When COVID-19 forced New York City into lockdown in March, Harlem chef and restaurateur Marcus Samuelsson had a choice: stay or go. Born in Ethiopia and raised by adoptive parents in Sweden, Samuelsson says leaving the city during the pandemic "would be the easier way out."
But he decided to stay.
"My father was a tribe leader in Ethiopia. You don't leave at the toughest time," he says. "You can't come in and take all the benefits and then, when it comes to your turn to chip in, leave."
The James Beard award-winning chef says his flagship restaurant, Red Rooster, became his "haven" during the height of pandemic. Working with José Andrés' World Central Kitchen organization, Samuelsson converted the restaurant to a community kitchen. Over the course of six months, Red Rooster served more than 200,000 meals to first responders and others in need.
"It was a place for me when our world was so ripped apart and no one knew what to do," he says.
Samuelsson says feeding the community during the pandemic also changed the way he thought about his industry. "The word 'restaurant' actually means to restore your community. And in the worst of times, I think that the restaurant, the hospitality industry really stepped up," he says.
Samuelsson currently hosts the PBS series No Passport Required. His new book, The Rise, is a celebration of Black excellence in the culinary world — and the many Black cooks who have influenced American food, often without credit.
"When I think about American food and the Black experience, it's almost like we were written out of the food history," he says. "Just like American history in general, it's very complex, and it's not written with people of color and Black people in mind."
On how race, class and equity all contribute to the American food landscape
The more we know about Blackness and food, we don't understand how complex it is. It's not monolithic and it's highly layered, and therefore, it's also uniquely American — not just for the Black population of America, for all of America. For me, I think the best parallel is with American music. When we think about American music, you cannot think about American music without the contribution of Black people, whether it's gospel, R&B, rock 'n' roll to today's hip-hop or funk.
On how Black people have been written out of food history
The history is written so wrong and ... it's so important to [correct] it. And I'll tell an example: If you want to send a box of chocolate to a friend, you say, "Hey, let me order some Belgian chocolate." There's no cocoa beans in Belgium — the cocoa beans are in Ghana. So anything that is great gets taken out of Africa and restored back into Europe. If you're going to say, "Hey, I want to have some great French coffee." Well, the French roast coffee, but the coffee comes from Kenya and Ethiopia. And that's happened for generations. We just say verbally, but ... if you take away the worth, you also take away aspiration and inspiration. And that is a very, very important part: So you don't have to colonize by being there anymore. You can own all the assets. So we've been programmed to say great stuff comes from Europe and not from Africa.
On the value of the dining experience
We have such a troubled way of understanding the privilege of somebody cooking for you. It enters our country through a horrific long period of slavery and class. We start at a very, very complicated history that we now actually are trying to deal with in many different ways. But the privilege of actually somebody cooking for you — it's one of the highest gifts that you can get from another person, because it means that the other person, the chef, is really fully thinking about you. What's your history in terms of religion? What's your culture? You obviously don't serve a pork dish to someone who's [of] Jewish or Muslim faith. You obviously don't serve a big meat course for someone that is vegetarian. ...
So when somebody says, "I'm going to cook for you," that's such an incredible way of engaging. How can I learn something? How can I be part of someone's culture? And I can tell people who just eat to feed themselves versus people who are actually dining, and that's a whole other way of entering a conversation. ... Food can signal: We're cooking for you, we're talking to you and we have you in mind. That's what chefs do.
On where home is for him
Home is definitely Harlem for me. ... The beautiful part about being American is that you can love many things. I love Harlem with everything it has: The beauty of the boulevards, the incredible nature, the brownstones, the music, the people. And Harlem has really embraced my family — through the Red Rooster, but beyond the Red Rooster. So that is where I consider home.
But there's another feeling of home and comfort when I go to Smögen, the village in Sweden, the seafood village, an island that my father comes from. When I'm there and I'm visiting my cousins, it's very simple. We live in a very simple home, but we have access to nature. Nature is everywhere. Water, wind, cold weather. So I realized that that's a very important part of the Samuelssons, of us, but also, so is Ethiopia. So to be able to draw from many cultural, geographical places is just what makes us the Samuelssons. And I need Ethiopia. I need Sweden and Harlem and New York to be whole.
