EyeSwoon

I would never consider myself a writer or journalist, but I have found myself playing with the medium lately – which I am thoroughly enjoying  since I am such an intensely curious person. I am always eager to understand the creative process, what makes someone tick. I am also guided by aesthetics, the story behind creation – from idea to execution whether its surrounding design or food. Imagine my surprise a few weeks ago when I received an email from Marcus Samuelsson’s team. I was told he was working on a hush-hush project, something very close to his heart and the Harlem community, that he wanted to share in a personal way. And there it was – the swoony opportunity to report on a creative vision coming to life.

A few days later I drove up to 116th and Frederick Douglass and stepped into Streetbird, Chef Marcus Samuelsson’s vision which is set to open this week and has been 4 years in the making. His goal was simple, to create an eatery that drew inspiration from the vibrant Harlem community – a place where block parties, corner cookouts, graffiti, hip hop and Sunday church culture all come together – to deliver some unbelievable rotisserie chicken with an urban tale.

The restaurant was in heavy construction mode the day I visited and I was thrilled to see the work in progress. As Marcus and his co-designer Derek Fleming worked with their team, I observed Streetbird unfold around me. Creativity was everywhere. Cey Adams spraypainted an “uptown cookout” graffiti mural while contractor Andres Gomez formed a chair out of skateboards and Marcus sorted through African fabrics to find just the right one for the communal banquettes. Every inch of the atmosphere was being created to be authentic to the people of Harlem.

Everything about Streetbird was inspired from the people who brought Harlem to life in the 70’s & 80’s and continue to keep it going today. What struck me the most (and which is a downright stroke of genius) is the installation of boomboxes at the entrance to the restaurant. The visual statement alone is bold and telling – celebrating hip-hop music that for decades originated from this community but also the form of self-expression the boombox represented for an entire generation. The boombox was your identifier – a way to show your perspective on music and culture in a personal way. This interactive installation does more than make a striking artistic statement, it is literally a storytelling medium. As you wait for a table you’ll be able to plug into the art piece and hear the history of Harlem being told directly by the people who lived and shaped the neighborhood. It’s really an amazing way to start conversations and immerse yourself in the history of the neighborhood, while honoring the decades that made Harlem a cultural icon.

Not only is Marcus an impeccable chef, he’s a visionary. It’s not just about food. It’s the story and the community behind the food. Marcus told me that when he started to concept Streetbird his initial driving thought was, “What don’t we serve at Red Rooster and what does the community need?” He was thinking about affordability and style, wanting to tell a fuller story than he had at his other restaurant, “I felt it was more connected to the street. So then it became natural to do something that was street food centered with chicken at its core. So I knew I wanted a rotisserie oven. And I knew I wanted to build it around a Harlem tradition, which is really diners.” Nothing does this more than the counter seating which overlooks the open kitchen letting guests see the cooking birds on the rotisserie. More than anything the concept had to feel authentic, so Marcus talked to people living in the area during the 70’s and 80’s to draw inspiration and stay genuine. In this way Streetbird is a bit like a treasure from the past, a place where the history of the neighborhood doesn’t get lost amongst the development and changes, but continues to thrive and capture the true spirit of Harlem.

I have to say, I was honestly amazed at the level of creativity and purpose that was behind every choice and detail in the space. Through art, repurposed materials, music and community, Streetbird will educate a whole new generation about the stories and anecdotes of the past, while honoring the legacy of the generation that made Harlem what it is today.

Photography by Winnie Au

StreetBird

rotisserie chicken with an urban tale

  • The true vision of Marcus Samuelsson

    • CAN YOU TELL ME ABOUT THE ORIGINAL INCEPTION OF STREETBIRD -WHAT WAS YOUR INITIAL SPARK?

      I’ve been working on Steetbird for about 4 years, as soon as I started thinking about what was missing from Red Rooster. I didn’t grow up in New York but people like Fab Five Freddy, Blondie, Cey Adams (visual artist and graphic designer who was the founding creative director of Def Jam and worked with artists like the Beastie Boys, Public Enemy, Jay-Z and LL Cool J) and the 1982 documentary Style Wars about subway graffiti were changing my life culturally even faraway. Hip hop and graffiti are appreciated all over the world, but they started twenty minutes from here. I thought what if we go to Freddy? What if we go to those guys on the corner right where that was created, rather than starting elsewhere? Rooster is very much like museum art, R&B, jazz and gospel. This would be about graffiti and celebration music like hip hop, the way it used to be in the parks when DJ Kool Herc (who by many is credited with being the founder of hip hop) or Grand Master Flash would say, “Hey I’m spinning over here, come on through.” So really it’s about pre-organized hip hop, the early 70s and those guys in the parks. I follow lots of old DJs and graffiti artists.

