Red Rooster founder Marcus Samuelsson on making American comfort food for Brits

The chef-restaurateur discusses how he’s adapted US soul fare for Shoreditch and why seafood has been on his mind.

16 May 2019

When Grace Dent reviewed Red Rooster soon after it opened in London, back in 2017, she pondered what an American restaurant could possibly teach us Brits about eating chicken. Amusingly, the answer appears to have been quite a lot.

Two years down the road, fried chicken – both American and Korean – is a trend that, if not new, is still ascendant in the UK.

New brands emerging in the market are playing with the coating and the condiments to offer distinct, often regional variations on the poultry dish. To take just two examples from this month, Louie’s, from the people behind Austin-style BBQ joint Red Dog Saloon, is adding some fiery Nashville spice to the mix, while delivery-only brand Out-Fry from French start-up Taster is bringing Korean sauces to the party.

Thunderbird Chicken, meanwhile, has seen such electrifying success with its premium proposal that it’s going from streetside to storefront.

Marcus Samuelsson, the founder of Red Rooster, confirms that his brand’s outposts in both New York and London do a roaring poultry trade.

“The chicken is popular in both places – very, very popular!” he tells Food Spark.

But if the UK is ready to get down with fried fowl from the States, it’s less keen on some of the heavier soul food from across the pond, according to the restaurateur.

Balancing out the menu

After two years of observing how Red Rooster fits into the London scene, Samuelsson says he felt confident making changes to the offering. The spring cleaning of the menu has kept the comfort food ethos but included more fish-based plates.

“The demand for that delicious lighter fare, it’s something our audience was telling us,” he notes, adding that the challenge was to “balance my comfort sensibilities with the lightness that the customer demands.”

The result is options like the Billingsgate sashimi with crispy grits and the lobster risotto with peas, broad beans, bok choy and caviar – dishes that Samuelsson says are still cheering, but don’t necessarily involve pork ribs or beef.

“I do think the vegetarian effort is bigger in London than in New York,” he notes, adding that this consideration has influenced a couple of menu tweaks he’s made.

He points out that the sweet potato steak with mushrooms, spring vegetables, basil-garlic tofu and almonds is exclusive to London.

Having grown up in Sweden, Samuelsson believes that the environment, being green and sustainability are greater influences on where Europeans dine compared to America.

“It doesn’t mean that it doesn’t matter in American life, but I just think on a priorities list, it’s higher in Europe – and it shows in the food ordered,” he explains.

A sea of opportunity

Seafood has clearly been on Samuelsson’s mind – no doubt due to his new restaurant, which just debuted in Montreal. Dubbed Marcus, it opened in the Four Seasons Hotel last week and specialises in oceanic eats.

“Fish charcuterie, seafood grill – these are techniques I grew up with and I wanted to do something that focused around seafood,” he says. The menu continues the chef’s international experimentation by borrowing techniques from Italian bresaola and Japanese robata.

Boasting a global background – born in Ethiopia, raised in Sweden and a resident in the US –Samuelsson always has eye on what cuisines are coming down the line. When in London, he is often to be found at Borough Market or Broadway market, picking up inspiration.

“If you go to Broadway Market right now, there’s a lot of foods from West Africa,” he notes. “Maybe 10 years ago it would have been more Spanish food. So, what happens on the street, 10 years later it walks into restaurants. And I love that.”

More globally, he says that wherever you are, people want to know “where the food comes from and who grew it for us and how it got to us,” adding: “That level of transparency is happening in all parts of society.”

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