Restaurant “art” doesn’t usually attract more than a cursory glance from diners— reproductions of vintage Lillet posters or landscapes in soft tones are the norm. But the carefully curated collection at Red Rooster Harlem has been given just as much thought as the menu. The restaurant’s chef and owner, Marcus Samuelsson, together with Thelma Golden, director and chief curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem, worked for more than two years to create an ongoing program that showcases the work of Harlem’s contemporary artists along with that of international icons such as Romare Bearden and Gordon Parks.
“I think of art and Red Rooster as one,” explains Samuelsson, who is also a MoMA board member. “I knew that I wanted to tell the story of Harlem, and I knew that I wanted to tell it in many different compositions, through food, people, music, culture, art.” The chef strives both to preserve Harlem’s artistic past and to show how the ever-changing community continues to thrive, with contributions by the likes of Sanford Biggers, Glenn Ligon, Lorna Simpson, Monika Sziladi, and Laine McNulty. “We treat the walls with an incredible amount of respect and make sure the art helps guide the guest who comes to our place in Harlem,” Samuelsson says. “It’s storytelling in a compelling way, and I think about the walls as much as I think of any ingredient in a dish.”
Samuelsson’s journey from Ethiopia, to life in Sweden with his adoptive parents, and on to fame in New York City as executive chef at Aquavit, helped him hone a knack for combining disparate elements, which he thoroughly expresses in the atmosphere at Red Rooster. A large bookshelf near the bar holds figurines, small artworks, and books meant to educate visitors about Harlem’s rich history. A Biggers quilt, Flying Lotus, #14, (2012) hangs in the main dining area with a painting by Nigerian artist Njideka Akunyili, and a collection of Bearden’s works is displayed in a private dining room downstairs. “We’ve worked hard to cultivate a balance of accomplished figures and rising stars in the visual-arts community, whose works speak to the relevance of Harlem and diversity in the art world overall,” says Derek Fleming, Samuelsson Group’s director of business development and curator of the Rooster Art Program with Samuelsson.
Always eager to engage the public, Samuelsson frequently moves about the restaurant, pointing out works and telling diners about the artists, many of whom frequent the establishment. “Like Harlem, the art at the Rooster is always changing,” Golden says, “encouraging new experiences and sparking new conversations.”