      DID YOU ALREADY KNOW A LOT ABOUT THE SCENE?

      Yeah, I grew up very curious about the countries I love and this was one of them. I thought, let me go talk to people who I trust like Kim Hastreiter, editor in chief of Paper magazine – people that are New Yorkers through and through. Freddy and Jay and all of Tribe Called Quest, everybody that was passionate about the music and culture. As I started to talk to everyone, I realized my true inspiration was a cookout. There were so many stories about neighborhood block parties and cookouts happening in the park, I knew it was the part of Harlem’s food history that I wanted to honor and resurrect. So I made a menu that was chicken focused, like at a cookout. It’s about bringing the street in and curating it. So the core is the chicken, the second core is diner culture, and then the third layer is community driven, right around artistic dialogue stemming from the people of Harlem.

      THIS JOURNEY OF DISCOVERY – IS THAT PART OF THE EXCITEMENT FOR YOU?  THE STORY BEHIND THE SPACE?

      My favorite restaurant in Harlem is M&G Diner. That’s where I met my wife. It’s about the vibe in there. I have the original signage from M&G, but I like all the diners in Harlem. Harlem restaurants are just different. They’re set up around a counter. A hub. So that’s why I really can’t go to an architect when I design because I design based on the what the community has already given me. It’s not my design. Counter design has always been here, so I had to make my version of it. I had to make sure it was iconic. The counter is the lifeboat of the restaurant. There’s a dialogue between the cook and the server and the customer. It’s layers. It makes this kind of hospitality different. I also knew we had to do a church piece because church is so important in Harlem. The design also had to touch upon Africanism because we’re actually in the West African part of Harlem right now. So we’re going to have some African fabrics. And then we’re going to have people like Anthony Vasquez (aka AVONE) who created the floor-based collage throughout the entrance, to embody that whole Latin vibe. I want it to feel natural and be an iconic Harlem site.

      IT’S INCREDIBLE HOW INVOLVED YOU ARE IN EVERY DETAIL! 

      There’s going to be a wall where we install different art pieces. It’s all about challenging the moment of wait. No one has time to wait so the boombox installation will have a purpose. You’re going to be able to plug in and hear old stories from the community. You’re going to hear stories about what happened in the past in Harlem. So while you wait maybe your child will hear something they never heard before. It will be about connecting old and new because it’s about what’s new and old in Harlem. For me it’s never about an either or. It’s sort of like rights of passage, just passing on the history of the neighborhood. A lot of what happens with this transition of redevelopment and change is the history gets lost. So this is our own little way of capturing some of that and also reflecting the culture.

      WILL YOU CONTINUE TO COLLECT STORIES AS  PEOPLE COME INTO THE SPACE AND HAVE SOMETHING TO SHARE? 

      When Five Pointz went down, that was one of my favorite places and I thought, how could they take that down? I didn’t even understand it. So I said, okay, I’m going to create a wall that speaks – so people can come in and express themselves and see the work of artists who are true to the neighborhood and the culture of Harlem. So when people wait in line they can really understand and learn something about the history of Harlem. Overtime when somebody takes something down it’s actually an opportunity to create. That’s the story.

      WHAT ABOUT THE MENU DEVELOPMENT?

      The menu is really driven by the moms cooking outside my house in the park and at block parties. I know the food I want to create but I want to create energy that’s like the moms setting up the grills and the drunken uncle over there, and the kids over here and someone’s arguing about music being too loud…now that’s a party! Obviously as a chef I know how to evoke that emotion. There will be fried rice, noodles and everything that fits with rotisserie chicken.

      HOW WILL YOU HONOR THE TRADITIONAL DISHES WHILE INFUSING YOUR OWN CULINARY TWIST?

      We’ve been cooking a lot. At every tasting something else comes up. I don’t want to over-edit; I don’t want to over-curate. I want it to be yummy and delicious. That emotion will be evoked here.

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