Standing in the bustling downstairs kitchen, trying to keep clear of the fast-moving brigade preparing for Thursday night’s gala, Marcus Samuelsson looks absolutely calm and relaxed. It’s as though he knows the machinery is already humming down in the Howard Theatre’s kitchen, the (so far) under-appreciated part of the historic building’s rebirth in Shaw.
Samuelsson — the James Beard award winner, the cookbook author, the restaurateur, the White House state dinner chef — has no desire to stand in the shadow of the Howard Theatre stage, where jazz pioneers, soul legends and classic rock dinosaurs will assemble in the coming weeks.
“It’s important to have a menu that feels like a restaurant’s,” Samuelsson says. “It has options just like restaurants, not just the classic wings and you’re done.”
“Customers today demand, ‘Hey, give me something that I’m inspired by. Give me something that I want to order,’ ” the chef continues. “Here, it was really challenging to give them something that, ‘Hey, I’m seeing something that’s world-class. I want something to eat that is world-class at the same time.’ ”
“Our aim,” Samuelsson adds, “is to be known as a dining destination. As the musicians in the theater are probably aiming for the same thing, but collectively we’re trying to be a landmark place where people can come for food, hospitality and entertainment.”
Samuelsson calls the dinner menu at the Howard “modern American,” because it is influenced both by American regional cuisines and international flavors. Its options flit from crab cakes with curry sauce to blackened catfish to coconut lentils to fried chicken to steak frites with a bearnaise sauce infused with the Ethiopian berbere spice blend. In a way, the menu is a reflection of the chef himself: He’s an Ethiopian by birth, but grew up in Sweden and has become a huge success in America.
“It’s an American tale that we’re telling, and America today is a diverse nation,” Samuelsson says. “So [the menu] has for me some Southern roots, but it’s really where the South and North meet in many ways.”
“Some of the menu came from the music inspiration,” the chef says, pointing out the chicken and waffles, which was born from America’s late-night jazz culture. “Some came from where we are. Some came from the immigrant [experience]. Some came being close to the coast.”
While Samuelsson has created the menus — which include a “Standing Room Menu” for shows that will pack more than 1,000 souls into the theater — Howard Theatre executive chef Aaron Flores will be responsible for executing it. Flores’s background includes stints at places large and small, including Walt Disney hotels and Finn & Porter.
So how did Samuelsson decide on Flores?
“First of all, you need a leader. You need somebody who’s also positive while leading the team,” Samuelsson says. “There's a lot of stuff going on, but you don’t see him screaming or shouting or anything like that. He’s here, and he has a presence. These are young people, these are old people, these are people with different experiences, different languages. . . . The iron fist has to be different here. Your message has to come through different. He exudes confidence without being arrogant. He’s a teacher. He’s a leader.”
He’s also a great chef, Samuelsson is quick to add.
For his part, Flores says that he’s already sourcing most of the menu from local purveyors. “There were some things on this menu that were real hard to get in D.C. But I’m telling you that we found it,” Flores says.
“Injera was a little hard to find, but there’s a restaurant three doors down from here. The gentleman is the nicest fellow. I met him. We broke a little bread together, had a little something to eat. I bought some injera,” Flores adds. “We were actually finding the hard-to-find things in the neighborhood.”
The Howard Theatre gig is unusual for Samuelsson and his restaurant group. It’s not quite a full-time restaurant, and it’s not quite a banquet operation. It’s a high-volume, a la carte restaurant that will operate only when there’s a show at the Howard. It requires not only the culinary touch of an established chef but also the fast-moving skills of a high-volume restaurant. Nils Noren and Christina Wang, operational and strategy executives with Samuelsson’s group, have been on the ground at the Howard for weeks training the kitchen staff of 25 (which can expand or contract, depending on demand) and establishing systems.
“For this context, for this venue, you want to set routines,” Samuelsson says. “That’s the most important thing: It’s timing in terms of food, in terms of music, in terms of so many other things.
“I’m sure once we have the routines down and everyone knows exactly how the system works, then, like in any kitchen, everybody has a chance to play a little bit,” the chef adds.
Why did Samuelsson decide to take on such a demanding role?
“Howard Theatre has an incredible history, and there’s a lot of value in this neighborhood coming back to visit this theater,.” says Samuelsson who also operates the Red Rooster in Harlem. “Red Rooster is part of bringing that community back. It's nice to do something that has wings beyond just the regular kitchen.”