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Chef Marcus Samuelsson built a restaurant, and now a family, in Harlem. This Thanksgiving, he considers what it means to give thanks and give back.
I know I'll always remember this year because it’ll be our first Thanksgiving together. Both my wife, Maya, and I came to this country as immigrants. Our son, Zion, who is four months old, is the first in our family to be born and raised in America. On Thanksgiving, you get to look at the present and the past—at where you are and where you came from. I’m looking forward to having that moment where I can sit down and take it all in, to really savor the gifts of my life and what it means to finally find a home where you feel both security and possibility.
As someone who left Ethiopia, was raised in Sweden, then traveled the globe working in kitchens, for me, Harlem is the truest home I’ve ever known. And it somehow, improbably, incorporates all of the places that make me who I am. The hustle and bustle of the street vendors reminds me of the markets in Addis Ababa. The light in Harlem at sunset, the way it falls over the brownstones, reminds me of Gothenburg, the Swedish fishing village where my father grew up. I have been thinking about my father so much these days–he passed away before he could witness any of my success, yet he gave me everything of value that I know. Now that I’m a father to a son, I want to teach him as my father taught me: how to row, how to paint, how to build a family and a community. My father never saw Red Rooster, but his spiritis imbued throughout the restaurant.
When we were opening Red Rooster in Harlem, and the New York food community wasn’t used to the idea of a fine-dining experience above 125th Street, we used to say all the time, “The ’hood needs good food, too.” This is why The Red Rooster Cookbook means so much to me. It’s about Harlem’s storied past, its delicious present and the future we are cooking up together. In the six years since we opened, everything I’ve ever given to Harlem has come back to me a hundredfold. The way we feel at Red Rooster is that the Harlem community has taken in our restaurant and made it an extension of their home. And so we go big at the Rooster for Thanksgiving. We start decorating and menu planning weeks before. We invite local bands and the Abyssinian Baptist Church choir to perform. It’s a special feeling when you walk into the restaurant and see a nine-year-old and a 90-year-old at the same table, having a great time.
Maya and I always start our Thanksgiving Day early at the Rooster. Now Zion will, too. We do a turkey handout, then we go home and host our big meal around four or five o’clock. Then I go back to the restaurant in the early evening just to check in and say hello. People don’t want to leave the Rooster on Thanksgiving, so it’s a late night. We take reservations for two-hour slots, but with all the food, music and just pure joyful energy, no one wants to budge. No matter what we do, tables stay for two and a half hours, three hours or more. That’s not a bad thing. We’re happy to have them.
“Whenever we travel, especially back to Africa, we see ourselves in children who are like the kids we once were. These are two organizations Maya and I are particularly passionate about.”
WAYS TO GIVE BACK
UNICEF I’ve been an ambassador since 2000. A big part of my work focuses on safe water—663 million people in the developing world still lack access. unicef.org.
Three Goats Maya started this organization to help empower young women in Ethiopia through education and nutrition. threegoats.org.
World Food Programme The food arm of the UN, it supports people in developing nations and conflict areas, like Syrian refugees. wfp.org.
American Red Cross First responders after natural disasters, like the recent earthquake in Italy, they play a crucial role in recovery. redcross.org.
Oxfam From aiding small-scale farmers in Ethiopia to combatting food shortages in Nigeria, Oxfam develops long-term solutions to poverty. oxfam.org.
Feeding America A nationwide network of food banks that helps feed the one in seven Americans who struggle to afford food. feedingamerica.org.
Wholesome Wave Founded by chef Michel Nischan to make healthy food accessible and affordable in communities where it typically isn’t. wholesomewave .org.
No Kid Hungry This group provides meals to help end hunger for the 16 million children currently affected in the US. nokidhungry.org.