NEWARK, NJ — Acclaimed celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson knows what he wants and he knows how to get it.
He helped Harlem, long the hub of African-American culture, become happening again with a pair of successful restaurants that are contributing to the revitalization of the famed Manhattan neighborhood.
Samuelsson is rolling the dice by opening a new restaurant in Newark, now undergoing its own revival.
But for the culinary king of Harlem, coming to New Jersey's largest city is no gamble. Instead, it's a sure thing.
"It's easy to be drawn to Newark for things that I've been drawn to — the diversity, the music, the Ironbound, to the amazing food here," Samuelsson told TAPinto Newark at the jam-packed official opening debut last week of Marcus B&P, located at 56 Halsey Street on the main lane of a downtown Newark, now exploding with new life after decades of dormancy.
"We're just adding on in the neighborhood one more establishment that can help be here for the community," he said.
Judging from the jam-packed crowd at Marcus B&P, which had its soft opening several weeks ago, the arrival of a Samuelsson-run restaurant to Newark is not just adding on on more establishment to Halsey Street.
Waiters balanced trays of Samuelsson's signature fried chicken, mini-cornbread and brick-oven pizza through a sea of people spilling out into the hall outside one of the restaurant's door.
The pedestrian walkway was transformed into a pulsating club, with a party jazz band driving crowd members to dance. The open bar serving craft cocktails such as the Newark Jump Off — a combination of ginger whiskey, shaved nutmeg, ginger infused syrup, and house-made sour mix — also helped let the good times roll deep into the evening.
Several of those attending the Marcus B&P party — the restaurant name a reference to the Swedish concept of “back pocket,” an accessible and casual place — believe that the new dining spot will further open up Newark for after-5 p.m. fun.
"This means we'll have a nightlife," said Marty Weber, owner of the Green Chicpea restaurant, just steps away on Halsey Street. "Places like this keep the stores open, and gives me the hope that I can also stay open later."
"We need vibrancy and nightlife," said Rosa Hyde, who works in the arts education department of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC). "We had it before downtown, but it's been a while. I'm hoping it's back."
"Newark has been getting better, and it's been drawing in more people," said Jim Pise, who came down from his Clifton hometown to watch his son play in the jazz band. "This is a good sign of that happening."
"I really feel like this is it for Newark. Someone like Marcus being here means so much to the community," said Andres Jimenez, who runs a branding and marketing firm in Newark that designed the logo for the new restaurant. "He brings an amazing energy and an international flavor to the city. He connects everything and everybody. That's why I'm here."
The hype that halos around Samuelsson is backed up by facts that together make for a great life story.
Both in Ethiopia and raised in Sweden after being separated from his family during his homeland's civil war, Samuelson, 46, became interested in cooking from an early age. He worked his way quickly up the gourmet ladder, becoming the executive chef of the celebrated Aquavit restaurant in Manhattan by the age of 24.
During his tenure as executive chef, he received an impressive three-star rating from the New York Times, the youngest person ever to receive such an accolade, as well as his first of five James Beard Awards. An international restaurateur, he has 32 restaurant locations spanning the United States, Sweden, Norway, and Bermuda.
His best known restaurants in America, Red Rooster and Streetbird, are both in Harlem and are devoted to imbuing African-American comfort food with a range of global culinary influences. A prominent example of this multicultural mix on the Marcus B&P menu is the fried chicken served with plantain waffles, Escovitch vegetables and hot honey.
Samuelsson's surge into Newark is another part of his building an epicurean empire.
The building that he chose to place his new Newark restaurant is both iconic and symbolic: the recently refurbished Hahne & Co. building. The 1901 building is a landmark of Newark's storied past that was left for dead, then brought back to life as a repurposed multi-use building that combines living spaces with retail, academic and public spaces.
Marcus B&P faces the Halsey Street side of the building, while the upscale Whole Foods market faces the Broad Street side.
The Hahne's building is directly across from the recently-renovated Military Park, which is now ringed by the NJPAC, a refurbished Robert Treat Hotel, the new Prudential Tower and a Starbucks coffee shop, with other development projects in the works. It is two blocks away from Rutgers-Newark, which just opened a new bookstore in the Hahne's building.
Marcus B&P's entry into this explosion of redevelopment led some of the opening night partygoers to pause and reflect about if what is happening to downtown Newark is revitalization, or gentrification.
"There are different layers and levels to this which depend on income and accessibility to housing," said Gary Campbell, 59, a photographer and videographer who lives in the city's North Ward. "If you're doing well, this is not gentrification. It's the good part of Newark that's developing. But if you're uneducated, or you're homeless, or you live in one of the outer wards, it's the same story, basically. Nothing has changed."
"Can these people in the outer wards of the city, can they get the jobs they need to afford living in Newark, including down here? Do they get the education they need to get those jobs? That's the biggest question," added Campbell. "And whatever's happening at those levels, it's not happening with the same speed and energy that you see in this environment here. This is real, but it's not real for everybody."
According to native Newarker Jerry Gant, however, Marcus B&P's role in transforming the city is especially real for those who have been here for decades.
"I'v seen how things rise and fall," said Gant, 56, who watched Newark burn as a little boy during the 1967 riot that almost destroyed the city's civic fabric. "This is more than a rise. This is something that has been germinating for 50 years for those who paved the way and sacrificed so we could see the manifestation of that rise. And here we are."
Samuelsson said he is in Newark to stay.
"This is a humble journey. We're here to take care of the food and to make people happy," said Samuelsson before he went back to watch over the kitchen. "To me, success is to open, then learn the neighborhood and be a part of it. This all takes time."
"This is not a New York City restaurant. This is a restaurant in and of Newark, from its staff, from its core, and its culture," Samuelsson continued. "It's all about your work ethic. Getting up in the morning is pressure. I work really hard to create something that people want to be around. Hopefully people can enjoy their community through our restaurant. We wouldn't be in Newark without this community. And now we're a part of it."