This week has marked the reopening of Shaw's historic Howard Theatre — that which once hosted the likes of Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Chuck Brown and the Supremes. We learned back in February that New York chef Marcus Samuelsson was teaming up with the theatre to consult on the dinner menu and gospel brunch, and now it's here with shows open to the public serving Samuelsson's full menu available. Plus Sunday marks the debut of gospel brunch with the Harlem Gospel Choir. In the following interview, Samuelsson talks about the importance of the Howard Theatre, the menu he has planned, and what he thinks of DC as he embarks on his first project here.
How did you get involved with the Howard Theatre?
I'm super excited to be involved with Howard. The history of Howard is pretty significant and incredible. I see a lot of similarities. Red Rooster is in Harlem. It's where you jump swing and Apollo and the cultural institutions like Studio Museum. Red Rooster being there, I've been part of that neighborhood, change in the fabrics of that neighborhood. If you look at Howard Theatre and this community, what the theatre is doing to put jobs in and how the community is changing. For my team to be part of that, that's fantastic. I'm a huge believer through food and through culture can you really start changing things. It's a window into the community. And it's something I'm really excited to be part of.
Have you gotten to experience a lot in this community?
I don't know how many times I've been to DC. As an Ethiopian it's always been Ethiopia's Mecca of great Ethiopian food in DC, so I know that community pretty well. And there's a big Swedish community here, too. But also I've been lucky enough to work at the White House a bunch of times and learn about politics. It's just an amazing city. To work here has been a great opportunity for me. Not only for me but for the team. They basically moved here.
But this project, I love to work with something that honors the past but also looks in the future. Here, the food is part of what's going to make this magical. But it's the theatre, it's the music, it's the sound, it's the hospitality. Where else can you have an incredible show, fantastic sound, great hospitality, great food in one night? Before it was, "Do I eat after or before I go to the show?" Today you can do both. It's not just rare for DC. It's rare anywhere. That's what excited me about being involved with Howard and the incredible history that Howard has. That's really been an honor to be part of something that has a sense of history. You can just feel how much passion people here have about it. So you have to honor that and do a great job.
And how did your menu-planning go?
First of all, you have 600 seats or 1,100 stand-up. I've never done a stand-up menu before, which is great fun. I wanted to do something that was rooted in America, what America is today, which is mixed and diverse. Yet rooted in African American history, which Howard Theatre's history is so much rooted in. So a hint of that African American history, looking forward but also looking in the past. Also where we are, it's sort of where north meets south, right? So there's the crab cakes and then you have something like the shrimp 'n grits. Then we have the fried chicken, again, a Southern influence. And then also what feels right to eat at a venue like this, we knew we had to have the great burgers. When you get an assignment like this, part is to understand the history.
What challenges did a stand-up menu present?
Go back to your own childhood or if you would come in with a family. Popcorn would be fun to have, but a new version of them. It's looking at it sort of from that point of view where it seems fitting. It's not just, "This is the menu I'm going to do." No, you have to look at what is the place, what hour of the day and what is the venue. In every restaurant opportunity, there's always, you can't just say, "Here's my five best appetizers and my five best main courses." That doesn't work. You have to look at what else, what is the North Star. Here you have a stage that's happening there. We're a big part of that experience.
With the music, is there any logistics with service to consider?
We decided to serve throughout the performances. There's a lot of distance. We have to think about that a lot. Where you came from the kitchen to where we are now is a long distance. So it will take time. In many ways we build it like a regular restaurant, but we're also a little bit different. The logistics. But overall, all of those things took place when I decided what menu we were going to have. In the end of the day, it has to be delicious and yummy.
How about the gospel brunch?
I love gospel brunch. We have a pretty mean gospel brunch back home. I think there's a lot of incredible food items that stem from African American heritage and why not celebrate that?
Is there much that will be similar on the menu from your other restaurants?
No. Each restaurant is different and each restaurant needs to have its own signature. Ultimately the guests will drive what eventually becomes this thing. What you think of the signature of the chef and the restaurant, it's not always the same thing. But this is a unique place, historical place where the family is very important, the community is very important. Entertainment, hospitality. I really feel honored to be part of something that is rooted in history.
How often will you be in town?
Obviously we have an executive chef here and we need to make sure that the menu works really well and the audience are really responding to it so far by all the tastings and all the small events before opening. But it's like opening any restaurant. It's a little bit difficult in the beginning because there's a lot of staffing. Just look around, there's going to be people everywhere. But we've done this before, we have a lot of experience to pull off and we're going to work hard. This is a celebration. We've worked really hard to come to this point. We have a great team in place that we worked really hard to get. Plus, with the Blue Note team, they booked some incredible performances. So it's a combination between incredible performances with the food and the hospitality that makes this Howard Theatre really unique.
You touched on this a little before, but the DC dining scene has grown quite a bit. What are your thoughts on that?
I think it's a great food scene. You have very established chefs like José [Andrés] now and Michel Richard and then you have a lot of young chefs coming up. And with this international community, with all the embassies, you can have great Indian food and great Ethiopian food. And then also being so close to the country, in a sense, you can have farm-to-table work really, really well. It's now coming into its full potential, which is amazing as a world-class city as DC should be.
And where do you usually eat when you're here?
Usually when I'm here I work. But I love eating Ethiopian food here because the best Ethiopian food outside Ethiopia is in Washington, DC. You get real teff injera. You have also not just best of Ethiopian restaurants, you also have ethnic, small Ethiopian restaurants. Restaurants with just tartar or just this, which you don't find anywhere else. I think you can go to Dukem and it's a pretty solid choice for anybody that's never been.
Well, thanks for your time. Can't wait to see how everything goes.
It's fun and we are humbled and we are new. You've got to crawl, you've got to walk and then you can run.