On coming up in the era of hierarchical French-style kitchens and wanting to create a different working environment
I realized that the way I was raised in my restaurant life through the great restaurants in France and Switzerland and all over the world, that's not the way to manage and get the best out of people in 2020, '21. Cooking is such an incredible craft, but you also have to be a true leader. Back in the day, because it was a very monolithic field — male, very often older male, white males — there was one way of communicating. All the authority came from one country — not only one part of the world, just one country. ... Nothing could be further from the truth. Great food is in France, but [it's also] in the rest of the world. And the biggest contributors to great food are women in the world.
So our industry evolved, my kitchens evolved, and there is no way that I could operate my restaurant the way people treated me. I came up in that era ... but that doesn't mean that I need to pass that on. I try to focus on the opposite. That's why I opened Red Rooster in Harlem. That's why we have an open kitchen [where guests can see directly into the kitchen]. Sixty percent of the chefs in my kitchen are women, most of the time women of color.
On the challenges facing the restaurant industry
I think long-term, the future of American restaurants will be fantastic, because people are realizing that without restaurants — local restaurants — American neighborhoods and cities will look completely different. You look at the transformation that that local restaurant has done to communities in Brooklyn, communities in Harlem and so on. You can travel anywhere in this country today and there's great local restaurants with all different ethnic backgrounds. ... The restaurants are really the soul, the heartbeat, of that community. Because once you don't have a restaurant, you don't have a barbershop, you don't have a coffee shop, you don't have other sorts of retail. ...
In a short-term way, I do think that we're going to go into the most challenging winter we've ever done as [the] restaurant/hospitality community. We're going to need our customers to support us more than ever, whether it's ordering takeout, whether that's us in the industry coming up with new entrepreneurship to meeting the customer where they're at. And we are also going to need help from the government. The government actually has to govern and navigate all people, not just the big companies.
Sam Briger and Kayla Lattimore produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Today, we welcome Marcus Samuelsson back to the show. He's perhaps the most celebrated Black chef in America today, and he has a new cookbook, which is, well, more than a cookbook. He spoke with Dave Davies, who first interviewed him on FRESH AIR in 2012. I'll let Dave take it from here.
DAVE DAVIES, BYLINE: Marcus Samuelsson's life story is pretty remarkable. He was born in a poor village in Ethiopia and would likely have died as a toddler from a tuberculosis outbreak had his mother not walked and carried him and his sister 75 miles to Addis Ababa for treatment. His mother didn't survive, but the two children did and were adopted and raised by a family in Sweden. Samuelsson grew up, went to culinary school, did apprenticeships in Switzerland and Austria and made it to the United States, where he made a name for himself as a chef and eventually moved to Harlem. There, he opened the Red Rooster, a successful restaurant with close ties to the community and a menu that includes his take on traditional soul foods, as well as some Swedish and Ethiopian dishes. Samuelsson has opened many restaurants, written many cookbooks, won multiple James Beard Awards and appeared plenty on television. He currently hosts the series "No Passport Required" on PBS. His new book has plenty of recipes, but it's also an exploration of Black influences in American food and a celebration of Black excellence in the culinary world. It's called "The Rise: Black Cooks And The Soul Of American Food." Marcus Samuelsson joins me from Knoxville, Tenn., where he's on location shooting for the Food Channel. Marcus Samuelsson, welcome back to FRESH AIR.
MARCUS SAMUELSSON: Thank you so much for having me. It's a pleasure to be here.
DAVIES: In the author's note to this book, you note that in February you were in Florida setting up a Miami version of your restaurant, the Red Rooster, you know, interviewing chefs, cooks, dishwashers, talking to investors. And then what happened?
SAMUELSSON: Well, then it really - our world changed, right? The restaurant industry for me - we were in the middle of opening Red Rooster Overtown, and when the pandemic hit our industry in the world, it just changed it forever. My friend Jose Andres was already talking about that we as chefs should join World Central Kitchen, and he's been working with World Central Kitchen for years. And I'm like, yes, Jose, we'll definitely do something. But two weeks later, when it was clear that we couldn't open the restaurant and we actually had to shut the restaurant Red Rooster in Harlem, Jose and World Central Kitchen was probably one of my first calls. So we converted Red Rooster Harlem from a traditional restaurant to a community kitchen. And over the next six months, we served collectively over 200,000 meals just from the Harlem location with World Central Kitchen.
