The Living Legacy of Manhattan’s Dumpling Diva
Though the chef and artist Marja Samsom’s lauded Nolita restaurant, The Kitchen Club, shuttered over a decade ago, its legacy lives on.
Running a restaurant was never part of Marja Samsom’s plan. It just happened to her. After decades of working in conceptual art, she stumbled upon an empty donut shop in Nolita in the early 90s and transformed it into her largest piece of performance art: The Kitchen Club, a restaurant and gathering space that operated for two decades. There, she dazzled diners with her pillowy steamed dumplings, rich and creamy chanterelle mushrooms, and her mother’s recipe for Dutch apple pie. Samsom’s signature pixie cut and glittery turquoise eyeshadow defied conventional expectations for a thriving restaurateur in that era, but they all were part of her charm. Her differences made her stand out. “Being an immigrant, being a woman, being from a very different background than most people, I was lucky to not fit in,” Samsom said.
Her unique spirit captivated locals and helped her grow a loyal following. “I walked into the Kitchen Club for the first time and it was almost as if I walked into another reality. It verged on magical,” said Laura Otani, a regular at the restaurant who later became friends with Samsom. Samsom’s eccentricity was only part of the Kitchen Club, though. Her unique fusion of Dutch and Japanese flavors and pioneering use of exclusively organic ingredients also contributed to her success. Lovingly dubbed the “Dumpling Diva” by her customers, Samsom kept the restaurant running until the late aughts, when the recession forced her to close its doors for good. Still, in a neighborhood and city that has rapidly changed over the past several decades, Samsom’s legacy lives on long past the restaurant’s closure.
Born in the Netherlands after the second World War, Samsom dreamed of visiting the United States from an early age. However, Dutch women at the time were often expected to stay home and put food on the table. “If girls are willing to please, they learn to bake,” she said. While her mother, a homemaker, taught her how to make traditional Dutch desserts, her father frequently traveled around the world and returned with souvenirs for his five children. “He showed slides of his visit to the Rocky Mountains and the California seaside, and brought back Native American jewelry for me,” Samsom said. This sparked a fascination with American culture and prompted her to first visit the States as an exchange student in the late 1960s.
Upon her return to Europe, she rebelled against the notion of becoming a wife and homemaker by throwing herself into Amsterdam’s art scene in the 1970s, creating graphic and conceptual work. “It was basically a paradise. I felt very much at home in this place with people who finally understood who I was,” Samsom said. There, she made friends with other artists from all over the world and traveled with them to exhibit her own work under the moniker “Miss Behave.” Her art career led her to trips across Europe and the United States before she eventually decided to settle in New York City long term in 1980. “I came with just a suitcase and I told myself, I couldn't go back to Europe for five years. I couldn't go anywhere until I had something to show for it,” Samsom said.
Samsom dove into the city’s art scene head-first. While bouncing around and crashing on friends’ couches, she exhibited her work in galleries across downtown Manhattan and rubbed shoulders with some of the city’s most iconic artists, like Andy Warhol and Claes Oldenburg. As her art career continued to grow, Samsom took on a myriad of odd jobs to make ends meet. She made stationary and business cards; she sold her mother’s baked goods to friends. Eventually, she found steady work at Bloomingdale’s as a window display designer.
Samsom’s first foray into the food world, however, came by chance when she heard through the grapevine that Bloomingdale’s was opening a sidewalk cafe in 1982. They were in need of a vendor to provide baked goods, and Samsom saw an opportunity. She had been baking her mother’s recipe for linzer tortes, flecked with toasted nuts and encased in a crumbly whole wheat crust, and selling them at the 67th Street farmers market. For Samsom, presenting them to the cafe felt like a natural next step. “I got all dressed up. I used to wear a chef’s coat over painter’s overalls because it was stylish. It was very Courreges-like, and the people at Bloomingdale’s thought I was part of an official business because of my outfit,” Samsom said.
Samsom’s linzer torte became a popular offering at the cafe and piqued the interest of Christopher Idone, founder of elite catering company Glorious Food. He hired Samsom as a private chef, despite the fact that she had no formal culinary training. She improvised and served her experimental cuisine at events for Epic Records and Sony Entertainment; she even cooked a meal for Cyndi Lauper’s birthday party out of the elevator of her recording studio. Around the same time, she met a man named Akiro Tasaka, who would later become her husband, when she stepped into his East Village barber shop on a whim.
