Marcus Samuelsson on the Importance of Highlighting Black Chefs and Culinary Traditions in America
Marcus Samuelsson is having a busy summer. The celebrity chef and author was named the launch curator of Bombay Sapphire’s new berry-infused gin Bombay Bramble, which means he’s been busy hosting their virtual cooking class series “Bursting With Berries” with chefs Joseph Johnson, Adrienne Cheatham and Tristen Epps, as well as working with Harlem-based graffiti and contemporary artists Cey Adams and Dianne Smith to transform some billboard spaces in Harlem into works of art. Samuelsson has been hard at work not only on his partnership with Bombay Sapphire, but at the end of last year, he also opened a Miami location of his iconic Harlem restaurant, Red Rooster, and published a book he says he worked on for four years called The Rise: Black Cooks and the Soul of American Food: A Cookbook.
Worth caught up with Samuelsson to discuss what 2020 was like for him and Red Rooster, the importance of understanding the impact of Black culinary traditions on American cuisine and how we can help uplift Black voices, particularly in the arts and culinary spaces.
First off, obviously we all know last year was a tough year for restaurants and the hospitality industry as a whole. How are you and Red Rooster doing after last year, and what’s the reopening process been like for you?
Well thank you so much for asking. We’re fine. It’s been very, very difficult, but I know the restaurant community, as a whole, we’re very resilient. Our customers have been amazing coming with us, like eating outside in February in New York, and I have to say thank you to the customers and our staff who have gone to work and worked through these very difficult times, but also found new ways of being creative. I think outdoor patios and takeout and deliveries are definitely here to stay.
Red Rooster in Harlem is such an iconic restaurant. How did you grow it to become as renowned as it is now, while also still remaining relatable and approachable to so many?
Well, I think it has a lot to do with our community. Harlem is a very special community. Red Rooster wouldn’t be the same without the community citizen, but if we’ve ever done something together, it’s within the community and even what we do in our campaign, it’s all community based. Living in Harlem helped me understand how revenues should be in the community and of the community; it’s a very important part. I lived in Harlem six years before we opened the restaurant, so I understand how this iconic neighborhood works. And I think that’s helped us shape Red Rooster Harlem, but also Red Rooster Overtown in Miami.
You were born in Ethiopia, raised in Sweden and now you live in America, so I’m curious how all of those cultures have inspired who you are as a chef?
I draw [on] and have learned from all three. Growing up in a fishing village in Sweden really shaped me a lot with my grandparents and my parents, but I had the opportunity to travel to Europe and work in Europe, and then eventually come to America, come to Harlem in New York City, so many opportunities present themselves, and also the humility and the work ethic from Ethiopia, so I think it gives me a really fortunate window into three very different but fruitful cultures. And at the end of the day, hospitality, it’s a people business. And all of these three places are very dear to me. But everything I do is really based on people; I couldn’t it do without the amazing team that we have.
When you started becoming a chef, did you always have your sights set on New York City or had you been just kind of going with the flow?
You have to be very deliberate when you build a career as a chef. So, for me, the first year was about working in Switzerland, working in France, building that resume. And then eventually, it was my goal to come to New York City in America and achieve it, and eventually open my own restaurant, like Red Rooster. It was always a dream of mine, and I feel like, being able to achieve it, it’s been one of the highlights of my life, and then being able to be with my family, my son and my wife, but also my extended restaurant family—it’s something that you don’t take for granted but are very appreciative of.
Your most recent cookbook, The Rise, came out in the fall. How important was it for you to be able to write a book that reclaimed Black culinary traditions, especially in light of everything that’s been happening in the last year?
It was a book that we worked on for four years, and it came out at a very important time in 2020, when we were dealing with a social justice conversation in this country. And Black chefs have done the work in America for a very long time, but it maybe had not been highlighted or broadcasted enough. And you see it now with The Rise, you see it with High on the Hog on Netflix, and you start to see a representation much, much more of people of color and Black chefs, and I’m excited about this opportunity. It took a long time, but I’m excited that we’re here, and it couldn’t be done without incredible Black chefs, particularly Black women who worked in kitchens for so many years to build the foundation of American cuisine.
What do you really hope that readers take away from your book?
In order to move forward, we need to know our past, and that’s what the book is about, but also that “Black chef” is not monolithic Black food is not monolithic. It comes from Africa, it then, through the migration and immigration, changes constantly. And today, it’s one of the cornerstones of American cooking—whether it’s barbecue or whether it’s Creole food—so I do think that it’s fascinating, the impact it has on American cooking. We should celebrate and honor it.
You’re known for uplifting Black voices, particularly in the culinary and arts industries. So, what are some ways our readers could help do that too?
I think it’s like, looking up/following Black chefs on Instagram, looking up, “are there chefs of color in your city that you can support?” We have a fund that we built called Black Businesses Matter Matching Fund, which has really been amazing to be able to build something nationwide for African American-led small businesses because the pandemic really hurt the BIPOC and Black population—hit them much, much harder. So, I think if you have that opportunity to consciously be able to support, do that. There’s never been a more important time to support Black-owned businesses.
What are you most excited about in the coming months?
I’m excited, as are my chef friends nationwide, about opening back up. And as people are coming back to work, we’re trying to all figure out, I think, “how do I balance work life?” “Do I go back to the office the same way?” So, at least America is opening back up, as we’re getting more and more vaccines. We have missed each other, not just connecting through Zoom or so on, but socially you can tell people are excited about going back to restaurants because they want to be part of communities. I’m excited about that.