Chef Marcus Samuelsson: "Look out for the Black-owned restaurants … because we need you right now"

D. Watkins
·19 min read
Marcus Samuelsson
Marcus Samuelsson

Marcus Samuelsson, author of “The Rise: Black Cooks and the Soul of American Food: A Cookbook” Little, Brown & Company

This article originally appeared here on Salon.com

It feels like it has been ages since my wife and I could begin our daily routines without thinking about simple necessities like food. Why cook? Our hometown of Baltimore has a ton of charming cafés and restaurants full of delicious foods from countless cultures to grab lunch and dinner from, so many that we could go months without repeating. And then COVID happened, forcing us to stay still, social distance and eat at home. We amiss running out to our favorite places, eating whatever we had a craving for and not having to rely on our own creativity and skills.

Fortunately, Chef Marcus Samuelsson is doing his best to help everyone diversify what we're cooking at home, keep food exciting and reminding us to still keep supporting our favorite local food spots with takeout orders.

Samuelsson, the executive chef of Harlem's famed Red Rooster, bestselling author, and host of PBS' "No Passport Required" returned to "Salon Talks" to talk to me about his new book "The Rise: Black Cooks and the Soul of American Food"–– a collection of Black culinary traditions that features 150 recipes honoring dozens of top Black chefs, writers, and activists.

In our conversation, Samuelsson unpacks all that has changed during the pandemic when it comes to what we eat — from what it's like surviving as a small restaurant owner to how he completely changed his business model to feed Harlem, and his broader activism around saving the restaurant industry in America. He also breaks down his lively, innovative and beautiful book "The Rise," which beyond the delicious recipes, introduces America to countless Black chefs and is a clear reminder of their importance and future in American cuisine. You can watch my "Salon Talks" episode with Samuelsson here, or read a Q&A of our conversation below to learn more.

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This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

I haven't seen you since we talked about your television show "No Passport Required." Could you just let everybody know how have you been surviving COVID and some of the things you have going on?

You know, COVID, we're still in it. I think that in many ways, I've been dealing with a lot with, I would say, post-traumatic growth. You know what I mean? Really, how do we survive? How do we navigate? Mid-March, we closed Red Rooster in Harlem and converted it into a community kitchen. It really helped me understand what it meant to be a restaurant in a Black community at this moment. We've served over 250,000 meals out of our restaurant for the first responders and the media.

Wow.

That line every day, 1,000 people every day, more than that, it changes you. It doesn't change you just for COVID, it changes me forever. I think that what it means to be a Black chef in a neighborhood like Harlem, what it means to live and work in Harlem, in a completely different lens. When people say, "Everybody left New York." I'm like, "Wait a minute, people in our community didn't leave. They are the first responders, they are working." Even those terms that we consider, "Oh, everybody left," that people casually say, absolutely not. My community stayed and worked. Not only that, our community increased, because Rikers Island opened up and they decided that everybody from Rikers should be dropped off on 125th Street, whether they came from Harlem or not.

It's not the guys' from Rikers fault; I'm not blaming them. At the same time, our homeless population increased, and they were also dropped off in Harlem. When people talk about institutional structural racism, it happens in our community, sometimes right in front us, but it's very hard for people to see it. That's what I mean by living in Harlem and working in Harlem, I see all of it. The beauty, the horrible, the institutional, but at the same time I also see the good stuff. My block has been blocked off and it's become kind of like this daycare for kids that the neighborhood's parents really just started to set up. We did cooking classes, other people did painting classes. I've seen it all. I mean, it's really been an incredible time to watch, both positive and negative.

It's amazing that we can be in such a terrible time with so many bad things going on, and yet able to just pull out those gems and to identify how we can build community, and what can we take as we work towards transitioning out of this. Because even though we can't really see an end in sight, we're going to have so much more to offer. I think that's always a blessing.

