As he throws flour across the counter in a sudden sideways dust storm, Marcus Samuelsson talks about his new cookbook, about the Harlem restaurant it chronicles and about the wider project that they both articulate. As he works the butter into the biscuit dough and stirs the contents of a saute pan — a mash-up of chicken skin and dried shrimp, lemongrass and oyster sauce and ginger — he keeps talking.
“Food is coding. It’s class; it’s tribal,” says Samuelsson as he works the stoves of the Los Angeles Times Test Kitchen. The chef was born in Ethiopia, grew up in Sweden with his adoptive family and now lives and works in New York City. “Art, music, fashion, food: All of it is coding, and food is the least clear.” Listening to him, you feel that he’s trying to work his mission statement along with the shards of butter into the biscuits themselves, as if the conversation and the food have become parts of the same thing.
Which, in his latest cookbook, “The Red Rooster Cookbook: The Story of Food and Hustle in Harlem,” they have. What Samuelsson wants to do is more than open a restaurant, cook some food, write a cookbook: He wants to celebrate a neighborhood. And by doing so, “to hope,” as Hilton Als writes in his foreword to the book, “and to effect change.” Samuelsson wants to cook for you, but his ambitions extend considerably beyond the plate — or maybe it’s that what’s on that plate is a lot more than food.
Samuelsson rose to culinary fame at the New York restaurant Aquavit in his early 20s, he appears on food television, he cooked for President Obama, he’s written cookbooks and a memoir, and he made a remarkable journey from Ethiopia to Sweden and now to Harlem, where he’s lived for almost a dozen years. Harlem is the locus for Red Rooster, the restaurant Samuelsson opened there in fall 2010, and for the book he’s written about the restaurant, its neighborhood and people. And it’s what he’s talking about now, as he’s cooking.
“I waited six years before I wrote the book for a reason,” Samuelsson says, stirring the pan in which he’s making bird funk, a hugely fragrant and deeply addictive sauce that will go onto the brown butter biscuits that are now in the oven. The restaurant had to come first, he says, then the food and the stories.
“Food is a gateway,” the chef says, now sauteing chicken livers in another pan. “We know fried chicken and gumbo and shrimp and grits, but whose food is it, who does it belong to? It’s our food. It’s American food.” Samuelsson is making something he calls chicken liver butter, an insanely rich and velvety thing — imagine foie gras buttercream; its ingredients are allspice, bourbon, brandy, chicken livers, whole cloves, maple syrup, thyme and butter. They will all go into a Cuisinart.
“Think about chicken liver, about the coding between the foie gras that comes from Europe and the chicken liver that’s more rooted in Southern or poverty cooking. People love foie gras but might not like chicken liver: It’s a class thing. But it’s delicious. We can celebrate it.” Samuelsson dips a biscuit into the bowl of the Cuisinart and beckons those around him to eat. The sauteed bird funk goes on top. He hasn’t stopped talking.
“We have the luxury to make this with butter,” he says, scooping another biscuit. “It explains the journey of both luxury and poverty.” That journey is Samuelsson’s own, of course, from Ethiopian refugee to Swedish culinary student to one of the most lauded chefs in America. It’s also traced in his cooking: through the classical French technique, and through the flavors of Africa and of Scandinavia that are woven around recipes for shoebox ham and Obama’s short ribs and fried yardbird, the restaurant’s signature dish.
Brown butter biscuits
Time: about 1 hour. Makes: about 2 1/2 dozen biscuits.
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) cold butter
2 cups (9 1/2 ounces) flour, plus more for rolling
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon coarse kosher salt
3/4 to 1 cup buttermilk
Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Cut 1/2 cup (1 stick) of butter into small pieces and freeze.
Cut up the remaining butter and place in a small skillet over medium heat. When the butter melts, start swirling it in the pan. The butter will sputter while the water cooks out, and the solids will separate. Keep cooking and swirling until the solids have sunk to the bottom and browned and the butter smells nutty, about 5 minutes. Keep a constant eye on the butter so it doesn’t burn. Pour the butter out into a small bowl, making sure you’ve got all the browned bits.
In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Remove the butter from the freezer and work it into the dry ingredients using your fingers until it resembles very coarse oatmeal with some larger bits of butter. Stir 2 teaspoons of the browned butter into 3/4 cup of the buttermilk, add it to the dry ingredients and stir the dough with your hand, kneading it a little. Add more buttermilk if you need it to make a cohesive dough that leaves the bowl clean.
Dump the dough out onto a floured surface and pat it into an even disk with smooth edges. Roll out to a thickness of 1/4-inch. Cut the biscuits with a 2-inch cutter and set them, barely touching, on a rimmed baking sheet. Gather up the scraps, form another even disk, and repeat. Brush the biscuits with some more of the browned butter and bake until risen and nicely browned on the top and bottom (lift one to check), 20 to 25 minutes.
Makes: 4 servings
8 cups water
1 cup coarse kosher salt
4 chicken thighs
4 chicken drumsticks
2 cups buttermilk
3/4 cup coconut milk
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon Chicken Shake
Peanut oil, for frying
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup semolina flour
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 tablespoon freshly ground white pepper
Put 2 cups of water and the salt in a saucepan over high heat and bring to a simmer, stirring to dissolve the salt. Pour into a large container, add the remaining 6 cups water, and cool to room temperature Add the chicken, cover and refrigerate for 1 1/2 hours. Drain.
Whisk the buttermilk, coconut milk, garlic and Chicken Shake together in a 9-by-13-inch baking dish. Submerge the chicken in the marinade, cover and refrigerate overnight.
Fill a large saucepan one-third full with peanut oil. Set over medium-high heat and heat to 360 degrees.
Coat the chicken while the oil heats. Put the flour, semolina, cornstarch and white pepper into a bowl and whisk to combine. Let any excess marinade drip off the chicken, then roll in the flour coating, packing it on. Place on a rack set over a rimmed baking sheet. If the coating looks damp, roll it in the flour again.
Working in batches, fry the chicken until it is a rich brown and has an internal temperature of 165 degrees, about 10 minutes per batch. Keep an eye on the heat and adjust it to keep the oil between 350 and 375 degrees. Drain on a rack over a rimmed baking sheet.
Season the Yardbird with a sprinkle of Chicken Shake.
Whisk 1/4 cup Berbere (see recipe below), 1/4 cup hot smoked paprika, 2 tablespoons ground cumin, 2 tablespoons freshly ground white pepper, 2 tablespoons celery salt, 1 1/2 teaspoons granulated garlic and 1 1/2 teaspoons coarse kosher salt together. Store in a jar, out of the light. It makes about 1 cup and will keep for up to 6 months.
Put 2 teaspoons coriander seeds, 1 teaspoon fenugreek seeds, 1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns, 3 to 4 allspice berries, 6 cardamom pods, and 4 whole cloves into a small skillet. Toast over medium heat, swirling the skillet until fragrant, about 4 minutes. Pour the seeds into a spice grinder and cool. Add 1/2 cup dried onion flakes and 5 stemmed and seeded chiles de arbol. Grind to a fine powder.
Put the spice powder into a bowl and whisk in 3 tablespoons hot smoked Spanish paprika, 2 teaspoons kosher salt, 1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg, 1/2 teaspoon powdered ginger and 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon.
This makes about 3/4 cup. Store in a sealed jar out of the light, for up to 6 months.