You’re not likely to run into the celebrity chef, Marcus Samuelsson, at his new restaurant Marcus Bar and Grille in the historic Old Fourth Ward.
Since its successful launch in March, Samuelsson has made only a few brief public appearances there. He showed up during the Fourth of July holiday to display some of his skills at the barbeque grill and he makes quick visits to check up on the kitchen, but like most chefs of his stature, who leave the day-to-day operation in capable hands, he’s mostly concerned with the weekly customer counts and the feedback he gets from regular visitors.
The well-known cook stays busy with his cable and public television cooking shows and is a bestselling author of several largely autobiographical books of recipes and reminiscences. He has cooked for state dinners at the White House and, during the pandemic, created a food kitchen that served thousands of meals for first responders and needy residents in New York City.
Interview requests over the past summer have usually been answered briefly, with a statement that he’s on the road opening new restaurants. At last count he has at least three dozen eating places in his business portfolio, spread across two continents and the Caribbean, and more, presumedly, are on the way.
Not having a Marcus in the Marcus Restaurant doesn’t seem to matter to the happy crowds who have regularly filled his restaurant to sample the tried-and-true recipes of the master. A recent early evening visit to the Edgewood Avenue operation showed a mostly full house in the large, open, cavernous industrial space that spills out onto a spacious patio in front. There’s room for about 185 diners in the three dining areas of the restaurant, with a generous number of bright blue leatherette banquettes generously spaced out across the room.
Most of the seats at the long bar next to one wall were taken, and what appeared to be a lively group of diners were enjoying such favorites as the crisp and spicy fried chicken and cornbread waffles with a sweet maple glaze, the brown sugar wings and Old Bay crab cakes. The open kitchen and open fire grill that occupies the rear wall don’t seem to be particularly challenged by the modest menu. They seem to have a particularly sure hand with the fish and seafood dishes. A striped bass entree atop a light Asian-inspired sauce of miso, bok choy, and blistered tomatoes was both well priced and well served. Likewise, the wood fired king salmon served with a Hispanic salsa verde, a French red pepper coulis, and chopped American summer vegetables.
The culturally wide-ranging menu, which makes a generous nod to a number of African American soul food favorites, is a good representation of the many influences of Samuelsson’s extraordinary life. He was born in a small village in Ethiopia about 75 miles from the capital of Addis Ababa. His mother died when he was four, and he was adopted by a Swedish family in the port city of Gothenberg, where he had a Jewish aunt who had also been adopted after escaping from the Holocaust in Germany.
He survived a tough, classical apprenticeship in several exacting kitchens in Switzerland and Austria and came to America at the age of 24 with just $300 in his pocket. He quickly won praise and a pair of three-star reviews in the New York Times that launched him as a rising star.
But it was his embrace of African American food and the debut of his Red Rooster restaurant at 125th Street and Lenox Avenue in the heart of Harlem that firmly established him on America’s culinary map. His well reviewed memoir, “Yes, Chef,” in 2012 was followed up with his two explorations of American soul food in “The Red Rooster Cookbook” in 2016 and “The Rise – Black Cooks and the Soul of American Food,” three years ago. There’s even a nod in the Red Rooster book to Harlem’s Jewish past with Samuelsson’s own recipe for a traditional challah loaf.
Along with the books, the eight James Beard Awards he’s won have cemented his elevation as one this country’s most honored and innovative chefs and certainly its most well-known kitchen wizard of color.
The location of his new Marcus Bar and Grill just a few short blocks from the King Center on neighboring Auburn Avenue and the Martin Luther King, Jr. birthplace is no accident. It is a well-intended reminder that Samuelsson, who had little experience with American food until he was an adult, has confirmed his place in both the cultural and culinary heritage of this nation.