DAVIES: This was served outdoors?
SAMUELSSON: Outdoors, and there was a line out the door every day. We served, obviously, the neediest, but we also served first responders, nurses, doctors. And it changed also the outlook for me that chefs serve as cooks can also be first responders. It also changed fundamentally what the word restaurant, what a restaurant can be in a community, right? The word restaurant actually means to restore your community. And in the worst of times, I think that the restaurant, the hospitality industry, really stepped up to serve at that support for the neediest and for the first responders.
DAVIES: Yeah. Describe, if you would, some of the people that would line up to get these meals and whether that changed over time.
SAMUELSSON: Well, it definitely changed. You know, the first weeks, first of all, no one knew what serving food through social distance looked like, right? But World Central Kitchen had that experience. So they had mask and gloves and knew about 6 feet apart. So we had to learn a new system to serve. And the line was homeless people, people with drug addiction in the beginning. But basically a week or two so into it, it changed. We got more first responders, so we sent cars out to Harlem Hospital, et cetera. And then about three weeks into it, the line completely changed. People started to drive to Red Rooster, jump out of cars and wait in line for an hour or so. And I it there was neighbors. It was people who lived down the street from me. It was people who just lost their job. The line got wider and very often the dynamics in the line changed. The homeless person, a person used to wait in line in a shelter, actually coached the working-class person on how to wait in line, you know, what was expected, talked about social distancing and the whole dynamic about the new regulars at the Red Rooster. But also it was fascinating to me, and it became also my haven. You know, it was a place for me when our world was so ripped apart and no one knew what to do. I needed that basic of walking to - the five blocks it takes for me to leave my house and walk to Red Rooster, the five minutes, that walk, I needed that walk. But also I just saw how Harlem as a community quickly, vastly had changed.
DAVIES: Before this happened, you had a lot of going businesses. I mean, you were opening one in Miami, you had the one in Harlem, you had a big one in Rutgers and more than one in Harlem, right? I mean, you must have had to lay off a lot of people. That couldn't have been easy.
SAMUELSSON: You know, it was by far the most difficult year in my life. Our whole world was upside down. And, yes, layoffs and what's going to happen to our staff was a big part of it. But it was also that balance between - you know, I came as an immigrant 25 years ago. I came with $300. And America and Harlem particularly has been amazing to me and my family, very rewarding. And I wanted to give back. I did not - you know, I'm an immigrant. I'm very privileged. I can go back to Sweden. But I felt it was important for me to stay here and help my community provide as much as I could but also be there for my staff. You know, as a chef, you're a - my father was a tribe leader in Ethiopia. You don't leave at the toughest time. So it was very important for me for so many reasons to stay, fight it out, provide opportunities for the staff and reorganize as much as possible.
DAVIES: Right. Those were some really rough months in New York. And a lot of people of means left. I mean, they found ways to go and either some had country homes, some rented places. You stayed in Harlem with your wife and son.
SAMUELSSON: You know, I think the blessings for me of being both a Black man but also an immigrant and living in Harlem, all those three - Right? - I've had all the benefits of the civil rights movement. I wouldn't be here with the rights and the fights of the civil rights movement. So it's a privilege to enter a country as a person of color. And I can now build a business based on that fight. It wasn't the right thing for me to leave, even if it would be the easier way out. You know, you can't come in and take all the benefits and then when it comes your turn to chip in, leave. It just doesn't sit right for me and my family. And we discussed it. It wasn't that we weren't frustrated. It wasn't like I - my wife and I felt like everything was great. But there was also a lot of those things that I said. This is something that we might have to do and we should be doing.
Walking in Harlem - you know, a community like Harlem that is so amazing, you think about it from all the history and the culture, especially African American culture that is in this incredible village. But also so quickly did it go down to very dispair community - right? - based on many different reasons. When you think about the injustices in society, for example, the homeless population every day was dumped in to Harlem to 125th Street. Rikers Island population was dumped in to 125th Street, right? So there was all of these other forces that you know, when people say they left - no one was left in New York, I said nothing could be further from the truth. All the working people in New York stayed. And fear is a rich man's game. That's what one of my line cooks said. And I really agree with that.
DAVIES: You said homeless people were dumped at 125th Street in Harlem. You mean - who dumped them?
