Anyone who has been to Marcus Samuelsson’s Harlem restaurant Red Rooster knows that the chef doesn’t do anything halfway. Why merely play music in a restaurant when you can transform your front room into a club once a week? If your short ribs are beloved by Barack Obama, don’t you have to say that on the menu? So it makes sense that after writing seven books, Samuelsson would be ready to try out something completely new. In collaboration with Audible, Samuelsson’s newest project is an audio cookbook called Our Harlem, available on the company’s app.
Samuelsson spent years planning and refining The Red Rooster Cookbook, released in 2016, with recipes for the restaurant’s buttermilk-marinated fried chicken, mac and greens, shrimp and grits, and Obama-approved short ribs. When it came time to think about what was next, he wanted to go even bigger. “When we wrote The Red Rooster Cookbook, I was very clear about how I wanted it to be more than a cookbook—something that represented the community in a much larger and deeper way,” the chef said in a recent phone interview. “The two-point-oh version of that was ‘kitchen listening.’ [But I also] really want to take the listener with me on a journey that explains what this iconic place looks like.”
What separates an audio cookbook from, say, a food podcast is structure and craft. Each installment of Our Harlem represents one day spent meandering in the city, and features the voices of residents and experts ranging from the New Yorker’s Jelani Cobbto writer Isabel Wilkerson and poet Kevin Young. Samuelsson and the Audible team spent a few years working on it, writing the scripts, recording the interviews, and throwing events that serve as anchors for the episodes. Each one includes Samuelsson talking through the process of cooking a dish. Since the average listener likely doesn’t have the speed of a well-trained professional, all the recipes are available in text form as well.
“We talked a lot about how could we involve all the senses,” he said. “Food and cooking is rhythmic to me, and these sounds you can pick up, whether it’s frying or whether it’s searing. Those are opportunities that can become much more lively in an audio cookbook than a regular cookbook.” In the first episode, the hot oil hisses and pops while Samuelsson gives instructions on how to know when fried chicken is done.
Samuelsson was born in Ethiopia and raised in Sweden, but he has genuine love for the neighborhood where he has lived since 2003. Ultimately, his foray into audio storytelling is an homage to the lessons he’s learned in his adopted home. “Once you understand Harlem, you very much understand America, because—within our village—that’s what America looks like. It has entrepreneurship, an enormous level of pride in the community, and new people coming into it, all of the above,” he said. “It represents the past, the present, and the future, hopefully.”