Marcus Samuelsson
"I've Gone Through 9/11, The Financial Crisis Of 2008, But Nothing Compares To This."

How do you find the words to articulate the state of the world right now? Maybe words aren't appropriate. Perhaps we should focus on the people that are acting with spirit, determination and courage. With so much doom and fear infecting the airwaves, it is vital to remember that there are people out there channelling this type of adversity into opportunities to aid and lend a hand.

One of those people is the world-class chef, immigrant, restauranter, father, activist and tv show host, Marcus Samuelsson. A patron of the working classes, Marcus’s own story is universally inspiring. By 18 months he was in his own words, “should have been dead”. He was born in Ethiopia to precarious circumstances, grew up in Sweden to an adopted family and culture and at an early age found enormous success moving abroad, becoming the youngest chef ever to receive two three-star ratings from The New York Times.

Along the way he has solidified his reputation as a fervent champion of the disenfranchised, that’s why he set up his empire Red Rooster in the downtrodden neighbourhood of Harlem, New York.

In fact, right now during this unprecedented global health emergency, Marcus has turned all of his restaurants into community kitchens helping those that need it the most. The more I reflect on this interview, the more I realise that Marcus is more representative of this crisis than anyone, an ambassador of an industry that is the root of a countries economic health: the hospitality industry. One of the most vulnerable demographics out there, working on the front line, in dense proximity to each other they will be the hardest hit, 6% of the entire US workforce is food-related, that’s 10 million jobs,  30% of those workers are foreign-born.  Marcus is one of those; he and many other chefs helped get the $2 trillion stimulus package through that Trump signed off on recently.

You can see from this interview Marcus is visibly shaken, we don’t blame him. The beautiful thing about this interview is that Marcus reminds us how vital a village or a community is, the sense of helping, sharing and communicating with each other. As we drew this chat to a close, he was on his way to a community kitchen to help his fellow brethren. A person who wasn’t supposed to be here after 18 months; he has consistently risen above adversity using his life as an example to inspire others.

Marcus Samuelsson’s ground zero Red Rooster Harlem has been turned into a community kitchen for locals in need. (Twitter / World Central Kitchen) 

I’m talking to you from Stockholm, and it’s probably a lot different here than it is in New York where you’re holed up.  You wrote in a
post in CNN just last week “this week has been the hardest of my career.”  Could you just describe for us what you’re seeing, and your experience has been for our readers. 

As a small business owner, you’re constantly tested, and as a chef, you’re tested continuously.  I’ve gone through 9/11, I’ve gone through the financial crisis of 2008, but nothing compares to this. I’m always concerned about the safety of my staff, the safety of my family, that’s number one. But you don’t know what tomorrow is going to bring. Also, the fact that we had to close all the restaurants, there is the logistics of that.
We turned all our restaurants into community kitchens, that has massively changed reality. We’re serving 600 needy people a day in each location. There’s a lot of logistics going from staying open serving customers to the logistics of converting into the community kitchen. So that’s a significant change. 

How do you think New York itself will be transformed by this experience? By the time you come out of this you’re going to be a very different person Marcus and so will New York. What do you think that will look like?

I have no idea. It’s too early. We’re in the middle of it.  I just lost a very good friend of mine Floyd Cardoz, a chef that I worked with. We came up at the same time in the late 90s and early 2000s.  I’ve lost customers, regulars that have passed. This is not like anything else I’ve dealt with. So I don’t know. I know we’ll get through this somehow,  but how and what it will look like I don’t know. 

Let’s talk about something that you know a lot about, which is food security and the safety of the supply chain. So what are your thoughts about food security at a time like this?

I live in Harlem, so I see food insecurity every day, and having that right in front of me, it’s probably what’s informed me the most in terms of turning our kitchen into a community kitchen. José Andrés has become a partner who has collaborated with us on this. I know we’re serving 600 people daily,  we are having an impact in our community, and we are making a difference. And I think also all of us are chefs. We know how to organise logistics. We know how to rise out of this.
We’re the same people who have a packed restaurant and do catering in different locations, and when two line cooks go down, we still figure out how to push through.  These are very different times, but it’s that experience of being a chef for 30 years that puts me in a good position. 

"This is not a time to draw inspiration from governments.  It's time to draw inspiration from people. Great people from all aspects of life,  that are volunteering, that are helping out, doctors, scientists."