SAMUELSSON: There is so many different - other things that happened in the community, like Newark (ph) and Harlem and so on - right? - where you have more methadone centers, for example. Also, when they empty the population because of COVID from a prison, people decide that they should just be dumped off in Harlem. You know, when the homeless population gets dumped into a community, they get dumped off in Harlem. You know, try that on Upper East Side. Try that in the West Village. It wouldn't happen, right? So all of a sudden, already Black and brown communities get labored even more in terms of a population that have nowhere to go - right? - because they also know that few people in those communities have anyone to complain to. But I talked to the mayor's office. I spoke to the police commissioner. I said this is completely unacceptable, and it's not safe.
DAVIES: Did you get any response?
SAMUELSSON: Yes, I did. And they stopped with Rikers Island. They stopped that program in mid-April. But, you know, when people talk about structural racism and institutional racism, it's hidden, right? It's not - no one's going to call you from those offices the N-word. That's not - it doesn't live in the word of the act of the N-word anymore, right? It lives in much, much, much more sophisticated, hidden places. And you just got to see it, call it. And I'm fortunate enough to have people and friends in high places that I can call on. And this is the time to do this.
DAVIES: I'm going to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We're speaking with Chef Marcus Samuelsson. His new book is "The Rise: Black Cooks And The Soul Of American Food." We'll continue after this short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with chef Marcus Samuelsson. His new cookbook is part recipes but also partly an exploration and appreciation of Black contributions to American food. It's called "The Rise."
So let's talk about this book of yours. It's really much more than a cookbook. You say in it - you say that it's an opportunity to eat deliciously, but it's also a cookbook about race, class and the equity of the American food landscape. What do you mean?
SAMUELSSON: Well, when I think about American food and the Black experience, it's almost like we're written out of the food history. And this is important to take authorship and replace African American experience into American food history, right? And it's - just like American history in general, it's very complex, and it's not written with people of color and Black people in mind, right? So the authorship of American food, so much of it we should thank African American contribution for it. And there is a lot of celebration there, and the more we know about Blackness in food, we don't understand how complex it is. It's not monolithic, and it's highly layered. And therefore, it's also uniquely American, not just for the Black population of America, for all of America. For me, I think the best parallel is with American music, right? When we think about American music, you cannot think about American music without the contribution of Black people, whether it's gospel, R&B, rock 'n' roll to today's hip-hop or funk, right? It's - and each label of those music really lays an opportunity of clarity. You think about James Brown, you think about Prince, you think about Miles Davis, for example. That's really how I would love for us to learn about the contribution of American cooks, particularly Black American women, because they contributed the most.
DAVIES: In this book, I mean, you know, you're not just talking about what people think of as traditional soul food, right? I mean, because, as you say, there are a lot of influences on African American food and, you know, Caribbean and African. And in the book, there are lots of recipes and then there are profiles of people, some are chefs, some are not. You want to just talk a bit about how you picked the people who you chose to feature here?
SAMUELSSON: So there's always been a link between the continent of Africa, Caribbean and an African American experience through music, through art, through storytelling but, of course, food. Most of the food that we think about as Southern food came to us through Africa, whether it's growing rice, okra, peanuts, all of that - right? - but also the rituals and the traditions of, for example, barbecue, Creole cooking. So full cuisines has a linkage with Africa, the Caribbean and the Southern states of America. So we do know that. We've heard those stories a little bit, but obviously immigration from the Caribbean and migration has also changed our cooking. So the most important point besides broadcasting these stories was to really show how layered the Black experience in America in terms of food is today. When you look an example like Nyesha Harrington in Los Angeles, she's Korean African American. Her grandmother spoke to her and her sister only in Korean, but she's also a girl from California and an amazing chef of today, right? So these examples of Greg Gourdet that is Haitian American via Brooklyn living in Portland today; and my last example is somebody like Eric Gestel. He's been the chef de cuisine at Le Bernardin, the world-famous three-star Michelin restaurant in midtown Manhattan. But he's from Guadeloupe. His wife is from Japan. So his food has influences from French Caribbean but also, when they cook at home, clearly Japanese influences as well.