I think also that I drew from a couple of lenses, both about the blessings of being Black, and also the blessing of being an immigrant. They are parallel to me in my energy. Those scary days in March, April, May, I really didn't know what to do. I knew that me and my family would be okay, but what's going to happen to all the people that work for me, that's investing their lives in this?

It started for me with just, "I got to create." For example, I started a podcast, "This Moment," with my friend Jason [Moran]. He's an African American friend of mine that lives in Sweden. We said, "What do we do as two Black creators?" We started out of the basement. We didn't have the equipment, we couldn't go and get the equipment, no one would deliver it to us. But out of nothing we started this movement, this podcast, and we've had incredible guests on like Nikole Hannah-Jones and Thelma Golden, and incredible people, right? Hill Harper. Because we needed to share in this time and document this time, because I want this as a documentation for my son, when he's a teenager, that this happened. What side were you on?

The other thing was, my book "The Rise," it's been in the works for four years, and that's when everything starts happening with George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and the book is coming out now. People go, "Oh, that's perfect timing." I said, "What do you mean perfect timing?" Do you know what I mean? We've been working on this forever. The documentation about who we are as Black people, but also as a chefs, it doesn't have a moment for me for good time to release, bad time to release. This is our experiences and they need to be shared.

Let's get into "The Rise." It's a beautiful book and I am so happy to have a copy. The writing is beautiful. I was reading your introduction, in which you open the book with, and I was like, "Wait, is this guy going to steal my job?" Tell us about your new book.

I was extremely fortunate to work with Osayi [Endolyn] and Yewande [Komolafe]. You know, Osayi's the co-writer and Yewande developed the recipes. We felt that just as much as other American history, with the food that we know in America, Black people got written out of it. We have to figure out a way to get back into it. So it's parallel to other American history where we are completely forgotten or not documented. It's important to write something that both give[s] a nod to the past, offer what it means to be a Black chef in the present, but also looking at the future.

Although we're in COVID and a tough moment now, it's an incredible time to be a Black chef or in the culinary industry in this time because there're plethora of pathways to go. It's important to remember that because when you look outside or you look on the news, you might not feel like it's a unique time. The value proposition of Black food was taken away from us, and this is the way to document it. What do I mean when I say that? For example, if you wanted to give your mom or your auntie a box of chocolates, you would say, "Oh, let me order some great Belgian chocolate." There's no cocoa beans in Belgium, they're in Ghana. Right there, you don't even have to be a racist, or even as a Black person, you might not know that our stuff is actually – we're the birthplace of excellence when it comes to food.

Do you think we're having a moment right now for Black chefs? The industry, like a lot of these different industries, can be so racist, and you'll be lucky to see a Black chef raise to prominence and get the type of intention that so many of them deserve, but now we see a lot of them popping up.

I think yes is the short answer, but there will be more. You know what I mean? If you think about what Serena and Venus [Williams] did to women's tennis, right? Then you've got the Naomi [Osaka] and the Madison [Keys]. Because we've been cooking forever. When someone talks about a Black farmer, as enslaved people, we didn't own the farm but we worked on the farm forever.

We were farming.

Of course. Black farming is not something trendy that you do out of Brooklyn to upstate New York, it's something that we've been doing forever. For me, it's really about, when you think about cuisines in America, Creole cooking, Southern food, it all comes out of a labor of Black people. Barbecue, right? It's important to acknowledge our worth, then also present our work, acknowledge it, and broadcast it, and that's what I hope to do with "The Rise."

This book includes the recipes and stories of many Black chefs. When you're working on a project like this, how do you decide which chefs you're going to bring on and which of your own recipes to share?

First of all, it's a great question because it's not a list of who's on it and who's not on it. Right? I wanted us to present work and explain what is Black food, both to ourself, but also to the larger audience. I wanted to explain it, how complicated and beautiful it was at the same time. Like my boy Greg Gourdet, Haitian American living in Portland via Brooklyn, his food's going to have all those aspects. Or like Nyesha Arrington, Korean African American, but just being a Cali girl, and obviously influenced by L.A. and K-town. We know that our food and our journey, you and I are two Black men, but we have different backgrounds, therefore we bring those food journeys to our dinners. I just didn't want Black food to be reduced to one monolithic thing, because it's obviously not who we are as people.