Marcus Samuelsson speaking on the effects of the COVID-19 crisis

You seem like a very optimistic and resilient person.  Is your positivity being tested at the moment?

Sure, but I have a very strong character. Being an immigrant means that you leave everything behind, and you’ve got to build from scratch. I’ve been through this a couple of times. Not like this, but there are experiences I can draw from that have been tough.  You get inspired by people who say, ‘hey how can we help out? How can we make a difference?’

I’m very honoured and appreciative of the fact that you found time in such a crisis to be able to talk to me and be able to describe the experiences. If you’re able to say something to the people around the world about rising above adversity,  or how we can get together as a community to work as a global village, what would you say? 

In times like this, you think about the needy and consider the elderly adult in your apartment building or someone on the other side of town.  What can you do to help her or him? Even though the technology is there, whatever it may be, everyone can do something.  You have to stay safe, cover yourself and do what you can. I think most people want to help out. Most people I’ve met, they want to help. People, in general, are very good and want to do their part.

Do you want to stay in America after this experience, after having witnessed how the government has acted?  I’m not talking about Harlem because I know you love it, but in America as a place in itself, the climate it finds itself in. 

I don’t have an opinion on that.
I never associate the government with the country itself.  I deal with people.  When you’re a chef, you deal with people on all levels, the dishwasher,  the bartender, the cook, the customer.  We pushed on the government hard and out of this came a restaurant that didn’t exist a few weeks ago, we created that. Chefs from all over the country came together, and we were able to be a part of that stimulus package bill that they’re voting on today.  I love living in New York, I’ve always loved it, and I always separate the two. 

It’s not like I’m a huge fan of the government either. This is not a time to draw inspiration from governments.  It’s time to draw inspiration from people—great people from all aspects of life that are volunteering that are helping out, doctors, scientists. The medical community right now is so inspiring.

Image: Morgan Norman

At a time like this, luxuries like dining out must become trivial. It makes you think about the scarcity of food. We realise what essentials are really important in life right now. I think we take food for granted?

Yes, it depends on your experience.  I was born in Africa, and I go to Africa every year.  I look at food from many different levels. I look at food from a spiritual context; I look at food as a necessity; I mean I live in Harlem. I also look at it from a luxury. I have a skill set as a chef that puts me in many different buckets, and as a chef, I can navigate and work on how to add value in these different spaces where my skill sets are needed.  Whether you work on food in a spiritual context, or whether you work on food as a necessity, or whether you work on food as the highest luxury. I’ve always thought about the different buckets of food and where it belongs.  That’s why I do charity work, that’s why I work in restaurants, that’s why I work in the community. I don’t look at it on one level. I’ve never had one type of relationship with food. 

If we can segway to talk about your career as hard as that may seem right now, when did you first realise that you had your voice as a chef or as an activist?

It developed in the late 90s and early 2000s when I was a chef at
Aquavit. The activist part happened after 9/11.  It was such an incredible shock, and such a tragedy that I realised I could not focus on just one type of dining.  I had to do more in the community.

Was there a moment where you realised essentially though, where you said, I could be a chef in my own way? 

I think growing up around food in Sweden,  growing up on an island, growing up with seafood.  All the things we needed were around us. We ate mackerel; potatoes grew in the garden, we had horseradish and fennel, we had dill and chives. So you know, you learn how to fish for mackerel, you learn how to clean it,  you learn how to peel the skin and smoke it, and make the potato salad with horseradish, with a little bit of lemon and dill. I learnt how to make these basic things into something delicious. So many other types of seafood come from that specific place.  So it was not just something we enjoyed eating, but it was something that every uncle and neighbour worked with in some way.
You realise that food is something that feeds villages in terms of economy,  and shapes you in terms of a person.

Do you think enough people appreciate that sentiment?

I mean, it’s where I grew up, so it’s what we appreciated.  I think food has become something with the internet that reaches more and more people, and more and more people can engage with.  So that’s very positive. It wasn’t the case when I started cooking. Chefs were often only French.
This fine-dining idea was a very exclusive club that started and ended with France.  Today cooking is much broader than that with the internet, travelling, huge interest around food and media. It’s changed, so people appreciate food on many levels.

