Marcus Samuelsson’s StreetBird
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