Meanwhile, Samsom continued to devise new recipes in her East Village studio. In between catering gigs, she began hosting a dinner party in 1985 every Thursday for her friends in the art world. News traveled about her parties by word of mouth. What started as a small gathering of friends became a popular spot that she christened the Kitchen Club. Described in a 1988 Vogue Magazine article as “the cocktail hour as performance art,” the Kitchen Club was a salon for Manhattan-based artists and intellectuals with a $40 prix fixe menu listed on Samsom’s answering machine. As Samsom’s own career took off, she wound down her catering gigs with Glorious Food so she could focus more on her dinner club and art projects.
A typical night at Samsom’s apartment began with a cocktail hour so guests could mingle in the candlelit space, which fit no more than 25 people. When everyone sat down for a meal, Samsom served food that reflected her improvisatory spirit. Plates of chicken liver mousse, fish steamed en papillote, and unctuous roasted duck often graced the table, but classic Dutch desserts she learned from her mother, like linzer tortes and fruit tarts, always rounded out the meal.
The Kitchen Club ran in its initial form for 4 years. As the neighborhood began to change, however, so did Samsom. “The East Village was sort of on its way out by the late 80s. And then everybody left or sold or died,” she said. “There was AIDS. So I had, I would say at least, about 30 percent of people that I knew in the span of three, four months died. But in 1989, I put things in storage, and started thinking what I should do next.”
Like with much of Samsom’s career, her next step came coincidentally. Richard Bach and Michael Howett, friends of Samsom and owners of Marion’s Lounge on the Bowery, alerted her to an empty donut shop sitting on the corner of Prince and Mott. With funding from Claes Oldenburg, Samsom took the leap and renovated the dingy space into a brick and mortar iteration of the Kitchen Club in 1990.
When this version of the Kitchen Club first opened, its proximity to the Bowery made it a less than desirable spot. What the critic Gael Greene described as the “unchic” end of Prince Street in a 1992 New York Magazine review of the restaurant was filled mostly with pre-war apartments and small Italian-owned businesses as well as high levels of crime. But to Samsom, the area that many chose to avoid at night became her own community. “I would use bread from Parisi Bakery down the road, and get my meats and cheeses from Di Palo’s. The neighborhood was so divided then, that people thought the trip from Crosby to Mulberry was too far. It was like two different worlds,” she said.
The restaurant mirrored Samsom’s artistic vision and flair for the theatrical. Pushing past heavy turquoise velour curtains at the door revealed a uniquely warm space with checkered tile flooring, sunflower gold paint on the walls, and a desk with sound equipment against the wall. “It was comforting, and very beautiful. Everything she touched, including her clothing and attitude, was elegant. And the space reflected that,” said regular customer Donna Drewes. On weekends, the tiny restaurant was packed with customers as Samsom played music and socialized with the guests, her French bulldog Chibi wandering the dining room.
On the limited menu was a combination of flavors from Samsom’s hometown as well as Japanese techniques introduced to her by Tasaka. Customers returned for her miso-glazed sea bass, tuna tataki with wasabi cream, and her famous dumplings, which had a variety of fillings. “I made mushroom dumplings first, then added a tofu and chrysanthemum version, and a duck and ginger one as well,” Samsom said. “I would improvise with the flavors, and my Japanese husband would be my guinea pig and try them all.”
Though the dishes came from multiple sources of inspiration, all united under Samsom’s culinary philosophy of using organic ingredients sourced from small farms. “The Kitchen Club was farm-to-table long before that phrase was coined,” said Mark Dunau of Mountain Dell Farm, one of Samsom’s main food vendors. He and his wife Lisa Wujnovich worked with Samsom for decades primarily because of their shared conviction about local food. “Whenever we would go down into the city for dinner, we worked with a lot of great restaurants, but we always ate at the Kitchen Club,” Wujnovich said.
The Kitchen Club itself was its own little world. Artists and business people alike trekked down for the food, but the restaurant offered much more than a meal. Samsom’s art remained a driving force behind her work. “It was not just about the food at all. There was a performative element,” said Samsom, who refers to herself as a “flavor DJ” instead of merely a chef. At the restaurant, she hosted a variety of musicians to perform on the weekends, like Lou Reed and Björk; she threw elaborate parties for friends and loyal customers to celebrate her birthday and other holidays. “Her restaurant was an anchor in that neighborhood. She was there before Nolita became cool,” said Drewes.