What are your thoughts about inheriting a palette as someone who was born in Ethiopia, raised in Sweden and then moved to New York? Do you think there’s a way that you carry your culture with you in your DNA or through your taste buds as you move through the world?

It’s like any other skill, you’ve got to work on it.  I didn’t know food through the lens of aesthetics, or texture until I started to travel. I didn’t understand that food could be a part of a spiritual context until I began to experience having these three huge windows into a world that helped to shape me. Travelling probably helps to save me even more—going to Japan, going to Singapore, working in the UK, working in Switzerland, you know, having the opportunity to work in South America. 

You said in an op-ed for Time Magazine,  “I was not even supposed to be alive after 18 months.”  Do you think that you carry that sense of urgency with you in your life? 

I don’t take for granted that I’m here.  I’m grateful for what I have. But many things motivate me. The work ethic of my Swedish grandmother –  she cooked like a goddess. The work ethic of my father, who was a fisherman. The work ethic of my Ethiopian father, who was a tribe leader. I’ve seen very different people within my family push and move communities. 

You have mentioned that early on in your childhood, your mum used to say, “the Russians are coming.” They’re still saying that even today.  Part of Swedish culture is pickling food and preserving it; I think if anything this crisis can teach us is how to preserve and protect food, and I think that’s something that you were brought up with as well. Wouldn’t you agree?

Absolutely,  I mean for us growing up in the 80s that fear was very real during the Cold War. We were prepared for that.  These days we might post on Facebook or Instagram about it, but I think we might go back to that as something real.  That idea of storing, whether it’s in a summer house, or in our basement, or our pantry, whatever that might be.

Yes, of course. Do you still do that? 

We jar all the time.  We jar everything from cucumbers to cabbage,  smoked salmon, things like that.

"This fine-dining idea was a very exclusive club that started and ended with France.  Today cooking is much broader than that with the internet, travelling, huge interest around food and media."

Marcus, what has success taught you as a person?  You’ve won awards; you’ve written books, you’ve done so many things as an entrepreneur.   

Well I mean number one, my health and my family’s health. It’s about being healthy so then having the opportunity to contribute, to add value. And once you have that to work with something you enjoy and love. That to me, to have a healthy family and work with food throughout the decades, it’s a privilege and something that I don’t take for granted.

You go back to Ethiopia every year you said, right?  What are your conversations like with your extended family? 

We have many conversations. First of all, they teach me a lot.  I don’t speak
Amharic properly, so we work a lot on that. Culturally, having an understanding of that means I can understand more about the food they are making. A lot of our time is spent with me trying to understand them,  not the other way around because with the internet they can experience what I do in many different ways. So it’s harder for me to understand their customs and culture. They’re only a wifi connection away from understanding what I’m up to. 

How do you deal with the cultural translation of food? You work with your show No Passport Required across the world, your an author, your world-class chef and you come from many different cultures. Is there a common thread through it all?

Well, I think it’s all about showing empathy and being authentic about cooking. If you are authentic about learning something or sharing something, people will come to that.  People show interest in that. You can’t fake that. You just have to do it. Do you know what I mean? So that’s what I try to do whenever I cook food in Ethiopia,  or when I cook at a very high-end place on the Upper East Side. Just share your knowledge, and be open to learning, and have a point of view. If you do that, nine times out of ten, it will work out fine.  It just requires that you are passionate about what you do, and you want to be there.  

There must have been a time when you said; I just don’t understand this, or, this is above my comprehension?

Of course, all the time. I mean this is one of those moments that is very hard for all of us. When I lost my friend Floyd Cardoz the other day,  that was one of the hardest things for me in a very long time. He was such a good person, and chef, and father, with such a beautiful spirit. So that was very, very hard.  There are a lot of things happening around our home, but I do think like a chef and a person you just have to figure out how to be with family and friends, and find the strength within that, and figure out how you can contribute. All industries are going through a massive change right now, and there are so many insecurities.
80% of our industry is unemployed at this very moment. I’m sure it’s no different in England or anywhere.  A lot of people will be unemployed, so there’s a lot of insecurity.  Even if it’s 50% in America, that means 11 to 12 million people don’t have a job in our industry. But let’s figure out how to work, and collaborate, and look out for one another.

Season 2 of No Passport Required is out now through PBS

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