From Har­lem to Over­town

Chef Mar­cus Sa­muels­son open­ing ‘com­fort food’ restau­rant

Sun Sentinel Broward Edition - Showtime - Broward - - SPOTLIGHT - By Kelli Kennedy

Mi­ami is try­ing to re­build a neigh­bor­hood that was once a vi­brant cen­ter for black cul­ture, and a celebrity chef is con­tribut­ing what he does best: food.

Mar­cus Sa­muels­son has bought a for­mer pool hall in Over­town and plans to open a restau­rant there later this year.

A re­de­vel­op­ment board is al­ready pour­ing tens of mil­lions of dol­lars into Over­town, but Sa­muels­son is the first celebrity to make a com­mit­ment there. He bought the build­ing for $1.5 mil­lion while turn­ing down op­por­tu­ni­ties in Mi­ami Beach.

Sa­muels­son’s cui­sine and phi­los­o­phy is a study in cul­tural fu­sion, much like the man him­self. He was born in Ethiopia and raised by white adop­tive par­ents in Swe­den. He first made a name for him­self with up­scale Scan­di­na­vian fare at Man­hat­tan’s chic Aqua­vit restau­rant in the 1990s. A James Beard Award win­ner, his celebrity grew with ap­pear­ances on Food Net­work shows.

Then, in 2010, just as Har­lem started gen­tri­fy­ing, Sa­muels­son opened a restau­rant there called Red Rooster. It was an im­me­di­ate hit. He made an art of turn­ing South­ern soul food into hip ur­ban fare, of­fered gospel brunches and or­ga­nized food fes­ti­vals. More re­cently, he opened Mar­cus B&P in down­town Ne­wark, an area that is also in the early stages of a come­back.

“There’s a link­age be­tween Over­town and Har­lem, and I want to be part of that,” Sa­muels­son says.

His Over­town eatery will hire from the com­mu­nity, of­fer in­tern­ships and fea­ture lo­cal artists on the walls. “Through art, you learn a nar­ra­tive about peo­ple’s jour­ney. Mu­sic does that. Food does that. Art does that,” he says.

Over­town is sand­wiched be- tween swanky down­town Mi­ami high-rises and artsy Wyn­wood with its shops, bars and worl­drenowned street art. De­spite the prime lo­ca­tion, though, Over­town has suf­fered from a lack of in­vest­ment and higher-than-av­er­age crime rates.

In its prime, Over­town was known as a “Lit­tle Broad­way” of the South. Black stars such as Louis Arm­strong, Nat King Cole, Sammy Davis Jr. and Bil­lie Hol­i­day per­formed at Over­town’s Lyric Theater. And even when they were per­form­ing else­where, they stayed in Over­town’s black­owned ho­tels be­cause ho­tels in Mi­ami’s white neigh­bor­hoods would not ac­com­mo­date them.

In the 1960s, two ex­press­ways built through the heart of the neigh­bor­hood dis­placed thou­sands of res­i­dents, con­tribut­ing to Over­town’s de­cline. Then, in 1980, three days of ri­ots in Over­town left 18 dead, 400 in­jured and $100 mil­lion in dam­age. The protests were sparked by the ac­quit­tal of four white police of­fi­cers in the fa­tal beat­ing of a black in­sur­ance sales­man.

But the neigh­bor­hood is poised for a turn­around. “You are part of a re­nais­sance that’s go­ing to mean the most for this neigh­bor­hood,” re­de­vel­op­ment board chair­man Keon Harde­mon told 200 peo­ple at an out­door lun­cheon across the street from where Sa­muels­son’s restau­rant will be lo­cated. “We want this place to truly be the Har­lem of the South.”

The sold-out, $135-a-per­son pre­view of Sa­muels­son’s plans at­tracted politi­cians and the owner of an MLB fran­chise. Trays of fried chicken and waf­fles with smoked maple syrup were served with short ribs, shrimp and grits, dirty-rice frit­ters, col­lard greens and corn­bread with to­mato jam.

Be­yond the bar­ri­cades sur­round­ing the well-heeled cel­e­bra­tion, life­long Over­town res­i­dent Dwayne Rig­gins, 50, parked his bi­cy­cle and watched. His dad owned a soul food restau­rant just down the street. He points out the empty lot where a phar­macy used to be. He said he likes the new high-rises be­ing built. “Some peo­ple might not ap­prove, but it’s time for Over­town to change. It’s been down and out all our lives,” Rig­gins says.

Rudy Lorenzo, who owns a con­ve­nience store, hopes the changes will at­tract a bet­ter­pay­ing clien­tele, but warns matter-of-factly that the lo­cals “are go­ing to get pushed out ... They aren’t go­ing to be able to af­ford the new apart­ments.”

That’s an is­sue that has af­fected many cities around the coun­try, as res­i­dents who lived through years of ne­glect get priced out when things re­bound.

Bubba Haynes has lived in Over­town for 55 years. He did con­struc­tion years ago on build­ings near the Lyric Theater. Now, he’s re­tired and helps at his son’s re­tail store. “With growth, you take a lot of this crime out of here, but then you’re go­ing to lose a lot of the his­tory,” he says.

Sa­muels­son hopes to re­flect some of that his­tory along with con­tem­po­rary lo­cal cul­ture when he opens his restau­rant. He doesn’t have a menu yet, call­ing that “the fun part.” His Har­lem menu in­cludes corn­bread and his Swedish grand­mother’s meat­balls. His Ne­wark restau­rant in­fuses pasta with Ethiopian fla­vors in a dish called dorowat ri­ga­toni.

“I’m go­ing to come down a lot, and I’m go­ing to learn his­tor­i­cally what was here, what’s rel­e­vant right now,” he says. “I know it’s go­ing to be com­fort food.”

RICHARD VINES/BLOOMBERG

Mar­cus Sa­muels­son at his Red Rooster restau­rant in Lon­don. Sa­muels­son plans to open a restau­rant by the end of 2018 in Mi­ami.

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