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I was walking to work one day last summer, I noticed that Crab Man Mike was gone from his usual post at 125th Street and Fifth Avenue. Mike has
been cooking shellfish in his special pot on the streets of Harlem for
23 years. Concerned, I began asking the other street vendors where he
went. Johnny Portland, one of the Jamaican guys who also sets up some
days at 125th and Fifth, told me Crab Mike had moved.
found him a few blocks farther uptown — 132nd Street and Seventh
Avenue, where he had set up his pot in front of Doug E.’s Fresh Chicken
and Waffles. He was serving up shellfish to his neighbors and friends.
When I asked him why he switched locations, he told me it was because he
could no longer recognize his customers at 125th and Fifth. There were
too many crowds, too many new faces and businesses. He may have made
more sales there, but on this quieter corner he felt more comfortable.
The people he served here were people he had known for years. He knew
their families, their troubles, their joys.
is what was more important to him as a cook — being a part of his
customers’ lives. I was struck by this decision. To me it resonated with
one of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned from living in Harlem for
the last 10 years and operating a restaurant here — Red Rooster Harlem —
for three: a culture of hospitality.
I first started coming to Harlem, it was the late 1990s. I had just
moved to New York from France to work at Aquavit, and I had the typical
nomadic life of the recent New York transplant. I lived with multiple
roommates and moved every few months, searching for a foothold and a
place that felt like home. I lived in the East Village and then Hell’s
Kitchen, neither too far from the restaurant, where I worked long
shifts. When I needed to unwind after work, I always found myself taking
the subway uptown.
take a corner seat at Sylvia’s. Also, the lounge annex of Sylvia’s
restaurant, where the chef Melba Wilson worked at the time. “Hi, Sugar,”
she would say when she walked up to my table. After a long day running a
three-star kitchen where we served from the left, cleared from the
right, and could make or break our careers on how we julienned
vegetables, I found her warmth disarming. I would order a beer, listen
to jazz, hip-hop and poetry — and relax.
so long Harlem had just been an idea to me, found in books and music
when growing up in Sweden and then working in France. It was Langston
Hughes and Miles Davis, the Apollo and the Y, and Malcolm X sitting in a
dark corner of Small’s Paradise. It was the center of black culture,
the center of cool, a place so remote to me in Europe that I could
hardly imagine it. Now I was here, feeling it.
nights were some of the first times in my life when I wasn’t a minority
in the room. I’d eat a dinner of soul food at Miss Mamie’s Spoonbread
Too, where Norma Jean Darden cooked her mother’s recipes, and then
wander the neighborhood. I’d browse the old bookshops and street
vendors, surrounded by people from all over the world: Ghana and
Senegal, Jamaica and Puerto Rico. Students marched for equal rights,
civil-rights activists passed out leaflets, and old native Harlemites
fund-raised for churches and schools. There were hardships on the
street, poverty and violence at times, but everyone had flair, style and
pride. I found movement in the hustle on 125th Street — a sense of
excitement and possibility.
I went in Harlem I felt welcome. I began to recognize a kind of
hospitality that I hadn’t known before and that I hadn’t found in fine
dining. In the Michelin restaurants in France where I trained early in
my career, I was taught excellence in ingredients, presentation and
manners. But I wasn’t taught the joy and magic I felt walking into the
bars and soul food joints in Harlem.
this feeling that I most want to convey when asked about Harlem now.
Business isn’t just about food and drink, it’s about restoring and
sustaining a community that is changing quickly. In the local bars, like
Paris Blues, my favorite jazz haunt, there are often crockpots of free
food set up in the corner for anyone who’s hungry. At Just Lorraine’s
Place on Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard, near 132nd Street, under a
dusty portrait of Thelonious Monk, a poster announces the celebration of
a woman’s birthday, with well wishes scrawled in marker next to her
portrait. When I stopped by A Touch of Dee on Lenox Avenue at 143rd
Street last November, a sign let me know that Corinne was serving that
night and a poster announced that Mrs. Dee herself would host a free
Thanksgiving dinner. At Showmans Jazz Club, there’s never a cover to
hear incredible jazz and R&B, and appetizers and snacks are often
free at the bar. These are the places I go to relax, where I can leave
my busy life at the door and speak to my neighbors for a while.
now, Harlem is on the verge. Since 2010, there’s been a restaurant
boom. Dick Parsons has opened The Cecil in the ground floor of the old
Cecil Hotel. The Grange on Amsterdam Avenue at 141st Street features
signature cocktails and seasonal local produce on its menu. Bier
International, a beer garden with a brilliantly curated range of brews,
and the speakeasy 67 Orange have become popular nightspots.
a community with 19 percent unemployment, these places bring hundreds
of jobs that can’t be outsourced. They don’t just offer cooking and
serving positions, but jobs for artists and musicians, lighting and
sound engineers, handymen and electricians. Now people are coming uptown
for a night out.
travel all over the world for work and I am constantly asked to define
Harlem. What’s it like, people ask. Is it cool? Is it safe? When I go to
places like the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, to speak
among celebrated thinkers and leaders, I’m often asked: Is Harlem good
now? I always have to pause before answering. Good compared with what?
To when? These questions all miss the mark. Is Harlem good now? That is a
question loaded with long-held ideas about race and class, one that
dismisses the complex, vital history of this neighborhood and its
people, their contributions to civil rights and art, under one word:
or bad doesn’t begin to describe this neighborhood I love. The beauty
of Harlem is that it isn’t definable as one thing or another. It has
always been a place for the strivers: immigrants of all races and
nationalities, artists and musicians and entrepreneurs. People have
sought refuge here and have felt the need to seek refuge from here. It’s
been brought to its knees by poverty and drugs and unemployment and has
been pulled up by its art, its music, its food and its people.
talking to Crab Man Mike that day on the street, I invited him to host a
summer crab fest as guest chef at Red Rooster. Like any great chef, he
brought his own equipment — his magic pot — and he cooked up delicious
fresh crabs and clams from the Hunts Point Market, seasoned with his
secret spice blend. It was one of the most memorable nights we’ve had at
the Rooster. Living and working here and walking these streets, I have
learned a new sense of hospitality from Harlem. It’s the feeling that
lets me know I’m home.
Marcus Samuelsson is a co-owner of Red Rooster Harlem.