But the neighborhood becoming “cool” brought along its own set of problems. In the mid 90s, there were whispers about the area being renamed Nolita, to Samsom’s chagrin. And with that came a boom in new businesses and rising rent prices. The cultural and economic shifts of the neighborhood brought a fleet of upwardly mobile residents and even more customers to feed at her already busy restaurant. “Making food is just like any other form of art. But cooking for your friends and cooking for a living are not the same thing,” Samsom said.
In spite of the challenges she faced in keeping the restaurant running in a neighborhood that was changing so rapidly, Samsom kept cooking. She not only kept the restaurant running, but also expanded throughout the neighborhood. She took over the adjacent building and created Chibi’s Bar in honor of her French bulldog back in 1997. She continued serving her guests amid a spike in violent crime surrounding downtown Manhattan in the early aughts and through the chaos following 9/11.
Many of her friends’ businesses shuttered around her, replaced with glitzy boutiques and posh cafés. In an attempt to retain Downtown Manhattan’s original charm, she opened a third restaurant named Chibitini in the Lower East Side in 2003, which ran for three years before she closed up shop and refocused her energy on her first location. The stress of a changing neighborhood only continued over the Kitchen Club’s 20-year run, however, and she reached her limit during the recession in 2008.
“It is not something that is magically always like a fairy tale. Maybe something is broken, or you’re sick and still have to come into work. You might break your wrist and you don't realize four years later after that, probably you broke your wrist. And you just kept working,” Samsom said. “There's a lot of hard-ass attitude involved, and then there's also the belief in magic. But once the recession hit I decided it was enough.”
Like many businesses across the county, Samsom closed the doors to the Kitchen Club for the last time at the end of 2009. “It broke my heart when the restaurant closed. I remember crying when I first found out,” Drewes said. Customers and critics mourned the loss of one of the neighborhood’s last holdouts, with Gael Greene publishing an article celebrating the restaurant’s legacy on her blog Insatiable Critic. “I raved over her delicate crumbly, raspberry-jam-filled Linzer torte,” Greene wrote in that obituary. “It evoked Holland for Marja. Fast forward. Yesterday I got her email of surrender.”
While the Kitchen Club’s closure left a void on the block and the neighborhood as a whole, Samsom quickly switched gears and continued working. She turned her attention back to her art career, but her passion for food didn’t dim. She published a book about her art and did gallery exhibitions throughout Manhattan, for example, yet she also hosted a radio cooking show for several years. On that show, titled “Cooking Up a Storm,” Samsom guided listeners through nostalgic family recipes and iterations of the Kitchen Club’s most popular dishes, bringing along chefs and writers like Lee Anne Wong and Betty Fussell as guests. She kept that show running until 2015. Nowadays, you can find Samsom at any of the community gardens surrounding her apartment in the Lower East Side, where she volunteers and makes preserves from the deep purple fruits of the mulberry tree in one of the neighborhood’s gardens to give away to both friends and strangers.
With the advent of the pandemic, however, Samsom was forced to shift her career again. After immigrating to the United States and living through the AIDS crisis, 9/11, and the 2008 recession, she is no stranger to adapting to trying circumstances. Her catering work and artistic commissions with clients have halted and she is limited to working out of her own art studio to make films for digital distribution instead of in-person exhibitions. She worries for the establishments that make her neighborhood so special. “I hope small businesses will be able to make it out of this. I think there’s going to be a second wave of what we experienced in 2008. Things will adjust, but not for everyone,” she said.
The most important element to surviving times of struggle, according to Samsom, is being open and vulnerable with your loved ones. After closing the Kitchen Club, she used her newfound free time to reach out to her family and friends. She remains close with many of the customers who frequented her restaurant decades ago, even traveling across the world with some of them. “I recently found a cookbook my mother wrote during the Second World War, and she had recipes using tree bark and tulip bulbs to be able to feed my older siblings,” she said, “Sacrifice is nothing new. But there will always be a time where we all have to sacrifice something for what or who we love.”
Despite these sacrifices, Samsom has no plans of stopping her art career. But food still beckons. During the reporting of this piece, she ran into her longtime friend and owner of Elizabeth Street Garden, Allan Revier. After chatting about restaurants reopening after the pandemic and the changing real estate market, Revier asked Samsom if she would be opening to starting a new restaurant.
“I just might,” she replied. “You never know.”