THE ART OF GLOBAL CULINARY
By Amber Riley
World-renowned chef, restaurateur, and all around Renaissance man Marcus Samuelsson bridges the gap between art and culinary
It could be considered a wonted occurrence while visiting Harlem to be consumed amidst a montaged collage of diverse cultures, fragrances, sounds, and styles. After sorting through abstraction and wading in the immensity of the atmosphere, one may get … well … hungry. Considering all that has been seen and the history of the location, it only makes sense to satisfy the body’s hunger creatively.
Worlds of flavor collide and explode into a wealth of opportunity, cultural diversity, and fervor for fascinating food in the hands of award-winning chef and restaurateur Marcus Samuelsson. Settled in the heart of Harlem, his restaurant, Red Rooster, has an ambiance that’s comfy enough for the family, sexy enough for a date night, and sophisticated as its own art gallery. He is successfully keeping thrive alive in what’s known as the black mecca with the universal language of food to educate, enlighten, and engage society into the soul, hustle, and history of the African American journey.
Your cookbook tagline notes: The Story of Food and Hustle in Harlem, which is so fitting because it seems you have tremendous determination, ambition, and drive. What developed this or were you simply born this way?
Marcus Samulesson: I come from a little hut in Ethiopia. Every time I go back and see that, it gives me clear points of distance of where I am from and where I am going so I think part of it is the circumstances that I was born into. I would never take that out of the mix. I think the drive comes from that and part of it is that I came from a family in Sweden that was big on work ethic. Then the food has really changed me. Food has made me the person that I am today, the travel person, the person that met a lot of different cultures. I wasn’t born into that. That’s something that food gave me.
Monarch magazine: Has your vision always been this spot on or has it been a process?
Marcus SAMUELSSON: I think the creative journey is never just one take. The creative journey is something you build on and I enjoy that. It’s painful. It’s hard. Chef is a calling. If it’s not a calling you can’t do it. You can work in a food space, but you’re not a chef. With all of my chef friends, it’s a calling. When you do something that’s a calling, you’re on a rocky road. There’s going to be ups and downs and you better be there for the downtime. You’ve got to love it on the downside just as much as you love it on the upside because if you don’t, it’s not for you. You can’t stand it.
Monarch magazine: Food is so much more than fuel for our body. It fuels our souls. What made you believe you could bring a unique experience to the culture?
Marcus SAMUELSSON: I’m a studier of the culture. I study being black and being part of the diaspora. Harlem has always been the capital of black diaspora, as long as I can remember at least, so it was very important for me to come to New York and come to Harlem to be part of that and study that. Don’t forget that it took me seven years between moving to Harlem to open Red Rooster just because I didn’t feel like I knew enough and I’m still studying that.
Monarch magazine: So, Marcus, of all the places in NYC, why Harlem?
Marcus SAMUELSSON: I think it’s magical that you walk to work and you walk on the land that James Baldwin walked on and worked. I walk by Maya Angelou’s house. I think about that Romare Bearden and Langston worked here. So all of these creative forces and those of today all the way up to the Dapper Dans and Lana Turners, it gives me true inspiration and a sense of purpose, clear purpose.
Monarch magazine: What have been the challenges you experienced breaking into the culinary space?
Marcus SAMUELSSON: I look at the challenges really as two-folded. It’s being young, ambitious, and getting in. That’s a challenge for anybody regardless of race and gender. On top of that being black and an immigrant, which just made that forcibly for me to be even more precise. That gives you a clear choice. When you’re black and an immigrant, you’ve got to be more precise. You’ve got to be more. You’ve got to be precise like an Alvin Ailey dancer. Part of it is just being young and ambitious. It’s hard to get in. It’s hard to get a chance, but I’ve found mentors and the relationship between mentors and mentees is very important. Even in having young mentors, I recommend everyone: It’s not just for young people to have mentors. I have young mentors that teach me about today.
Monarch magazine: Let’s venture into a more personal space. With our current political landscape, and you being a man of the world, what is your position?
Marcus SAMUELSSON: Well, I just feel blessed that I lived and experienced the time when Obama was president. I say that because, you know, by 2030 … right now we’re talking about diversity. By 2030, we are diverse. It’s a different conversation and it’s really Obama’s generation, the kids that, you know, were 10, 12, they really grew up with him as the only president. They’re then going to be in charge. So all this work that we are doing right now is leading us from having the conversation about gender equality, spiritual equality, sexual equality, or race equality. By that time we are diverse and it’s a major difference between talking about diversity and being diverse. That’s a large work. We are pulling out the last teeth right now on that and it’s painful. Some of us want to go back to 1945 or the 1950s. They want to go back to the country club but on the larger scale that ain’t happening. Right now you can lose the battle but on the larger scale it ain’t going to happen because technology has no race, the environment has no race. Those are things it takes brilliant people to solve and America is filled with brilliant people. This is why still everyone in the world wants to come to America. It’s because it overcomes these ugly moments that we might be in. On a larger scale, this is just a blip. This moment is just a blip.