So just as much as we learned about the different nations, about Europe, right? There is not a link - we understand the difference between Portuguese food and Polish food, Spanish food and Italian food. But when it comes to Blackness and American food, it's almost just boiled down to a couple of dishes. The point of "The Rise" is really to show how complex it is - it's not monolithic - and how delicious it is. And, you know, there lies the opportunity of American food.
DAVIES: You were working on this book when the protests for racial justice erupted across the United States. I'm wondering how you connected with that and how that influenced this work.
SAMUELSSON: You know, the journey of the dual pandemics that we have in this country - the fascinating thing is that we will solve COVID before we will really solve the pandemic of racism that's been around us much, much longer. And when I started to work on this book four years ago, no one thought this was an idea that was a great idea. And so I'm very happy that my publisher wanted to publish the book. But as a Black chef, I knew that we have to share these stories. We have to broadcast, and particularly now in a time during and post-COVID.
But I think civil rights and being an advocate is something that was taught to me. When I look at Ms. Leah Chase, for example - 96 years old, she just passed away as we were working on the book - she's had restaurant Dooky Chase since the '40s. So much of the civil rights movement was planned in her restaurant, right? Rosa Parks and all of that was planned in Dooky Chase. I think about people that contributed to major, major changes in American history, right? Georgia Gilmore, you know, she was waking up 4 o'clock in the morning and baking and selling her cakes and donating over a hundred dollars a week to Martin Luther King's movement - right? - to the civil rights movement. So Black women, you know, really has been in the center.
You think Zephyr Wright, for example - right? - that she was the chef for Lyndon B. Johnson. She had his ear more than the movement outside. And she was a major part of how - the right to vote and all of those things happened, for example. So Black women, in terms of cooking, have been advocates and civil rights leaders in a way that they haven't really got acknowledged for, right?
So when we have this spring, the horrific spring, with COVID, and then on top of that, we watched George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, it is - it's devastating. And not just I think it's devastating for being a Black chef, it's for everybody, for the world, right? So for me, the only difference is that we can document it this time - right? - that there are cameras and so on. But as a Black person, you know this has happened and will happen continuously.
DAVIES: You and a lot of the people in the book that you profile are restoring Black authorship to a lot of American food that really had been denied - as you say, written out of the story. How do you restore that authorship? I mean, apart from telling the stories that you tell in the book, how do people learn and appreciate those contributions?
SAMUELSSON: Wow, it's such a great question. It's a big, important part of our history, our food history. And I start that with saying, the history's written so wrong, and it's - the further we get away from it. So it's so important to re-correct it. And I'll tell you an example. If you want to send a box of chocolate to a friend, you say, hey, let me order some Belgian chocolate, right? There's no cocoa beans in Belgium. The cocoa beans are in Ghana. So even - anything that is great gets taken out of Africa and restored back into Europe.
If you're going to say, hey, I want to have some great French coffee, well, the French roast coffee, you know, the coffee come from Kenya and Ethiopia, right? So once again - and that happens during - for generations. Yes, we just say it verbally. But it also changes, what is worth? What is the worth of starting the coffee industry? What is the worth of, you know, having cocoa beans and converting it into chocolate? If you take away the worth, you also take away aspiration and inspiration, right? And that is a very, very important part. So you don't have to colonialize by being there anymore, you can own all the assets.
So we've been programmed to say great stuff comes from Europe and not from Africa. So that has a geographic role (ph), but it also have a racial overtone as well, right? And another example is, obviously, Jack Daniels. The person that come up with the recipe for Jack Daniels, probably one of the most famous liquor brands in the world, was Mr. Nearest Green. He never got one dime for coming up with that recipe.
And that story has been shared and told through The New York Times and many platforms. But it also changes who would have come into the liquor business and the brown liquor business, how many Black people owned brown liquor businesses. If Mr. Nearest Green would've owned it, we would've had that example, we would have that wealth in the Black community. That could have started many, many different things, right? It's extremely important to link authorship to who created it.
DAVIES: Marcus Samuelsson's new book is The Rise: Black Cooks And the Soul Of American Food. He'll be back to talk some more with us after this short break. I'm Dave Davies. And this is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies. We're speaking with chef Marcus Samuelsson. He was born in Ethiopia, raised by an adopted family in Sweden, but has spent most of his career in the United States. He's won multiple James Beard awards, and he runs the Red Rooster restaurant in Harlem, where he also lives. His new book is part cookbook and partly an exploration and appreciation of Black contributions to American food. It's called "The Rise."
