With "No Passport Required" Marcus Samuelsson is changing the conversation around immigration in America. Not by complaining on cable news or trashing the president, but by venturing to the heavily immigrant pockets of our country and showcasing the brilliance of these communities and reminding us all that food is a medium through which we offer love, and that love connects us all.
An immigrant himself — born in Ethiopia, raised in Sweden, now a celebrated chef, restaurateur, author and resident of Harlem — Samuelsson brings a particular resonance to his observations as he travels across the country.
(this transcript has been lightly edited)
If you're from New York or you've been to New York, you know this man. You know his work. Today we here to talk about his new television show. "No Passport Required." How are you doing today?
I'm super happy to be here man. It's awesome. We’re in mid-season right now and I'm getting. One of the coolest thing about living in New York is like people are talkative, which is great. When you have something like Red Rooster or The New Show, people are going to tell you straight up. Whether I'm on the train or waiting for something, people come up to me. "How come you don't do in my community? How come you haven't been there?" I was like, “Woah, we’ll get there.”
Sounds like the second season is already filling up.
Yes, decided by New Yorkers on the train.
Right. What made you want to do the show?
I think that, we're all kind of dealing with this moment that we're in, right? We know it's very unique and we're all being challenged. Especially, I think, as a black man you are constantly being challenged from day one. That actually has been helpful in this process right in this moment. Like because we always been under attack. As an immigrant, it hit me a little bit differently because I thought unless you're native everyone is immigrant in American, right? Doesn't matter how we got here, right?
That’s how it is but some people seem to forget that over and over again.
Yes, when Vox and PBS were like, “All right we should do something but we have to come with an angle that really is new and fresh.” We worked on it for the last 18 months. I think it’s an important part that you were in this moment. I also think the best content would come out of this moment. They very often do come when we’re challenged. You’re from Baltimore, which obviously is a city that had so many ups and downs that we talk about. Think about how much good, incredible content come from that city maybe because of it.
What I love about your show is how you go into these places. Not only did you introduce us to these amazing restaurants and people. You also put it all in a historical context.
Yes. I mean, food has that great opportunity that it doesn't have an R or D behind it. It doesn't tell me what religion you should be. I can’t convince you to pray. It doesn't...
Christian Republican type?
Yes. No, it is just, “Hey.” We might not even be on the food and that's a great start for the conversation. It really boils down to breaking bread is still awesome. It's needed people and a different perspective. We need different voices, right? It's like for so long where we’re taught that European flavors were the only flavors, specifically certain regions of Europe. We know that every aspect of the world has an interesting point of view. Anytime I can invite you to my world. How we do it. You just learned something about me.
How many cities did you go to while taping a show?
The hardest thing with the show was to pick what cities and what communities, right? We started with like, we went to six cities. Detroit, we started with the Arab-American community, New Orleans with Vietnamese American. It was super fun to do New York, but to pick Queens.
Right. Queens doesn't get enough love.
Yes. I mean, I'm like, hip hop fan. I'm like, music is like so much of my music come from Queens. It was good to go there and do something different. The Indo-Guyanese community. Even for someone like myself who lives in New York for a long time, I didn't know enough about that. A huge part part of Queens is rhe Indo-Guyanese community.
Did you have a favorite place or a place that you've got to go back to?
We can't do that.
We're not going to hurt anyone.
I do think like when we went to Chicago and worked with them, worked in the Mexican American community, because of this moment, because of DACA, because of ICE and all of these things. Meeting families that's been directly impacted on that. It's humbling and like, or being in Detroit, speaking about, speaking, cooking and working with the Arab American community. Showing that how diverse it is. You can be living in America and being here for 60 years. You could be Syrian and just come in like three months ago. That always less a vast difference of the experience your finances and how you relate to this place. I think those two will always stick out to me because it was so humbling just to be there.
It's so weird that we have so many people that are just against immigrants in a country that is supposed to be a melting pot of immigrants. Then these people from these different places that come to America and found a home, they bring so much. So much character, so much intelligence, so many different types of food that all of these fat politicians eat all of the time. It's like how could you not embrace the culture with love? What is it that the current administration doesn't get? Because we know he doesn't know anything about food. He eats nothing but McDonald's. We know he doesn't know anything about food, but what else is it that he doesn't get?
It's very much being selective and speaking to certain, to his constituents is that it's about the totality of the beauty of America, right? Which is this incredible mash pit of ideas and people. Again, I think as a black person, I think actually one of the blessings of being a black man is that we've been under attack so long we kind of figured out a way to tackle [controversy] and I don't suggest that any other race or people should go through all that, I think for us, for me, it's like, “All right, I've seen this before.” It's the same type of false narrative that had been pushed up about us for such a long time. It's been actually helpful to process this. I do think that all of this has an expiration date to it. That's the good news.
You feel like, we have the potential to move into a better place.
We have to.
A lot of people are losing hope right now.
You can't. I mean, think about it, what's so beautiful about America is that very often when we start with a dark history, we most of the time land on what's the better side. We did that with Civil Rights Movement. We did that and are doing that through Women's Movement. Gay Rights Movement and so many movements we can look at and say like, “No, we collectively have actually figured this out.” It wasn't pretty. I've looked at and studying a lot of American history in terms of civil rights movement. It helped me draw inspiration for, we were talking about Malcolm [X] before. Malcolm always evolved not always starting on the right point of view but like got there.
I just think that that's what this is the moment and it's a line drawing right here. You want to make sure you're on, where do you want to be in the history? Do you want to be on the right side, or you want to be on this side? You know what I mean?
I definitely think your work is pushing that conversation forward in a positive direction. Food does connect us all. We all love to eat. Have you been influenced by any other people you work with as you were filming the show?
