Marcus Samuelsson (AP/Mark Von Holden)

Chef Marcus Samuelsson gives thanks: On Harlem, the black diaspora and his own journey

The celebrated chef at Red Rooster on his own version of the black diaspora, from Sweden to the heart of Harlem


Chauncey DeVega
November 28, 2019 5:00PM (UTC)

Food is a story of a people and their habits, origins, the stories they tell, their culture and community. In terms of the Black Atlantic, food is a story of how cooking practices and ingredients spread from Africa largely through the horrors of the Middle Passage and slavery — and then other forms of colonialism, imperialism and immigration — to the Americas, Europe and other parts of the world.

Black people from Africa combined their culture with those of indigenous people, Europeans, and others to create something new. Because of this process American cuisine is in many ways black cuisine. This is a reflection of how America is a multicultural and multiracial society, and has been so since before the founding of our republic. There are many examples of this. Such American food staples such as rice and peas, as well as cooking processes like barbecue and jambalaya can trace their origins to Africa. In the form of "soul food," African American food ways have also been an enduring form of cultural resistance against white supremacy from chattel slavery through to Jim and Jane Crow and now post-civil rights America.

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On Thanksgiving as on other days, the presence of black people will be heavily felt at the dinner table through food, even if that influence on American cuisine has been partially erased or otherwise made invisible to many people.

Marcus Samuelsson is the chef behind many restaurants worldwide including Red Rooster Harlem in New York, Marcus' Bermuda and Marcus B&P in Newark, New Jersey. His company, the Marcus Samuelsson Group, now includes 31 restaurants around the world.

He is the author of numerous books, including the New York Times-bestselling memoir "Yes, Chef." His newest project is the Audible Original audio book "Our Harlem: Seven Days of Cooking, Music, and Soul at the Red Rooster with Marcus Samuelsson."

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Samuelsson has won multiple James Beard Foundation Awards including "best chef: New York City." He has won the television competitions "Chef Masters" and "Chopped All Stars," and his own TV series "No Passport Required" on PBS won a 2019 James Beard Broadcast Media Award for "outstanding personality."

In this conversation, Samuelsson reflects on how his upbringing, identity, and travels around the world as a black man from Sweden impacted his perspective on life and relationship to food. Samuelson also shares his thoughts on Harlem as a center of black American culture and life and how he tries to channel that experience through Red Rooster. He also explains the meaning of "black cuisine" and how the African origins of food across the Black Atlantic have all too often been erased. Samuelsson also reflects on the responsibility of being a high-profile black chef and what it was like to be responsible for the Obama administration's first state dinner.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

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Given the restaurant and your many other projects, what is a typical day like? How do you orient yourself?

For me, it's really a luxury to live and work in Harlem. Very often, I start the day in the park right across the street from my house. I take a moment to either exercise or walk and just decompress before I start the full day. I go to the restaurant. We plan out what's coming up the following week and for that day, and then with the different teams on menu development or the cookbook.

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You have most certainly lived a very atypical and uncommon life. When you sit back and reflect on your life, when you have those quiet times, what do you think?

I am extremely blessed. I have ties to many worlds. My connection to Ethiopia and Africa gives me a lot of strength and humility. I also think about the less fortunate there but also lots of happiness there as well. Scandinavia and Sweden gave me my education and my parents. My family life started there. And then, obviously, living in New York and working around the world. I am also very fortunate to have had great professional mentors. I also learned my work ethic from my grandparents. It is all a blessing.

In life we are often helped along by people we have never met. And if you don’t have those advocates it is very hard to be successful in one’s chosen career or vocation.

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One of the blessings of being a black man is that you look at the inspiration and aspirations that come from people who were there before you and paved the way for your success. My restaurant Red Rooster and my career as a chef would not have been possible without the civil rights movement. That is especially true being here in Harlem where there are mentors and trailblazers everywhere.

Given that Harlem is changing a great deal because of various groups moving in, how does the neighborhood hold on to its roots and origins as a black community? How do we manage those challenges?

