Cooking for Obama: Red Rooster Harlem Staffer Dishes on Serving the President

You may not be the POTUS, but you can dine like him at Red Rooster Harlem.

If you were anywhere near New York and its food scene Tuesday evening, you were well aware that the most powerful man in the world (No, not Matthew Weiner!) was attending a political fundraiser at Red Rooster Harlem, Chef Marcus Samuelsson’s new-ish restaurant uptown. Friend of OpenTable and would-be Top Cheftestant (and former culinary school classmate of yours truly) Ed Hardy was behind the line that night, and he shared his thoughts on what it’s like to cook for the President of the United States (again…see last response).

Hi again, Ed! So, first up, how long have you been working at Red Rooster Harlem? Tell us a bit about the restaurant and Chef Samuelsson’s cuisine?

Red Rooster opened in mid-December, and I’ve been working there since mid-January. I’ve worked for Chef Samuelsson before at Aquavit, so I was familiar with his cuisine. The restaurant impressed me from the moment I walked in, with its bold challenge to menu conventions and conventional Manhattan wisdom about location. As a former Aquavit chef and a native Southerner, it was easy for me to wrap my head around the Swedish and comfort food dishes on Chef Samuelsson’s menu. It’s also exciting for me to be able to experience and use some of the African spices that he brings to the table.

You worked the fundraiser for President Obama at Red Rooster on Tuesday night. For a chef, I imagine this is akin to getting to shake the President’s hand when you’re a youngster. How proud are you to have participated?

Very proud, indeed. It’s one thing to cook for a president at the White House or an event; it’s another honor entirely when the President and his advisors make a special trip to the restaurant I’m at every day.

Did everyone at Red Rooster want to be there? How did you get picked?

Not everyone at Red Rooster was there, but I’m pretty sure everyone wanted to be there. We have quite a large staff because we’re open for fairly long hours, and most of those hours the restaurant is packed full of diners. If we had the entire staff on for this event, the back-of-the-house would have been so packed with people in chef jackets that we wouldn’t have been able to move, much less put food on a plate!

So, did you serve dishes from the regular menu? Any specials?

The cornbread at the beginning and the sweet potato doughnuts at the end were straight from our regular menu. The lobster salad was very similar to the one we serve regularly, and we were able to add a special hot biscuit that our pastry folks have been perfecting. The short rib was a celebration of early spring onions and, along with the rhubarb compote in the dessert, gave a little touch of the new season.

What’s the vibe like in the kitchen? Quiet anticipation? Anxious? Excited? I tend to imagine Chef Samuelsson as a rather cool cucumber in the kitchen. Also, he’s no rube, being a celeb chef and all.

The emotions were all over the place. All of the above — and more. There definitely was some quiet and not-so-quiet anxiety. In these kinds of situations, I feel it’s my role as one of the more experienced chefs to project an aura of calmness and serenity, even if I know that I’m actually in trouble. Think of it as a yin / yang thing. You could light me on fire and I would deny that I smelled smoke if I thought it would balance out a given situation. Chef Samuelsson has cooked for the President before, so he was definitely in a comfort zone. It’s amazing to watch Chef Marcus at Red Rooster, especially during occasions like these; it seems as though he’s in three different places at once, yet always in control and willing to get input from his staff.

Did you see him/meet the President? Did he poke his head in the kitchen?

Unfortunately, no. He had a very busy schedule.

True. His departure at JFK delayed my bestie’s landing that very night. So, you’re not just cooking for the POTUS — you’re cooking to help raise money and honor folks who were quite generous. How much does that dictate the menu?

Restaurants operate on such thin margins all the time. It’s nice to get a little breathing room, in terms of ingredients and cost. That doesn’t mean that we abandoned Red Rooster’s core sensibilities of rustic, down-to-earth, local ingredients and blew gold dust and truffles all over the place. It just means we were able to put elements on a plate that we wanted without having to consult a balance sheet.

Which dishes did you help serve? And did Chef Samuelsson plate the Obamas’ plates himself?

It’s a very “democratic” (!) kitchen, so almost everyone contributes to every plate in one way or another. Chef Samuelsson and our executive chef Andrea Bergquist worked on the President’s plates. He ordered a couple items off the special fundraising menu. I’d tell you what they were, but I’m afraid the Secret Service would have me sliced and diced. Remember what happened with President George H. W. Bush and the Broccoli lobby?

Any final thoughts about the experience?

When I left politics for the food world, I thought I’d never go back, but I now realize there might be a way to combine my two interests. Food Republic, the new website that Chef Samuelsson co-founded, has a Politics section that I hope I can contribute to.

Also, Obama was the second president I had the honor of cooking for. In Philadelphia I cooked for George H. Dub. (I also carved prime rib for Governor Ed Rendell, and we shared the secret Ed-Handshake. Chef Ed Cotton knows what I’m talking about.)