Absolutely. Everything in the book looks so good. I'm keep it all the way 100, I never considered myself a chef. I get in the kitchen and try some things, but since we've been in quarantine, I've been challenging myself a lot more. Instead of me just popping a salmon in the oven, I'm been searing up the Chilean sea bass, like, "Look, baby, look what I put together."

That's great.

My wife wouldn't let me make that. She made that, but I was her assistant. Looking at this book, I was wondering, what do you think a person who is an amateur, like myself, should try first?

Well, I think there's many recipes there [in the book] that anyone can do, but I think even more fun or important is also that narrative and storytelling is also who we are. right? That North Carolina rice, or South Carolina rice, the Gullah culture is your culture. You may or may not know about that. That jerk chicken that we all love on the corner place, we can make that. How did that really come to Jamaica? What is the narrative behind that? I think that we have learned to love other cultures more than our own culture. We know the difference between pizza from Naples or Detroit-style pizza, but we might not know the fact that peanuts came from Africa and the most American sandwich in the world, peanut butter and jelly, really comes from our heritage. You can't exclude the Black experience.

When you think about your extended family, your family, to be able to put us back into those dinner conversations, it's beautiful. It also aspires a value system, the way music. Right? If you want Miles [Davis], you're going to say, "What era of jazz?" If you want Prince, we're talking about '80s funk. If you want Kendrick [Lamar], it's very clear that we're talking about the 2000s hip-hop scene. In food, 10 years from now, I want these eras to actually be lined up. The way we talk about Kendrick today, that might be how we know Leah Chase 10 years from now. That might be how we introduce Kwame [Onwuachi] into the conversation. It all starts with sharing and storytelling and broadcasting ourself.

A person like you who's a master chef, were you challenged to come up with new things since we've been in quarantine?

Yeah, it's been an incredible ride. I've got to tell you a quick story. The first two weeks, you could order, but nobody delivered to you. So I walked to the store. It was an hour wait to get in. Then, once you get into the store, to the fish and the meat side, it was another hour, so we became vegetarian. I said to my wife, "Let's just be vegetarian. I'm going to cook it up, and it will be fine." We stayed really eating vegetarian food 70% of our meals for three, four months. It was beautiful. It was a great experience.

It also made me think about so many cultures that have been going through struggles, and that often means you're not going to eat well. Black food, the Black experience in America, has always gone through struggles, but the food has always been amazing. I do think that life's going to challenge you in certain situations, I definitely got challenged during this COVID, just like everybody else, but it also introduced me to a vegetarian side that I probably wouldn't have gone into otherwise. I actually appreciate that.

What is your favorite thing to cook, just in general, like all time?

One of my favorite things is actually to work, now, with my son Zion, he's 4 years old, to just get him to try our Ethiopian culture, right? It's a lot of spices, so he's not messing with that. We have this injera bread, this bread that we rip off, way too sour for him. Any time I can move the needle on his heritage of Ethiopia, it's a big win. So far I'm 0-4.

He's going to see how cool his dad is soon and he's going to love it. Let's talk about the restaurant industry a little bit. We have been seeing some crazy changes, like the outdoor seating. What do you think is going to happen as all of these different restaurants that make up the beauty of so many of our neighborhoods are trying to figure out creative ways to survive?

First of all, I've never been as nervous because as a known chef in my community and the country, I'll be all right, but that's not what I got into the industry for. What I'm worried about is all the mom and pops. Great areas that we both love, like Queens, like the beautiful strip malls out of Los Angeles, the Vietnamese shops, all that stuff that makes America. The restaurant scene is more family mom and pop with five to seven employees, and they'll be able to send their families through college through that. That's the food scene. That's why the immigrant story and the restaurant story is so tied together, because this is very often the first job and the way that we can really make a living.

