Make It

How Harlem's fried chicken and mac n' cheese changed my life

I've always used my curiosity as a compass. Before I lived in Harlem, I used to ride my bike there to soak in the vibe. There was something different about uptown that I didn't feel in other parts of the city.

This part of town was totally different from midtown where I had been cooking and living. There was an energy uptown, a vibe that I couldn't quite describe, I just knew I had to be a part of it. While Harlem is still on the island of Manhattan, the neighborhood felt like a different world.

Celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson at his Harlem restaurant Red Rooster.
Susan Watts | NY Daily News | Getty Images
Celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson at his Harlem restaurant Red Rooster.

These streets had history of the legends who came before and the hospitality that had been passed along ever since. The creative energy of Langston Hughes, Ella Fitzgerald, and Jean Michel Basquiat was still alive and breathing.

I was in the mecca of African American culture. I would sit at the counter at Sylvia's, eating mac n' cheese and those famous collards or spend an afternoon talking with Charles Gabriel about the perfect way to fry chicken at his spot on 151st street.

"There was an energy uptown, a vibe that I couldn't quite describe, I just knew I had to be a part of it."

I couldn't figure out why everyone else wasn't up here seeing "the special" too. Part of being a chef is discovering and then introducing people to foods and tastes they might never try otherwise.

I started annual food festival Harlem EatUp! in May 2015 to try and do that on a grander scale, introducing thousands to the neighborhood I love. I found that just because it's not widely known doesn't mean it doesn't exist. Harlem's food scene was happening long before there was a flourishing restaurant row like there is now.

It was happening on Sunday afternoons in church basements, where home baked good and family recipes reigned supreme. It has been on the street corners on the east side where tamales and tacos are sold. It's at the summertime block party where you'll find the best jerk chicken, cowpeas and cornbread.

I think of my friend Melba Wilson, who decided long before it was popular that she wanted to open her own restaurant. She opened Melba's in 2005 on Frederick Douglass Blvd., away from the bustle of Lenox Ave.

She knew that it would be a challenge, but she had the vision, drive and hospitality that the neighborhood was craving. She was a pioneer and without her starting the trend, there would be no Restaurant Row or a festival celebrating the area like Harlem EatUp!

Once I finally laid my roots with the Red Rooster on Lenox Ave. in 2010, I turned to my neighbors like Charles, Melba and Tren'ness (Sylvia's granddaughter) to guide me and properly introduce me to the neighbors.

See, that's the thing about Harlem. We are much more than just another neighborhood on the Manhattan grid, we are a community that leans on each other, struggles together, eats, drinks and celebrates together. The successes happen when the Village of Harlem works together to create something.

Harlem EatUp! is no different.

The festival, taking place May 19-22, wouldn't work if my neighbors and friends didn't believe in it just as much as I do. Event marketer and longtime friend, Herb Karlitz, who co-founded the festival with me, has been a driving force, always seeing what I see in Harlem.

We knew we had to bring people uptown, show them that it is just as delicious as downtown or Brooklyn (maybe more!) and the people here warm and welcoming. More than 8,000 people attended last year and we expect over 10,000 to come in May 2016.

We also saw a large number of new customers across the Harlem business community after the event which was tracked through an increase in click rates to business websites and an overall increase in recognition.

Herb and I want people to fall in love with uptown just as much as we did and see how we support each other. If that means sharing kitchen space with the smaller restaurants so they can turn out enough food for the Stroll, our grand tasting event, then that's what we'll do.

I hope we can tap into your curiosity as well and persuade you to come discover the amazing food, culture and spirit of this special place.

Commentary by Marcus Samuelsson, celebrity chef and owner of Red Rooster Harlem and Streetbird Rotisserie. Samuelsson has appeared on "Top Chef Masters" and "Chopped All-Stars" and is the author of the memoir "Yes, Chef" and multiple cook books, including "Marcus Off Duty: The Recipes I Cook At Home." He and Herb Karlitz co-produce Harlem EatUp!, a food and culture festival that launched in 2015. Follow him on Twitter @marcuscooks.

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