Red Rooster Overtown Didn’t Open as Planned. Instead, It’s Even Better
How renowned chef Marcus Samuelsson changed course to support historic Overtown during the pandemic
Chef Marcus Samuelsson sensed a bit of deja vu when he first meandered through Miami’s historic Overtown, with rows of low-slung brick buildings lining its main street. Sure, it was more humid than what he’s used to in Harlem, and there was no spire of the Empire State Building peeking over the skyline. But there was a kinship he felt about the place that he couldn’t shake.
“I live in Harlem, and there's a lot of similarities,” he said. “Of course, we're in Florida and tropical environments, but there are some similarities with the history of walking in an iconic African American neighborhood.”
When Samuelsson, 49, began considering Overtown for a new outpost of his acclaimed restaurant Red Rooster more than four years ago, he hadn’t spent much time in this small, storied Miami neighborhood. It’s not surprising, however, that it felt familiar.
Overtown, sandwiched between Downtown Miami and Wynwood, was created because of Jim Crow laws, which mandated the establishment of Black-only neighborhoods. At its inception in 1896, the area that would come to be known as Overtown housed the African American workers building Henry Flagler’s railroad, but as it grew, it became an epicenter of Black music, literature, food, business and culture. Once known as the "Broadway of the South," this neighborhood welcomed the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole and Billie Holiday in its heyday. Today, the streets still hum with a vibrancy born of the community's Black roots, but unlike Harlem, Overtown has not been revitalized. Much of the town’s residents were displaced in the 1960s when construction of I-95 and I-395 tore through the heart of the community. And nearly 40 percent of residents live in poverty, according to a 2016 study from the FIU Metropolitan Center.
To be part of this sort of second renaissance of Overtown and create jobs in Overtown, it's something that I take a lot of pride in.
— Chef Marcus Samuelsson
Samuelsson, who’s amassed several James Beard Awards over the years and appeared on Chopped, Iron Chef, Top Chef and more, opened the original Red Rooster Harlem in late 2010. The New York soul food staple has been celebrated for preserving the city's African American history from a menu that sings of the neighborhood's culture to the art of the African diaspora that hangs on the walls. Not only is Red Rooster an ode to those who laid the cultural foundation of Harlem, it's also meant to build community by hiring locally and boosting the economy. Now, Samuelsson brings those same efforts to Overtown, which finds itself at a crossroads much like Harlem did: in need of an economic revival that doesn't sacrifice its culture—a need that's only been magnified by the pandemic.
“Overtown, it's an iconic African American community. It's really the head of where entertainment lived in Miami for many, many decades,” Samuelsson said. “So to be part of this sort of second renaissance of Overtown and create jobs in Overtown, it's something that I take a lot of pride in.”
While the two neighborhoods share similar storylines, the restaurateur wants to honor their differences. Situated in the former Clyde Killens Pool Hall, the Overtown restaurant features a 30-foot-tall tamarind tree that's been in the neighborhood for over 50 years. The menu shines with culinary creations influenced by Afro-Caribbean and Floridian flavors from crispy boneless chicken and bird of paradise–style tamarind cabbage slaw to Samuelsson’s legendary cornbread, whose brown edges pull from the the pan when it's perfectly baked. Every detail is curated to give this Red Rooster experience a distinctly Overtown flavor.
THROWING OUT THE PLAN
At the beginning of March, all 209 seats were set for the grand opening of this hopeful hot spot. With the menu perfected, finishing touches completed and 90 employees trained, COVID-19 hit. Businesses shuttered, and mass layoffs swept the nation. Samuelsson had to adapt, quick.
“To have that pulled away from us, it was really a punch that I never thought we would come back from,” he said.
And they didn’t—at least not in the way originally planned.
Instead, Samuelsson refocused on Red Rooster Overtown’s mission: helping residents. He partnered with Food Rescue U.S. and chef José Andrés to become an outpost for Andrés's World Central Kitchen nonprofit, an organization that feeds communities in the wake of disasters.
To have that pulled away from us, it was really a punch that I never thought we would come back from.
— Chef Marcus Samuelsson
By the end of March, the Red Rooster Overtown kitchen was up and running—not serving up signature Samuelsson dishes, but instead cooking free meals for the hungry Overtown community.
“It's been the toughest thing we've ever done, but also one of the most rewarding,” he said. “I feel like we've connected to the city in a way that takes much longer for other restaurants. We're connected in a way that we couldn't have imagined because of that.”
The Red Rooster chefs and volunteers at the Harlem and Overtown locations had served over 110,000 meals by the end of June and built meaningful relationships with the locals at the new restaurant, Samuelsson said.
Red Rooster Overtown hasn’t placed opening plans entirely on the backburner. The adjacent dessert shop, The Creamery, celebrated its grand opening on June 19, not coincidentally the same day the U.S. celebrates Juneteenth. Although it doesn’t offer everything that will be on the neighboring Red Rooster menu, it gave Miamians a taste of what’s to come, including the Bird Dog, a crispy chicken tender sandwich with a Florida flair that Samuelsson can’t wait for people to dig into. Unfortunately, the recent uptick of COVID-19 cases in Florida forced The Creamery to pause operations until it’s safe to resume.
Opening a new restaurant is always fraught with challenges. But if coronavirus wasn’t enough added pressure, community leaders are predicting that Samuelsson’s Red Rooster will transform Overtown into the “Harlem of the South.” No pressure, right?
The lauded chef isn’t concerned with whether or not he’ll be able to replicate his Harlem sensation in Overtown, because he doesn’t want to. “Overtown is Overtown,” he said.