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The Best Thing I Can Do for Harlem Right Now Is Feed People

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Marcus Samuelsson’s regulars have changed, and so has his idea of what it means to feed a community

The chef Marcus Samuelsson wears a mask as he serves food in front of his Harlem restaurant the Red Rooster
Marcus Samuelsson serving food in front of the Red Rooster
World Central Kitchen

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On May 30, I joined hundreds of people from Harlem for a peaceful protest. From the oldest to the youngest, all had come out to listen and to stand with the leaders of the community, and it made me feel proud to be a Harlemite.

As I stood in the crowd, waiting to give the speech the organizers had asked me to prepare, an elder told me, “I was here when Malcolm was killed; I stood here when Martin Luther King was killed.” Normally, I don’t get nervous about speaking in public. But here, now, in the days of Ahmaud Arbery, of Breonna Taylor, of George Floyd, I felt the weight of this moment. I took a deep breath and drew strength from looking out at our community. I spoke about my son, Zion, and the conversations I have to have with him. I described the three things that Zion loves: chasing after birds in the park, running, and police officers.

Every Black parent knows you have to have the Talk with your child. I thought I would have it with Zion when he was around 12 or 13. Now, I realize that it will have to happen much, much sooner. Zion sees police officers at the park every day and thinks they’re the coolest people in the world. How do you make a 4-year-old understand that things can go another way?

These are the kinds of things that I and many of the people here in Harlem carry every day. For the last three months, we have carried them in addition to the weight of the coronavirus pandemic, which is itself loaded with much of the same weight of racism, given that it disproportionately affects Black and Latino communities: Nationally, Black people make up less than 13 percent of the population, but represent 22 percent of all COVID-19 infections — which also kill Black Americans at twice the rate as white Americans. They’re part of the same story.

When I ask myself what I can do as a chef, I always go back to what I know: Feed the people. But what serving the people means now has changed from what it meant a few months ago. Back then, I knew I was doing a good job because of my regulars. At the Red Rooster, the backbone of our success has always been the diners who show up every Monday to eat, drink, and jam with the band, or the folks who come every Sunday for brunch and gospel music. As a number of our customers can attest, many of our friendliest regulars were longtime Harlemites who were happy to strike up a conversation with other locals, downtowners, and out-of-towners alike.

In the second week of March, the pandemic changed everything. As restaurant dining rooms across the city shuttered and New York went into a state of lockdown, we had to decide what to do next. We could have closed, or pivoted to takeout, but it was clear that the only real option was to continue to feed the community, which was immediately in need as jobs and resources vanished overnight. So we started placing calls to friends and organizations who could partner on our efforts. One of the first was to my friend chef José Andrés; we decided to work with his World Central Kitchen to become a community kitchen, giving out meals to those in need. Our first customers were the homeless, followed by the newly freed former inmates whom Rikers Island drops off on the corners of 145th and 125th Streets; we also started seeing customers from the two methadone centers next to the Whole Foods on 125th Street.

As New York’s lockdown continued, the ranks of my new regulars has only grown: The line outside now comprises school teachers, construction workers, the people who used to run the mom-and-pop shop around the corner, and cooks and hospitality workers from other restaurants. Some hop off the bus and get in line; others pull up in their cars. By the time we begin serving at 10:30 a.m., there’s already a line halfway down the block. The hardest part of my day is when we realize we have only 150 meals left and need to tell people, “That’s it for today.”

My new regulars are like any regulars: They have preferences. “Hey, chef! I liked the chicken better yesterday.” Or, “I don’t need an apple; I don’t have teeth.” They still want to talk, with each other, with me. They’re cordial, and they remain kind to each other. They stand on line and call out encouragement. “What’s up, chef? You did it on the chicken!”

But grimmer conversations also float by. I hear people asking each other if they know someone with the ’rona. An older gentleman who showed up every day at noon is suddenly gone. “Where’s he at?” my regulars ask, looking around for his familiar face. Someone on the line tells us, “’Rona took him away.” We share our grief six feet apart.

