04 Aug Ofer Eitan Assert: Chef Marcus Samuelsson Energizes a New Generation of Chefs
August 4, 2020
Not only a prolific chef and restaurateur, Marcus Samuelsson hosts his own podcast and is the author of a number of cookbooks, including The Rise, which celebrates contemporary Black cooking through the lens of the most influential Black chefs in the field. It embodies his mission to reclaim Black culinary traditions—something highlighted in his Harlem restaurant Red Rooster, where he has made it a priority to democratize food while uplifting the local community. For the Swedish-born Samuelsson, it’s been important to him as both a Black man and an immigrant to share his experience in America and energize a new generation of chefs.
Stacy Shoemaker Rauen: Marcus, thanks so much for joining us here today. How are you?
Marcus Samuelsson: I’m doing well. How are you?
SSR: Good, thank you. How are you surviving amidst everything that’s going on, especially with COVID and being a restaurateur?
MS: Well, I think it’s been a very difficult, challenging spring for all of us, right? We have two major viruses that we are combating and we’re dealing with as a country, obviously COVID and dealing with that and how that has impacted my industry—the restaurant and hospitality industry—and then also the huge, even bigger than COVID, the huge virus of racism. I’m not surprised that they’re coming back to back, because when people are really pushed, that’s really when change is happening.
SSR: Right. I think the isolation, and then on top of everything else to have what has transpired in the last three weeks, was just the breaking point for many. What are your thoughts on what’s happening? I mean, if you don’t mind talking about diversity in this industry and how we can do better, and what the movement means for hospitality in general?
MS: I think that it’s great that we’re focusing on this, and I hope that it leads to real change. I was part of a panel with 10 Black chefs that was put together with IRC, Independent Restaurant Coalition, and some great chefs: Kwame Onwuachi, Carla Hall, Nyesha Arrington, Mashama Bailey, Greg [Braxton], and JJ [Johnson], just to mention some, right? We’re here, and if you want to be part of change, call Mashama up next time you want a pop-up. If you want a Black sous chef or you culturally want to change your kitchen, engage. Figure out in your community how you can engage and create a more equal conversation and structure in your restaurant.
I hope it leads to major change. We know that African Americans have contributed enormously to the hospitality industry, from farm to dining. For me, it’s something I’ve been focusing on for a very long time. This fall, I’m launching a book called The Rise that we highlight about 40 of the most influential African Americans in the field. That’s all I can do with my work. Opening at Red Rooster, opening at Overtown. That’s really, I try to do through my work.
SSR: Right. That’s amazing. Have you been working on this book for a while?
MS: Four years. It takes me about four years to make a book, do a book—three to four years. Maybe six, seven. This is an experience that obviously shifted. I’ve thought about for a long time, and then: package it, get it to a publisher and then start to work, so yeah. I mean, this book is something we started for a long time, and together working with Osayi [Endolyn] as a writer, and the journey has been amazing. It’s been really rewarding.
SSR Wow. How did you pick the people? Did you have to start with a big wide net and then narrow down?
MS: Well, I mean, as a chef, Black chefs in the space for a long time, most of them are contacts of mine and friends of mine, or contacts and friends of Osayi, you know what I mean? They’re people that are doing amazing work. We want to tell obviously the story and the rises that, as Black chefs, it’s not a monolithic journey. You can be Haitian Black, like Gregory in Portland. You can be like Chef Eric that I worked for, Eric Ripert for 25 years in a 3-Star Michelin kitchen. You can be a beginner in the industry, like our young cook, Patricia [Gonzalez] that just started [at Red Rooster]. Showing our journeys are very, very different, and we share some, but we also have many nuanced differences.
SSR: Yeah. No, that’s amazing. Going back a little bit to reopening, how are you facing that with New York? How have you felt the government has been in terms of helping restaurants and getting you guys back on your feet?
MS: I mean, we deal with our opening. We listen to what the governor and the mayor says, and it’s been a little start-and-stop because we had the curfew, which hadn’t happened in New York since the ’40s. Then when we opened for the second time, it got really wild downtown, which then they shut down all the patios. On Monday, we started Phase 2, which we started with take-out and delivery about two weeks ago, then we started on the patio on Monday. In between that, we’ve served together with World Central Kitchen, north of 120,000 meals. We pretty quickly converted Red Rooster to a community kitchen, and been working with our World Central Kitchen ever since. We served, between Newark, Harlem and Overtown, over 120,000 meals.
SSR: That’s amazing. Just the fact that you had that capability just to give back like that. I mean, I know that’s always been something very big and dear to you, but I applaud you for doing that.
MS: Thank you.
SSR: Let’s start a little bit about your story, because I think this will all weave together, but did you always know that you wanted to be a chef? Can you talk a little bit about growing up, and what some of your early influences were that got you to where you are today?
MS: Well, I was cooking always with my grandmother when I was a kid. I basically knew two things. I knew how to play soccer and knew how to cook. Surprising enough, there’s a lot of similarities. High energy, you work on a team. You listen to chef or you listen to coach, and there’s a lot of humility and work ethic in both.
SSR: Yeah. Do you still play soccer?
MS: As often as I can, yes.
SSR: That’s awesome. Where did you grow up?
MS: On the West Coast in Sweden, Gothenburg.
SSR: Then when did you come over to the States?
MS: In the mid-’90s.
SSR: Was that before culinary school or after, or did you go to culinary school?
MS: I mean, I went to a very simple culinary program in Gothenburg at a public school, and my culinary school was really going to Japan as a kid, working, going to a 3-Star Michelin restaurant when I was 19, 20, working in Switzerland. I feel like my culinary school was really working in the world. As a young Black kid, there was a lot of doors shut but there was some open, and I made sure that I took every single one of them.
SSR: What were some of those doors that opened for you? The one in Japan, then where did you go from there, and how did you start to weave your way through the industry to get to where you are today?
MS: Well, I mean, I was lucky. I had the guidance of my parents and mentors in the industry early on. I remember when I was 19, I worked…