What I worry about right now is that 70% of those stores, 11 million people work in the independent restaurant in America, 67% of them might lose their jobs. This is serious. I grew up in a country with 10 million people, and more than 11 million people work in the independent restaurant industry in America. This is severe. This is going to, obviously, impact Black and Brown communities, like Baltimore, like Harlem, like Overtown, in unprecedented ways. We already took the brunt of corona[virus] in a different way because we don't have access to health care, et cetera, but it's a double tap on our community, and it makes me very nervous.

If the restaurant goes, so does that community, so goes that barber shop, so goes your favorite nail salon. What makes up the soul of a community is very much anchored by those mom and pop restaurants. Once you start ripping those out, the community is going in a completely different direction, and I'm worried about that, especially now. We had a bill that was on the table for Congress, and, of course, that's now out. They're not going to deal with that because they're going through the Supreme Court, they're rushing through that.

That doesn't make any sense at all.

Yeah. It's going to impact our community, and it saddens me so much because these are people's life savings. Opening up a restaurant is a biggest investment a mom and pop will do. They're going to be gone, and we're just going to be like, "Oh well." This is serious. I really don't know what to do about it. I'm part of Independent Restaurant Coalition. We're fighting like crazy. We thought we had the bill passed, and then they decided to do this stuff instead. Nothing surprised me about what's happening at the White House. It's actually just been more consistent with evil stuff. Nothing surprises me anymore.

It's so corny, in my opinion, because this fake White House is supposed to be an administration that has a focus on business, yet your politics allow so many businesses to suffer. We should be empowering the people behind restaurants that are small businesses.

When they think businesses, they don't think about that level of business. That independent restaurant, it's beneath them. They really don't think about those businesses. They just think about majority of those are immigrant, a majority of them are people of color, so therefore we get to them later. Nothing can be further from the truth. There's 11 million people, like I said. There's 16 million people when you think about all the other businesses coming to restaurants, and they just don't care. That's the simple truth of it. It's sad, because those people are American as well and deserve it.

Can we keep the Restaurant Act alive? Is there a way for us to support? Should we be calling our Congress people?

It's all of the above, but it's also action. This one is when we go back in "The Rise." In the back pages, I list not only the 40 people that are in the book, I list about 150 other Black chefs, their Instagram, and also organizations and magazines that are Black-owned. Because my point is when people say, "How am I going to find them?" I'll say, "Look in the book, hit them up on Instagram," because these are nationwide, and they need your business, we need your business right now. Black caterers, right? Black private chefs, the Black chef that has stuff in retail stores.

Be very specific and strategic with how you order in or order out, or if you have a smaller company, order through the company. If you care about Black-owned restaurant or chefs in our community, your dollar matters. That order in your community, you do that twice a week, once a week, it might keep that restaurant afloat. Then, also, the fact that you might spread that through social media, through your friends, that might be the game-changing moment. Look out for the Black-owned restaurants in your community because we need you right now. That could be the quickest and the easiest way for you to actually support something. And you can afford it because it's really between a $15, $20 order that can actually change that restaurant's trajectory over the next 18 months.

Yes, inside "The Rise," you've got the stories, the amazing recipes and a directory for us. This is going to be my go-to Christmas gift this year.

Thank you. I appreciate that.

You're on the front cover, always killing it with the fashion. When I go shopping in New York, man, I got to roll with you.

[Laughing] Yeah, yeah, yeah.

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Tell everybody when the book comes out and where they can get it at.

October 27th the book "The Rise" is out. You can, of course, get it on Amazon. You can also look for a Black-owned bookstore in your community. It's going to be in every bookstore. Keep rising, keep cooking, and please look out for the Black and BIPOC people in the hospitality industry in your neighborhood because we need you now.