I want to talk a bit about "No Passport Required." This is a show that you host on PBS. And for each episode, you pick a city. But rather than going to the city and looking at, you know, the most famous restaurants, you look at immigrant communities and their food and their restaurants and their grocery stores. You know, one that really struck me was when you visited Houston, Texas. This is maybe because I grew up in South Texas myself. And you found this amazing community of West African immigrants from more than one country that are really deeply involved in, you know, authentic food from their own traditions. I thought maybe you'd describe a dish that that interested me - fufu, this Nigerian dish. Can you explain what that is?
SAMUELSSON: Well, first of all, I think Houston should get a lot of credit because it's the most diverse city in the country. And again, once again, people might not think about that because it's in Texas, for example. Right? You have a huge Vietnamese community and Indian community and so on. But you also have a very vibrant West African community that - you know, within the West African community, you have Ghana highly represented, but also Nigeria.
So fufu is a staple. You know, fufu is done very often with cassava flour. And you bring it to a boil, and it almost has the texture of mashed potato. You eat it with your hand. Very often, you scoop a seafood - a shellfish stew, a seafood stew on top of it. You don't eat with knife and fork. You scoop all that up with your hands. And, you know, it's one of those things that, of course, if you're of West African descent, you know it.
But if you're not from West African descent - and, of course, you can be Black and never have had fufu. I would say the majority of Black people have never had fufu, especially in America, right? So that, again, shows you that Blackness is not monolithic. We share certain things. We share certain things in identity and culture. But when it comes to food and rituals, there's so many different ways of thinking about staples and necessity.
DAVIES: You know, one of the things that you write in the book is that you want people who are cooking to be always exploring, you know? Get outside your comfort zone, find other traditions. And, you know, food, like language, can bind people together to their tribe, to their ethnicity, to their regions. It can also divide people, right? If someone shows up who talks different from you, the foods, the smells might be unfamiliar. How do you encourage people to experience the food of immigrants in a truly positive way? What are some ways that it spreads in a way that really connects with people?
SAMUELSSON: Well, I'll tell you. By working a lot with - food media is such a key importance here - right? - because we learn things through seeing it and reinforced. And the new editor-in-chief of Bon Appetit, Dawn Davis, she's brilliant. And one of her mantras is saying - what's that? - in a positive way. We talked about the lunchbox - right? - 'cause us immigrants, as kids, you know, the classic moment when someone opened their lunchbox and someone said - what's that? - versus twisting it to - what's that? - right...
SAMUELSSON: ...That higher pitch of curiosity, right?
SAMUELSSON: And that can be reinforced through food media, through parents and then having different types of food nights at home. Obviously, now we have - Food Network has a role in that. Bon Appetit has a major role in that, that I work with. And my Instagram channel and all the chefs' Instagram channels has huge roles in that. So food media has a major part in terms of telling stories in terms of food democracy and food equity.
DAVIES: You know, you've talked about the value of humility in the dining experience. Why is it important? What do you mean?
SAMUELSSON: Well, we have such a troubled way of understanding the privilege of somebody cooking for you - right? - because we - it enters our country through a horrific long period of slavery and class. And so we started at a very, very complicated history - right? - that we now actually are trying to deal with in many different ways, right? But when the privilege of actually somebody cooking for you - right? - it's one of the highest gifts that you can get from another person because it means that the other person, the chef, is really fully thinking about you. Are you - what's your history in terms of religion? What's your culture? You obviously don't serve a pork dish to someone that is Jewish or Muslim faith. You obviously don't serve a big meat course for someone that is vegetarian, right? If someone has allergy - so when somebody says, I'm going to cook for you, that's such an incredible way of engaging of, how can I learn something? How can I be a part of someone's culture?
And I can tell people who just eat to feed themselves versus people who actually dine. And that's why it's a whole other way of entering a conversation. I'm going to give you an example. When I had the opportunity to cook for Barack Obama's first state dinner, it was for Indian Prime Minister Singh at the time, right? It was 2009. And it was just when Michelle Obama started her garden initiative. First thing I looked at was that Prime Minister Singh was vegetarian. We also talked a lot about the fact that breaking bread - up until that point, most state dinners - they were French, even if the guest of honor was not French. And I was like, we are America. We have an Indian prime minister come here. Let's cook with this person in mind, but let's highlight American ingredients.
