Although it’s been a little over a decade since Red Rooster first opened its doors in Harlem, head chef and restaurateur Marcus Samuelsson seems like he’s been a part of the local landscape for far longer. Helping cement his outsized stature is a steadfast devotion to the surrounding community. This often takes the shape of support for artistic expression. The basement of his eatery, at the corner of 125th and Lenox Avenue, could double as a gallery—with an emphasis on Black voices of upper Manhattan. A recent partnership with Bombay Sapphire Gin is built around championing some of those same voices.
In August, Samuelsson and his London Dry Gin partner tapped a pair of Harlem-based talents: graffiti artist Cey Adams and abstract painter and sculptor Dianne Smith. Ostensibly, their task was to create bespoke billboards to be displayed at crowded street corners of the neighborhood. They would be announcing the launch of Bombay Bramble—a new berry-infused variation of the classic spirit. But when their output was unveiled before the end of summer, it was immediately apparent that these weren’t your everyday booze adverts. These were works of art.
Samuelsson, for his part, used the new gin to inspire his own form of creation…In cocktail form. The three Michelin-star chef recently sat down with Forbes to discuss art, gin, modern eating and more. Read on in the exclusive interview below; edited for length and clarity.
Tell us about the formation of the Bramble partnership.
Bombay first approached me. And when they asked, ‘How do you see this being uploaded,’ I told them it has to be in Harlem, with the inclusion of [local] artists. They’ve been amazing to work with. People in Harlem are going to see [these installations] and interact with them, which is great.
You created a twist on the French 75 using this new spirit. Is that something that will be served at Red Rooster?
It’s beyond just [my] restaurant. This is a cocktail that fits any flavor-forward place and also the home bar. The [pandemic] had us cooking more at home, but also making cocktails more at home. When I made this cocktail I wanted something that was just 3-4 steps that people could easily make themselves.
Talk about the relationship between chef and bartender.
I look at all aspects of a restaurant as flavor-based. So when I work with a mixologist or a sommelier I work with them the same way I work with a chef: Here are the different flavors, here is the seasonality to it; let’s hit these notes. To me, it’s essentially all the same. And a lot of bartenders today are former chefs. That started to happen maybe 6-7 years ago. In Scandinavia, where I work also, it’s been going on for an even longer time. Our bartenders there all came from the back of the house.
How would you pair this cocktail with food?
Well, to me, gin is very floral and herbaceous. So I thought of a salad—and whatever we do it has to have fresh herbs in it. That was one part of it. But knowing that you’re going to have raspberry and blackberry notes I wanted to think about fresh summer flavors. If this would have been launched in December, I would have thought more about cinnamon, cardamom and cloves.
So the weather outside plays into the pairing?
Absolutely. And seasonality.
How would you evolve this drink into the fall?
Go into pomegranate [and orchard fruit]. You could probably involve honey, as well—infuse some into a simple syrup.
What’s an ingredient that’s particularly challenging for you to source in New York City?
Ackee…Jamaican ackee—which you can get canned in New York City, but not fresh. Things like that, that are very specific, but I’ve eaten a lot of it. Ackee, for me, can be a great replacement for a scrambled egg. So if you want to do something [vegan] ackee has that texture. Out of the can it’s just not the same.
So the only workaround is just to travel there?
Yes, it’s part of the beauty of cooking and beverage; when you go to places you anticipate certain things and you look forward to that. If I go to Jamaica I want that ackee. If I go to Sweden in June I want rhubarb. Truly take in the culture of food and drink of any place. But always be aware of the seasons. For example, [here in New York] we’re in the height of heirloom tomatoes, watermelon, corn. It’s going to be great for a few weeks. So if you really want it at its best, have it right now!
Have you embraced the plant-based movement that’s gaining steam in high-end dining across the US?
I grew up foraging. In Ethiopia, for basically 200 days of the year [you eat] vegetarian. You only eat meats for big celebrations; special occasions. Animal protein was not really central on the plate for me. I’m working on the Met Gala menu right now and that will be completely vegan. I am excited about the challenge, and evolving, and having something interesting to talk about that’s not the pandemic.
How has that return been for you?
It’s a humble walk back. We’re still in it. And I’m working on getting my restaurant up to full capacity. I just want to do it with gratitude. I’m grateful to be hanging out with diners again. There’s a different level of appreciation now, because you don’t take anything for granted. We [in the restaurant industry] are creatives and we feed off of each other. We’re not out of it, of course. But to start to see the light at the end of the tunnel is exciting.