That is present in the Great Migration and of course the African diaspora as seen through food, music, spirituality, and culture more generally. How much do we hold onto and how much do we let go? How do we create something new? Those are persistent questions, particularly in a community like Harlem, because as Harlem goes, so goes very much of Black America. And Black America is also black culture throughout the world in many ways. There are so many events and movements and people who came from Harlem or who are still here who put an incredible cultural stamp on not only African American history, but also American history.

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You are a black man from Ethiopia who was raised by white folks in Sweden who nurtured and loved you and prepared you as a black man to survive and succeed in majority white, if not all-white, spaces. Such a journey is very uncommon. It is such as important story about how white folks — your white family in particular — gave you the armor necessary to survive as a black man.

Many of my heroes and goals were connected to Black America. I was in my mid-teens when my father gave me "The Autobiography of Malcolm X" to read. For me, It was such a big deal to see a new Spike Lee movie because that gave me cultural information about how America, specifically African American culture, survived and lived and evolved. Of course, there was Maya Angelou and Jacob Lawrence, so many other voices.

But then also for me was the authorship of our food. I wanted to articulate that constantly and to do that in a restaurant. I also wanted to be able to do that through my new digital cookbook “On Harlem.” I want to be part of an intersection of innovation and tradition. Combining the two by creating an Audible Original cookbook was a fantastic opportunity.

As a head chef how do you define and explain what constitutes “black cuisine” or the cuisine of the African diaspora beyond just the ingredients?

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Authorship of our food is very important to reclaim because so much of that authorship as members of the black diaspora was erased. So anytime we can document and communicate the connections between global cuisine and Africa is very important. Here in America, so much of the food comes from Africa and then it's a blend between the Native American story, the European settlers, the Latin American population, and that combined becomes Southern food and “soul food.”

It is important to know that history. It needs to be documented in textbooks and formally. That history needs to be documented as oral history. That food history and authorship should also be experienced through cooking. Food shapes the narrative of an African American journey and culture, very much the way Fela Kuti or Marvin Gaye or Bob Marley or Prince helped to shape my narrative of what it means to be black — be it African, African-American or other parts of the black diaspora.

For example, in terms of the erasure of African authorship of food, consider Belgian chocolate. There is no cocoa in Belgium. That is in Africa. But Belgian chocolate is reproduced in Belgium. Italian roasted coffee is another example. Coffee is from Ethiopia or Kenya. The authorship of that excellence is taken away from Africa. The culture of black American slaves in the South and other parts of the United States is another example. The phrase and language of “Southern charm” and “Southern hospitality” actually describes how black slaves took care of their white masters.

The pit master and barbecue: Where does that culture come from? That mix of smoke and fire is a cooking process authored by African slaves. Those connections and that authorship of food has been erased.

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When you write a cookbook, how do you decide what to include and what to exclude in terms of its overall narrative?

I really want to create three things. One, a deeper understanding for how much African American culture has contributed not only in Harlem but to America.

No. 2, I want to be transparent about my experience and identity as a black Swede. People taught me so much. Red Rooster was not a fast success. I moved to Harlem in 2003 and we didn't open until 2010. During those seven or eight years I really learned from the community. Those voices from the community taught me so much about food. For example, I had so much fear of cooking fried chicken, because I did not grow up eating it. I have no childhood memories of that dish. But by eating a lot of fried chicken and by being in settings where fried chicken was a staple, and by talking to people who grew up on it, it was exactly like learning about fish when you grow up in Ireland and Sweden. But if you approach food with curiosity and you're willing to do the work, you can make really good food — which hopefully also translates to really good storytelling.

How have you tried to use food to smooth over some of the tensions between African Americans, Africans, Afro-Caribbeans, Afro-Latinos and other members of the black community who call Harlem home?

