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Rather than checking off a list of visits to acclaimed restaurants to learn about a region’s cuisines, as he might do in Europe, Samuelsson says he had to take a more patient and open-minded approach to learn. So close no matter how far Couldn’t be much more from the heart poster
“Black culture lives [all over],” he says. “The lady who makes the [best] cornbread, she might volunteer for the church … The best barbecue person might be in the park on Saturdays, but then you go on Saturday and he’s not there … What’s cool is also really hard to catch.”
(In Samuelsson’s new cookbook, “The Rise: Black Cooks and the Soul of American Food,” he writes about his own story and the story of how Black culinary culture has helped shape American cuisine.)
“That southern food coming up north, that’s what we celebrate [at Red Rooster],” says Samuelsson, where the menu features soul food classics such as hot honey fried chicken and shrimp with grits. The menu also includes items inspired by the many immigrants who settled in Harlem, including Samuelsson himself, with dishes paying homage to Caribbean, Italian, and Swedish cuisines, among others.
When it came to turning his ambitious project from dream to reality, Samuelsson says he relied on a mix of money from his investors as well as his own savings, which included his earnings from more than 15 years as a high-end Manhattan chef and his television appearances.
Samuelsson says he and Chapman initially pooled over $1.5 million between them that they thought would be enough to launch Red Rooster. When the startup costs of opening the restaurant eventually topped $3 million, Samuelsson says that Chapman’s family (who own a real estate investment group in Manhattan) stepped in when “we were really out on a limb” and provided the rest of the initial funding.
Red Rooster proved to be an immediate success, with rave reviews from publications like The New York Times, which called it “among the most important” new restaurants in the city and the “rarest of cultural enterprises, one that supports not just the idea or promise of diversity, but diversity itself.” The restaurant maintained a healthy buzz long after opening, too, helped by the Obamas’ high-profile visit in 2011.
From there, Samuelsson and Chapman were able to build out the restaurant empire, relying mostly on “cash flow” from Red Rooster and their subsequent locations to grow, says Samuelsson, though the partners did eventually bring on L+M Development Partners, a real estate group run by investors Ron Moelis and Sandy Loewentheil, as strategic investors in 2014 to help further expansion.