So the bread course became chapati, which are Indians', and cornbread, for example. We had chickpeas in the salad, but we also had kale and collard greens. All the beverages were American. We'd serve pumpkin pie with Indian garam masala, for example, right? So food can signal, we're cooking for you, we're talking to you, and we have you in mind. That's what chefs do. But that really requires a back-and-forth. The way you see very often in Black churches, there's a push and pull. The way you see when you go to a concert, when - you know, when Prince handed out the mic to the audience and the audience sang every word, that was a back-and-forth. There was an engaged listener. Same thing is when you're going to cook a big meal for someone. You need an engaged diner. That happens in magical restaurants constantly. And it happened at that state dinner.
DAVIES: And, conversely, when someone has a dismissive attitude towards those who are cooking their food, kind of tells you something about (laughter) the way they deal with people.
SAMUELSSON: Yes. And it's a massive opportunity - you know, missed opportunity for actually hearing other people, listening and learning. It's not just listening, it's learning. Therefore, you misunderstand - therefore, you missed the opportunity of actually saying, how can I be of assistance? How can I see you? So much of "The Rise" is about we see you. We're going to connect you. And we're going to broadcast.
DAVIES: All right. Let me reintroduce you again. We're speaking with Marcus Samuelsson. His new book is "The Rise: Black Cooks And The Soul Of American Food." We'll talk some more after this short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF RED MITCHELL AND CLARK TERRY'S "SWINGIN' THE BLUES")
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with chef Marcus Samuelsson. His new book includes recipes. It is also partly an exploration and appreciation of Black contributions to American food. It's called "The Rise: Black Cooks And The Soul Of American Food."
You know, if anybody is in a position to understand (laughter) many different cultures, it's you, given the course of your life. And I have to say, I learned a lot about your life from the episode of Anthony Bourdain's series "Parts Unknown," in which you and your wife, Maya, went with him on a trip to Ethiopia. And this was really fascinating, you know? You left there as a toddler and went to Sweden. At what point did you reconnect with your family there? Or had you always stayed in touch?
SAMUELSSON: My sister, my biological sister, Linda - Fantaye - was really the one that made sure we stayed connected to Ethiopia. She was much more curious about it when I was just busy working and building my career. And one day, she just says, I think we can find our birth father. She'd then been in contact with a adoption agency in Ethiopia that helped us be adopted.
And I said to her, well, we'll have to speak to our mother, our Swedish mother, because I felt like our mom had done a great job raising us. But I didn't want to go behind her back. So I called mom. And mom said, like, of course. When are we going? You have - we have to - if we can find him, we all win. And it took about two years later because we needed verification and all of that stuff. But, you know, about two years later, I was in Ethiopia. This is around - right after 9/11, actually. And it really changed the projector of my life.
SAMUELSSON: You know, my journey, just like we talk about in "The Rise," it's very, very complex, right? It has adoption. I have white parents. I am Ethiopian, but I don't speak the language. So how much of that - is there some side (ph) in Ethiopian, for example? How much is he American? He goes to Sweden every year - how much is that? So my point is, life, in general, is highly complex and layered. When you add race and identity, it adds more layers to that. But that's also the beauty of life - right? - to come to terms with that. And it's something that I've spent my life to be able to figure out. And I'm fortunate enough to be able to do it through creativity.
DAVIES: You know, I wanted to follow up on something. You and I talked a few years ago when you'd written your memoir, "Yes, Chef." And you talked about the way you were treated when you were coming up in, you know, European restaurants, when you were learning the business. And you said, you know, chefs would just treat you however they wanted. You were insulted. You had things thrown at you. And you took it because you wanted to learn. You wanted to learn the craft. And I'm wondering, with that experience, what kind of working culture have you created in your restaurants, whether you found that it's hard to be as humane as one might like or whether you've managed to make it really different?
SAMUELSSON: I realized that the way I was raised in my restaurant life through the great restaurants in France and Switzerland and all over the world, that's not the way to manage and get the best out of people 2020-21, right? And, you know, cooking is such an incredible craft. But you also have to be a true leader. And back in the day, because it was a very monolithic field - male, very often older male, white males - there was one way of communicating. All the authority came from one country - not only, like, one part of the world, just one country.