Harlem has given me so much: dear friends, teachers, and a sense of place and home. When the pandemic broke out, being from Ethiopia helped give my family perspective: Tuberculosis killed my mom; Ethiopia has been ravaged by drought and numerous pandemics. Even as many New Yorkers contemplated leaving — or did leave — we knew we couldn’t leave Harlem, a place that has music and dignity, and whose people have each other. Now, more than ever, I need to be here, helping people, feeding every hungry mouth I can.

So this has become my new normal: walking to work, phone in hand, juggling calls while making sure we have the kitchen team up and ready to serve, and making family meal when I can. Robert is managing the line and making sure people are social distancing; after they leave, he’s on cleanup, too. Jamie, our server, is talking to people like she would when she worked the line at Ginny’s. “Come on over, honey,” she tells them. She also talks them through the ins and outs of social distancing, and how they have to keep six feet apart while waiting for their meals. We have Courtney expediting, and she’s quick: “Chef! Two top, three top, four top!”

The people who stand on line tell us how many are in their own families — two, four, six — and we give them what they need. On a fast day, 1,000 meals are served in an hour and 45 minutes. And every day, I ask myself: How can we serve more people?

The answer is that we can’t do it alone. We can serve more by enlisting more restaurants to cook alongside us to serve our community. World Central Kitchen has brought on neighborhood restaurants like LoLo’s Seafood Shack, Vinateria, and Melba’s, friends and partners that have long been a part of Harlem EatUp! — our annual festival celebrating the food, culture, and spirit of Harlem. Building a network of restaurants in our community means we can meet the growing demand of those in need: All in all, 3,000 to 4,000 people a day can now be fed in Harlem through World Central Kitchen.

This is happening as the restaurant industry takes baby steps toward a new normal. Three months into the pandemic, people are tired and scared — of working and of not working. We’ve got gloves and masks on, but the fear is there; my cooks have families to go home to, too. But everybody knows that we have to stand together or we’re all going to fall apart. The pandemic has cast a searing light on how interdependent we are. As we have been forced to be socially distant, we have also been made painfully aware of how much we need one another to survive and thrive.

We’ve been able to rehire employees at all three of my restaurants. At the Marcus B & P in Newark, we pay $20 per hour. That’s almost double New Jersey’s minimum wage of $11 per hour, because we know essential workers deserve higher pay while putting their health on the line, and coming as close we can to paying people their worth is part of how we climb back from this crisis — and also begin to address the issues of economic justice and fair pay, which go to the heart of the sweeping systems that the ongoing protests aim to address.

Right now, so much is unknown. I don’t know what is coming, for the Red Rooster or the world, or what the new New York is going to look like. But one thing I know is that I’m still serving customers. And in getting to know these new regulars, I know that who and how we serve will be changed forever. Restaurants were built to restore, which is why we won’t stop serving the neediest when the pandemic ends. Building partnerships like the ones we have with World Central Kitchen, Citymeals on Wheels — which I’ve worked with for years — and local food banks is something that will grow and evolve so that our kitchens can continue to be of service to the most vulnerable in our communities, particularly as the pandemic continues to reveal who is most at risk, from both the disease and our country’s systemic racism.

Service. Community. Unity. That’s what I saw in the sea of people who gathered to peacefully protest that afternoon. That’s what gives me strength at a time when it has felt so hopeless. Our community has taken shape and come together within my industry too, most visibly in the recent creation of the Independent Restaurant Coalition. With my Black chef brothers and sisters, Melba, Mashama, Nina, Kwame, JJ, Nyesha, we call upon each other. We share stories, we compare notes, and we enjoy the gratification of being able to tap into a network beyond our own kitchens.

Now, more than ever, that kind of network is vital for helping to promote practices like more inclusive, local hiring. Our kitchens must reflect our community from the inside out. It’s our responsibility, but also our opportunity, to have a broader and more inclusive vision for both who we serve and how we rebuild our businesses. We each have our job to do, our voice to raise, our strength to give.

Marcus Samuelsson is the James Beard Award-winning chef behind restaurants including Red Rooster Harlem and Marcus B&P in Newark, New Jersey, as well as the author of Yes, Chef and the Red Rooster Cookbook: the Story of Food and Hustle in Harlem.

Disclosure: Marcus Samuelsson is the host of No Passport Required, a series produced by Eater and PBS. This does not impact coverage on Eater.