip greens, is inspired by New Orleans restaurateur Leah Chase. “I’m super excited by this,” Samuelsson says. “Leah is my idol — she’s Michael and Elvis combined. And she represents so much as our first integrated restaurant in the country [Dooky Chase]. She’s a female business owner from the 1940s! At 94 years old, she represents everything about being ‘other.’ When I called her to check the menu, and go through it dish by dish, of course, she was so happy. And that catfish is good.”
Another dish, the beer-braised pork belly with creamed turnips, roasted baby turnips, and smoked vinegar jus, pays homage to Lena Richard, like Chase a New Orleans chef who forged a path in challenging times. “Lena was the OG of everything,” Cheatham says. “She wrote and hosted a cooking show that aired during segregation in the South, she founded a cooking school, she had a catering company, and she and her husband owned several restaurants. [These women] were really accomplished in business. It was important to me to make sure they’re recognized.”
The menu finale is a coconut rice pudding with rum and corn flakes, inspired by Nyesha Arrington, one of Zagat’s 2012 “30 Under 30” chefs, who appeared on Top Chef and Chef Hunter. “I talked with Nyesha the other day,” Samuelsson says. “She’s an incredible chef and was going through her own shit as a chef during the middle of her lunch service that day — and was starting to cry. She was overwhelmed that we were including her on the menu. It made her day.
“You’re on a completely different grid in terms of your chances if you’re black, and yet another as a black woman,” he continues. “So your narrative as a chef is as tough as can be. This menu gave us the incredible opportunity to channel the inspiration and point of view of these kinds of chefs. These women — Edna, Leah, Adrienne, Lena, C.J., and Nyesha — they represent that narrative to me.”
“We did a lot of research for this,” Cheatham adds. “I hope that diners realize that every chef contributes to cuisine in a different way. Some of these women contributed fifty or a hundred years ago, and some still contribute by changing texture, by adding something, by applying a new technique to make something more modern. What’s on each plate is from hundreds of years of hard work that inspires us still. This is not a Red Rooster menu. It’s a menu inspired by so many components of so many careers.”