Yes. I mean as chefs, we don't just get great ideas from an expensive restaurant. Like it's actually the opposite. I think the more humbler the ingredient, the more we want to go there, right? Like we want to eat innards, we want to eat things that are foreign to us because out of that journey like, “Oh, maybe there's a way to tweak this.” If you're not a person that had, like as a chef you have to be curious about others constantly.
That's what the show has allowed me to do is go to the spaces. Most of this is not done in restaurants. Most of this done in people's backyards or in gardens. That's where the good food is. Just like for me, food is very rhythmic. It's linked to music so much. It's a way of us telling us and this tribe, and this is my drums, and these are my curry's, my spices. I think most of the food memories I have are done this way. I'm on the road. I meet someone. We get the opportunity to eat or cook together. I'm like, “Oh, I can now convert it into something else.”
Were you surprised by anything you learned, what’s something that shocked you?
It was really humbling for me and what was great to learn was how people, first of all, even in the narrative, if you say Arab-American, it's much more layered than that, right? Even American, you can have so many different, you can come from so many different countries. You can be Christian and Arab-American. Then within that then what drives your spirituality, drives your food, right? It's just like if people are like black people, right? There's a lot of different diversity within the context of being black. We know that as black people but sometimes people look at us from this monolithic point of view, right? Traveling, learning about the Vietnamese community in New Orleans. I didn't know anything about that. I didn't know that it was differences within those communities. Of course, it is.
America does that. Like America puts everyone in a box. If you come from one region of east Africa, you are like everybody from that region or if you come from a certain part of Mexico. They just put everyone in a box. How dangerous is that?
It is, this show really helped me to unpack that and show that that's not the fact. Food has been such a great way of just celebrate diversity in a different way. I ate some great food and it was done in so many different places. Most of the time again, was not in restaurants like eating in the back of the yards in Chicago. It was in a deli that happens to have a bar inside of it. Oh, wait a minute they also have a butcher shop inside of it. Oh, you can pick up like whatever random convenience stuff you want. On top of that we also going to have the best taco service in the city. Like I go there.
Yes. I thought about that when I was watching your show, another thing that came to mind was some of the Anthony Bourdain’s shows. When you get a chance to just, you get a chance to meet people and filled them out. Hang out with them, was that one the inspirations behind it or did it just happen?
First of all, Tony was a great mentor to me and we traveled together. He came with me and my wife to Ethiopia.
Yes. I remember that.
I constantly let Anthony in my mind as almost the way when you look up to three-star Michelin chef at the young chef coming up. I was speaking to him throughout this like, and he was encouraging me. For me it was important to create my own lane, but obviously deeply inspired by Anthony. He gave us so much. You have to ask questions when you’re there. Something like, once you come into someone's house it's not about you. You have to be able to ask questions and be open. Constantly open to different tastes and different scenarios. Tony showed me that. Anthony was very inspirational to me and I'm grateful to everything that we have. He gave us so much that we can now learn from, right?
Not just the cooking community but particular to us. The first episode we dedicated to Anthony because of all the work that he'd done and everything. What he meant to us as an icon in the industry.
Yes. That's one of the best parts of your show again. It’s this idea of you're coming in as a guest. You're not coming in, trying to dictate and tell people what to do it. You come in with love, you listen and you absorb. I think that's what makes you so special.
We also don't know, right? If I want to I find out something about you, if I want to have this preconceived idea of what it is, biggest chance for me to learn something about you to be quiet and listen. “What's up? Tell me a story, tell me something about Baltimore. Tell me something about being 11 and go through stuff?” Of course, you can Google and read that stuff, but that doesn't on an emotional level describe anything.
Right. I also felt like, you're a great storyteller. Is that connected to the type of music you liked? When you mentioned Queens, the first thing that came to my mind is Nas.
Of course! A Tribe Called Quest, Run DMC all of it. Even before that, Ella and Louis Armstrong and all that stuff. My parents were white, my cousins were Koreans. Just to get it, my mother and cousins were French Canadians. Just to get to the dinner table and get to the bread, constantly arguing. I just put up with enormous amount of curiosity, right? I wasn't a big kid also in school just to get on the court, you have to do certain things. I just grew up but don't expect them. They don't take anything for granted. Stay curious, stay curious and then go back and work on that. Do your homework, but stay curious and that's something that have helped me so much in cooking. It helped me in this show like I don't know what the next season is going to be. As a matter of fact, forget the camera. Like even now I'll talk to you. Like I don't even, like it's just talking about this. Not studying too much and thinking about what should I say here? It's like let's respond to the food.
You feel that vibe when you eat at Red Rooster, you feel the history. You feel the culture.
Yes. Thank you for saying that. I think I've been immigrant six times to different countries, which allowed me to walk into rooms where I don't speak the language. I can understand what that feeling is. When you don't speak someone's language you'd like, you actually have to have better eye contact to pick up. How does this room smell or you teaches you to learn all those things. Even Red Rooster for me, we picked a scene that is not, part of it is inspired by the migration. Part of it is just a little bit what Harlem go through right now. Little bit Al Bario or a little bit new people coming in. It's not just one thing that should be said but guess what, it forces me also to continue to learn, right? I am very often like comfortable in the unknown. That's what this show really did. There's a lot of unknown snares and I want to continue that conversation.
Yes. No, I think there's a lot of conversations that needs to be had. Tell everyone when the show airs, so we can all know.
We actually had two homes like PBS and 9:00 on Tuesdays. Then also on Eater.com both to having the online experience with Vox and either. Then to have the traditional home on PBS has been amazing. This will not happen without either one. Eater was fantastic in constantly finding new people on the road that can contribute. Then PBS just like where we just work hard on getting some more information if you want it. Give people new content.
Yes. I think it was an amazing show and thank you for coming on.
Thank you so much for having me. Thank you.