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We came from Africa. Yes, the diaspora took us to different places, but at the end of the day it's all African wisdom. This is true of music, art, food and storytelling. If you ended up in Brazil and came up here and married somebody from South Carolina and eventually came here to New York, you are going to channel that energy differently. There is no monolithic black thought or black experience. But it is all still rooted in Africa and the diaspora. The journey is what we share. And that is true of all peoples. There is so much to share between different groups of people. That is what makes us as human beings so interesting.

Do you feel a special obligation and responsibility as one of the few black chefs who have publicly achieved at your level?

What's the purpose of having this platform and this gift with food if it does not bring other people along? If I don't train my cooks to aspire to become chefs and open their own business? If I don't bridge the gap of what at times seems to be a complete miseducation about how African American food came to be? Red Rooster is so important to me because I wanted to create food and an experience that brings out the best of us through hospitality versus just creating an experience for the very rich, the one percent of the one percent.

There are all these horror stories about abusive kitchens and the type of hazing that is part of the training process of becoming a chef. What is your approach to mentoring and training the next generation of chefs?

I came up at an era where there was still a lot of abuse in the kitchen, and I also learned a lot in those kitchens too. But I was often the only person of color in those kitchens. There were also no women. That meant I had a clear set of choices. Hiring women was always something I wanted to do in my restaurant because of all the women who taught me how to cook. Hiring people of color was a given. I didn’t do this because it was the right thing to do. It actually makes no sense not to hire women and people of color.

Abusive kitchens also don’t make sense either. They are less productive. Those practices came out of a certain era and no longer make sense. I want to see the people I mentor and employ at Red Rooster grow and move on to other opportunities.

What was it like to earn such great success relatively early in life?

I don't think I knew that I was successful, because I always pushed myself to struggle with food in a way. I want to evolve and grow. I don’t wake up and say, “Oh, I feel successful today.” What I want is to have a dialogue with the public about food. I always feel gratitude that I can continue to work, and my project becomes bigger. That means I can engage more people. To me, success is not an exit plan. I would feel very empty living that philosophy. I like to engage. I like to move forward. If you love what you do that allows you to continue to learn.

As a head chef, how do you approach eating?

There are different ways to eat. If I'm eating for professional reasons, I think about texture and the overall sensory experience. If I'm just breaking bread with my buddies I let all that go. I take off the chef’s hat. If you're invited into someone's home and just breaking bread you want to know about that person and to understand what their food reveals about them.

Why do so many restaurants fail? What advice would you give to journeymen entrepreneurs and others who want to enter the food and hospitality business?

Business is a constant push and pull, and it's not for everyone. Some people are great at making and creating and some people are amazing at handling the finance or marketing aspects. With a restaurant there are so many moving parts. You have got to be very good at covering all the parts. That is what makes the restaurant business so amazing and unique, because you have to think about marketing, you have to think about community and you have to think about seasonality. You have to think about cooking and hospitality. There are low margins. That makes it extremely challenging. But I still think hospitality is an amazing people business and it gives you so much gratitude that has nothing to do with money.

What was it like to cook a state dinner for Barack Obama and the first family?

I was lucky that the first lady, Michelle Obama, decided the menu with us. She was the boss. It was amazing and a huge occasion for not only me but for my team, and to be able to highlight American ingredients and also make food that appealed to the prime minister of India was very special. He is a vegetarian and just as you do when you invite someone to your home, you want to do something that was respectful of your guest of honor. We focused on a lot of vegetarian food. We were also able to cook out of Michelle Obama's White House garden. That was amazing too. I will never forget how much the first family went out of their way to come back to the kitchen to say hi to everybody and shake everyone's hand after a long night. The First Family also went back to the kitchen and talked to all the cooks.

How do you want your guests to feel after a meal at Red Rooster?

I want them to be happy and say this was delicious food. I love Harlem. I want guests also to say they met some people they didn’t know before. "The hospitality was great. I heard some great music and the food was delicious." It's really all we work for at Red Rooster. I want guests to enjoy the whole experience.


Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a politics staff writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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