Monarch magazine: Seeing so much support of President Trump’s agenda, did it change your mind or challenge your vision of America?
Marcus SAMUELSSON: It inspires me because this is the time where you look at some of the great work, especially of black people. Martin and Malcolm created stuff during the toughest times, not during the easiest times. You think about great music, it was written during the toughest times not during the easiest times, so it makes you focus. The universe that I can control in terms of food is bringing people to this space, all types of people. I think about what does it mean for me to have my company here and the 250 to 300 people that work for me here in Harlem? They could’ve worked anywhere, right? We’re diverse by being. What does it mean to have expressions that you can taste, or experiences? It’s for Harlem EatUp!, an experience of 15,000 people coming together, 1,800 volunteers working, right? Streetbird is where we celebrate street culture and hip-hop, or Red Rooster, where we celebrate African American history in terms of food and culture. Those are the three expressions that I decide for us to come together and we decide to do it here. But if it’s 15,000 people that come to it or if it’s 4,000 people that come to Red Rooster every week, it touches their expressions in terms of Instagram, their families, the people they tell, the 300 families that get their bread from being part of this journey, is game-changing, not just so much from the way they get their check, but it also changes inspiration and aspirations about Harlem. Great food can be created in Harlem. Great food community can be started here. A startup can be happening in Harlem, so times like this are when you double down on the ship. It’s not when you walk away from it, it’s when you create more. It’s when you just get sharper. As black people we’ve been through it before. Black people can’t think about itself as a crisis. If you look at our history, we’ve always been in some type of crisis, but yet, we always cover up with the most amazing thing. Whether it’s been working on NASA, or working on the best music that inspires the world, or working on food that we were anonymous because our names weren’t allowed in, if any culture is prepared, it should be us.
Monarch magazine: You and your wife are a powerhouse couple, how did you meet?
Marcus SAMUELSSON: We met at a housewarming where we lived before here in Harlem, and we have so many similar stories but yet different. She’s Ethiopian but grew up in Harlem. I’m Ethiopian but grew up in Sweden. We both left our countries to grow up in Northern Europe so we both benefited greatly from having great education, but we both lost a lot. I lost my mother, she lost her father, and so we have a lot of things that we both sought after to come to America. We think we can do even more. We are true immigrants to this country and we are truly grateful for what this country has given us. All the ups and downs, we wouldn’t change a thing. Our son was born into this community. He will be born and raised in Harlem.
Monarch magazine: What do you feel makes you unique?
Marcus SAMUELSSON: I think food and my story allows me to connect to many different windows that are not exposed to a lot people. Africa. I can see Africa, I can taste Africa, I can explain African. Europe, Sweden, Northern Europe, I can explain it. I grew up there. I can explain that culture in a completely different way. I can see it from that side from growing up in another country. Then Harlem, America, when I go to Africa, when I go to Europe, they always ask me about New York, they always ask me about America. I’ve been invited in to cultures that are big and I can explain it, because of my journey.
Monarch magazine: What is Chef Marcus’s favorite dish?
Marcus SAMUELSSON: I love simple food like meatballs because that’s what my grandmother taught me growing up so I will always remember that. I will always say that’s what I feel like I grew up on. Something like that it’s beyond just eating, it’s about thinking about it from we did that together.
Monarch magazine: If we approach this question as we are building a dish called Marcus Samuelsson, what would make up that recipe?
Marcus SAMUELSSON: We would definitely be doing bourbon from southern hooch, maybe with peach and peanuts. We would serve definitely chicken. Maybe one side with fried chicken and one a little bit of chicken stew from Ethiopia. As an appetizer we would have cured salmon. That would encompass Sweden, Africa, and American.
Monarch magazine: What do you want people to take away when they encounter Marcus Samuelsson?
Marcus SAMUELSSON: I want them to be invited to a world that is inspired by Africa, linked to African American culture, but for everyone. Through food, through culture, see us, understand, maybe then know a little bit more about our journey and inspired by it. Maybe they can go on and be inspired and help them in the next endeavor, whether that’s in New York or whether it’s outside New York. So come to Red Rooster in London, come to Red Rooster in Harlem, come to see us, and when you see us, see us through a different way. It’s through food but it’s through the people that work there. Come to Harlem EatUp! and stand in the middle of Harlem and enjoy it. Enjoy the beautiful people that are just there for you and don’t want anything else but for you to have a great time. Dive in because our community is so beautiful and we have a story to tell and we just want to share it.