And, obviously, great food - nothing could be further from the truth. Great food is in France, but so is from the rest of the world. And the biggest contributors to great food are women in the world. So our industry evolved. My kitchens evolved. And there is no way that I could operate my restaurant the way people treated me. And, you know - but I came up in that era. It's like if you came up through a certain era of music or film directing - I'm sure you come up through certain era. And that was my era. It's the experience that I went through.
But that doesn't mean that I need to pass that on. I try to focus on the opposite. That's why I opened Red Rooster in Harlem. That's why we have an open kitchen. We work a lot about - of course, 60% of the chefs in my kitchen are women most of the time, women of color, for example. So those were the notes that I saw - that I was the only Black person in those kitchen. I also noticed there were no women in those kitchens. So first, when I became a chef, it was important for me to change those two images. So I learned, probably, more what not to do. But I also learned what to do and what not to do during those experiences.
DAVIES: One other little personal note here. You know, your restaurants and your menus and your recipes are really diverse and colorful. And I've seen a lot of pictures of you, and you dress very colorfully with patterned pants, scarves, hats.
DAVIES: It's - nothing's subtle. Is this a form of creative expression for you? Is there a message here?
SAMUELSSON: You know, it's funny because I would say two things. When you dress in Harlem and you look at the incredible Dapper Dan and Miss Lana Turner, dressing has always been part of an African identity but also a sad journey in American history, right? As Black men, we had to dress up, right? We have modern example of that. If we didn't look in a certain way and still a certain way, police officers can round us up. And it can still - it still happens, right? But for me, dressing signals a way that we hear in a way that I tied back to Africa. Color and patterns is very tribal. I think I dress very shy, you know?
SAMUELSSON: But it was always funny because my mom, you know, in Sweden, she always said - you know, and the whole Swedish mantra, it was, don't stick out, just be normal. I said, Mom, there's 500 kids in the school. We're the only Black kids (laughter) you know? That's not going to happen. So, you know, we've learned to have a lot of fun with it and - yeah.
DAVIES: Coming back to where we started, you've had a lot of restaurants. And before the pandemic, you had - you know, you had a lot of businesses going with lots of employees. What's the future for restaurants?
SAMUELSSON: I look at it - I would answer in two ways - short term, long term. I think long term, the future of American restaurant will be fantastic because people are realizing that without restaurants, local restaurants, American neighborhoods and cities will look completely different. You look at the transformation that that local restaurant has done to communities in Brooklyn, communities in Harlem and so on. You can travel anywhere in this country today, and there's great local restaurants with all different ethnic background. And that's something that people are not going to go back and say those places don't matter, right? So we need a restaurant because once the restaurants are gone - the restaurants are really the soul of - the heartbeat of that community. Because once you don't have restaurant, you don't have a barbershop, you don't have a coffee shop, you don't have other sorts of retailers. So quality of life, that balance between what I can order in, what I can get from the big boxes such as Amazon, but also the smaller, the more personal conversation, those are happening in restaurants and cafes and bars. And I do know that Americans acknowledge and want that lifestyle back. We've agreed on - we can agree on that we want to be social. We just have to do it in a safe way.
In a short-term way, I do think that we're going to go in to the most challenging winter we've ever done as a restaurant hospitality community. We're going to need our customer to support us more than ever, whether that is ordering takeout, whether that's us in the industry coming up with new entrepreneurship to meeting the customer where they're at, and we also going to need help from the government. The government actually has to govern and navigate all people, not just the big companies. You know, the people who work in American restaurants, independent restaurant, we represent between 11 and 16 million people how you count it - right? - whether it's the people who actually work in the restaurant, the ancillary different job that comes out of restaurant. So it's a very, very important part of everyday experience as Americans. As we've said, we want this type of society.
DAVIES: Well, Marcus Samuelsson, thanks so much for speaking with us again.
SAMUELSSON: Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it. Thank you.
GROSS: Marcus Samuelsson is a multiple James Beard Award-winning chef and host of the PBS series "No Passport Required." His new book is called "The Rise: Black Cooks And The Soul Of American Food." After we take a short break, Justin Chang will review the new film adaptation of Roald Dahl's fantasy novel "The Witches." This is FRESH AIR.
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