Marcus Samuelsson partners with Bombay Sapphire to support Harlem artists
Even though it’s been a little over a decade since red rooster opened in Harlem, chef and restaurateur Marcus Samuelsson Looks like it’s been part of the local landscape for much longer. Helping cement his oversized stature is an unwavering dedication to the surrounding community. This often takes the form of supporting artistic expression. The basement of his restaurant, at the corner of 125th and Lenox Avenue, could serve as a gallery, with an emphasis on the 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 partner London Dry Gin brought in two Harlem-based talents: a graffiti artist Cey Adams and abstract painter and sculptor Diane smith. Apparently their task was to create custom billboards to display on crowded street corners in the neighborhood. They would announce the launch of Bombay Bramble, a new berry-infused variation of the classic spirit. But when their release was unveiled before the summer was over, it was immediately obvious that these weren’t your everyday booze ads. They were works of art.
Samuelsson, for his part, used the new gin to inspire his own form of creation … in cocktail form. The three-star Michelin chef recently spoke with Forbes to discuss art, gin, modern food and more. Read more in the exclusive interview below; edited for length and clarity.
Tell us about the formation of the Bramble Partnership.
Bombay approached me first. And when they asked me, “How do you see this download?” I told them it had to be in Harlem, with the inclusion of [local] artists. They have been great to work with them. Harlem people will see [these installations] and interact with them, which is awesome.
You have created a twist on the french 75 using this new spirit. Is this something that will be served at the Red Rooster?
It’s beyond fair [my] restaurant. It is a cocktail that adapts to any avant-garde place and also to the bar of the house. The [pandemic] made us cook more at home, but also make cocktails more at home. When I made this cocktail, I wanted something that only included 3-4 steps that people could easily make on their own.
Talk about the relationship between the chef and the bartender.
I consider all aspects of a restaurant to be 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; Let’s strike those notes. For me, it’s basically the same. And a lot of bartenders today are former chefs. It started maybe 6-7 years ago. In Scandinavia, where I also work, it has been going on for even longer. Our bartenders there all came from behind the house.
How would you pair this cocktail with food?
Well, for me the gin is very floral and herbal. So I thought of a salad – and whatever we do, it must contain some fresh herbs. It was part of it. But knowing that you are going to have notes of raspberry and blackberry, I wanted to think about the fresh flavors of summer. If this had been launched in December, I would have thought of cinnamon, cardamom and cloves instead.
So does the weather outside play a role in the match?
Absoutely. And seasonality.
How would you evolve this drink until the fall?
Enter the pomegranate [and orchard fruit]. You can also involve honey, infuse a little of it into simple syrup.
What ingredient is particularly hard to find in New York?
Ackee … Jamaican Ackee – you can get canned in NYC, but not fresh. Stuff like that, which is very specific, but I ate a lot of it. Ackee, for me, can be a great replacement for a scrambled egg. So if you wanna do something [vegan] ackee has this texture. Out of the box, it just isn’t the same.
So the only workaround is to simply travel there?
Yes, that’s part of the beauty of cooking and drinking; when you go to places, you anticipate certain things and you look forward to them. If I go to Jamaica I want this ackee. If I go to Sweden in June, I want rhubarb. Really soak up the food and drink culture of any location. But always be aware of the seasons. For example, [here in New York] we are at 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, do it now!
Have you embraced the herbal movement that is gaining momentum in upscale restaurants in the United States?
I grew up feeding myself. In Ethiopia, for about 200 days per year [you eat] vegetarian. You only eat meat for major festivals; special occasions. Animal protein was not really the center of the plate for me. I work on the Met Gala Menu right now and it will be completely vegan. I’m excited about the challenge, and the evolution, and having something interesting to talk about is not the pandemic.
How did this comeback go for you?
It’s a humble comeback. We are still in it. And I am working to keep my restaurant running at full capacity. I just want to do it with gratitude. I am grateful to go out with the guests 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 each other. We are not outside, of course. But starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel is exciting.