Eating with your eyes has never been more delicious, as art and design have become essential ingredients for top New York chefs and restaurateurs who are crafting immersive rooms to showcase the cultural heritage behind their cuisine.
Marcus Samuelsson, the award-winning Ethiopian-born Swedish-American chef, has always made cultural storytelling and showcasing Black art signature elements in his restaurants. His Harlem restaurant, Red Rooster, was an unrivaled rarity that equally channeled the neighborhood’s past and present. For Hav & Mar, his latest venture, in Chelsea’s landmark Starrett-Lehigh building, Samuelsson enlisted the creative partnership of interior design firm Atelier Zébulon Perron, along with critically acclaimed artist Derrick Adams and Thelma Golden, the director and chief curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem, to create original site-specific and specially curated artwork throughout the restaurant.
The restaurant’s soaring interior recounts the rich landscapes of Samuelsson’s heritage—the organic textures and warm palette of Africa juxtaposed with the stark minimalism of the western Swedish coast. Echoing this marriage of land and sea is Adams’s We Are from the Water, Too. This series of seven-and-a-half-foot sculptures depicting Black mermaids, a mythological creature with a deep lineage in both African and Haitian culture, is central to the narrative of the space and globally inspired seafood-driven menu. “I wanted to create something that was so mystical and so opulent and textured that it can also be used as a light to draw people in, to set a tone and a mood for the restaurant that’s not just about service; it’s about imagination,” says Adams. “While many think that the idea of Blackness is based on the earth, the physical ground, the laboring part of soil, and the foundation—which is true—we are also from the water.”
For Jungyun “JP” and Ellia Park, the husband-and-wife duo behind two of the world’s most renowned Korean restaurants (Atomix and Atoboy), their newest undertaking, at Rockefeller Center—NARO—is a nuanced exploration of identity through contemporary expressions of traditional Korean design, craft, and cuisine. Just as the food is rooted in centuries-old recipes and techniques, the futuristic interior by Seoul-based design firm Studio Writers is steeped in tradition and a study in elegant discipline. There are references to Korean cultural and decorative history throughout the mostly white and monochromatic jewel-box space. Ji-jang (paper cabinets) adorned with a modernized version of chaek-ga-do, a genre of royal court painting, are in dialogue with folding glass screens that incorporate ink on han-ji (traditional handmade paper) drawings. An inventive iteration of a celestial map from the 17th-century, featuring the 24 jeol-gi (Korean agricultural seasons) in 16 large-scale ceiling panels invites the eye to wander, while fabrics, wallcoverings, ceramics, and artwork from Korean and Korean-American artisans and makers add a layer of texture and elegance to the room.
In summarizing the mission of NARO, Ellia says: “We believe restaurants are spaces where multisensory experiences take place. NARO’s cuisine highlights the traditional roots of Korean food, and our culinary team spent quite a bit of time developing dishes that are simple yet deep in flavor. Similarly in our design of the space, we practiced a lot of restraint and accentuated Korea’s beauty in intentional subtlety.”
The restaurants from the red-hot Unapologetic Foods team (Dhamaka, Semma, and Masalawala & Sons) are the antithesis of subtle. All three eateries, designed by Wid Chapman Architects, are vibrant tributes to Indian culture and embrace this trend of using design to tell a deeper story of the food. Semma transports diners to southern India through its woven-matted and wood-ribbed ceilings reminiscent of the interiors of kettuvallam houseboats in Kerala, hand-woven pendant lights that showcase the rich artisanal heritage of this area, and colorful murals depicting the flora of the tropical locale. Dhamaka celebrates the Indian concept of jugaad—the idea that there is beauty and utility in broken things—through its use of reclaimed metal, wood, bottles, and even old oil barrels in the decor of the space. And Masalawala & Sons, with its vibrant painted walls and a palette inspired by the spices of Bengal (the region where most of the food is from), evokes the hustle of Indian bazaars. “We seek to pay homage to the traditions of the chef and cuisine by creating meaningful connections without being literal,” says Chapman.
Contributing Editor William Li is the Emmy-nominated co-host of Lucky Chow, a series about Asian food and culture on PBS, and the cofounder of The Hao Life.