On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
“Black food is not just one thing. It’s not a rigidly defined geography or a static set of tastes. It is an energy. A force. An engine.” So writes famed chef and restauranteur Marcus Samuelsson in the introduction to his newest book “The Rise: Black Cooks and the Soul of American Food.”
“The Rise” is a project Samuelsson has been working on since the 2016 election — a documentation of the authorship of Black cooking, with James Beard Award-winning writer Osayi Endolyn.
“The Rise,” Klancy Miller writes for Vogue, “is more than a cookbook; it is a conversation, a collaboration, and, above all, a declaration that Black Food Matters.”
Samuelsson, who was born in Ethiopia, adopted by parents in Sweden, trained as a chef in Europe and chose to work in the U.S., joins us to discuss Black food culture and the more than 150 recipes featured in “The Rise.”
Produced by Julie Depenbrock
- Marcus Samuelsson Chef and Restaurateur; Author, "The Rise: Black Cooks and the Soul of American Food"; @MarcusCooks
KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. Black food is not just one thing. It's not a rigidly defined geography or a static set of tastes. It is an energy, a force, an engine. So writes chef Marcus Samuelsson in the introduction to his newest book called "The Rise: Black Cooks and the Soul of American Food." And it is, indeed, much more than a cookbook. It's a celebration of a movement. And with more than 150 recipes, from our own Michael Twitty -- who's been a guest on this show regularly -- from his grilled short ribs to Nyesha Arrington's crab curry, "The Rise" is a firm declaration that black food matters.
KOJO NNAMDIMarcus Samuelsson joins us now. He's a chef, restaurateur and author of many books. Currently he hosts the PBS series "No Passport Required." During the pandemic, Samuelsson converted many of his restaurants into community kitchens that served over 150,000 meals to those in need. Marcus Samuelsson joins us now. Welcome.
MARCUS SAMUELSSONThank you for having me back. And, I mean, Kojo, you're killing it with the music. I mean, playing that Éthiopiques? You had me at jump, man. How are you? How have you been?
NNAMDII am doing well, my friend. And thanks for the music is our Ben Privot, our engineer who selects the music. But he knows how to put it together. You began this book during the 2016 election. What was motivating you to write about black excellence in the culinary world at that time, in particular?
SAMUELSSONWell, you know, I've always been fascinated by the incredible contribution, the rich contribution that black chefs and cooks have done for hundreds and hundreds of years in this country, yet it's very hard to find. Right? So, I started this conversation about how can we celebrate black excellence in food the way we know it in music? Right? If you and I are going to explain for anybody about American music, we know about the James Brown era, we know about Miles, we know about Prince, we know about hip-hop, you know. And it's very clearly defined.
SAMUELSSONIn food, you know, the food democracy and food injustices has a different history. It's much more muddy. But I'm here to tell you that the black experience in American food, the contribution's been incredible. And I wanted to write about it and share, also, what's happening today with some of the most exciting chefs in the world are African Americans, and they cook right here in America.
NNAMDIMarcus, you dedicated "The Rise" to your birth mother. What can you tell us about her?
SAMUELSSONYou know, I don't have any memories and, you know, when your mother is the person -- I started my book, I say, I've never seen the eyes of my mother. So, every time I go back to the continent and I see a young woman carrying two children in Ethiopia, I always envision that could be my mother. That vision of a petite, but strong woman guiding a five-year-old and a two-year-old. That was us. She didn't survive tuberculosis, but I did. My sister did.
SAMUELSSONAnd, you know, there's also an act of kindness, right. She gave everything to us. But also, the nurse in the hospital, that had three kids of her own, that took us in and adopted us, made sure we got adopted. So sweet. And so, in times like this when exactly, you know, what the world needs, it's also act of kindness and being able to see each other and cook for one another.
NNAMDIYou also thank many other black women, who have remained mostly unsung, but were often the most impactful engineers of the kitchen, and true leaders in the culinary arts. Tell us about some of those women.
SAMUELSSONYou know, we know about incredible black women in American food, like Miss Leah Chase and Sylvia Woods. But there's also, in the origin, like think about Thomas Jefferson's executive chefs, Fanny and Edith. They were 15 and 18 years old when they worked for Thomas Jefferson. And I'll tell you, some of the more recent times, Georgette Gilmore. You know, she was a mother of six, and she started a club from nowhere. And she woke up at 3:00 in the morning to bake and she raised a hundred dollars a week and sent it away to the movement for Martin Luther King.
SAMUELSSONThink about someone like Zephyr Wright, that was Lyndon B. Johnson's chef. And he listened to her more than he listened to other politicians, right, and he really trusted her. And she has a big reason why he changed the vote to allow black people to vote, for example. So, food can be activism. Food is very often anonymous heroes, especially when it comes to black cooking. And this is the time as we have the conversation about culture, identity, race, class. So, in "The Rise," you find, really, the journey from anonymous cooking to visible cooking.
NNAMDIHere now is Cole in Annapolis, Maryland. Cole, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
COLEThank you, Kojo. I just wanted to thank Marcus for all you're doing to push the food culture forward in this country for African American chefs. Out of culinary school, I read “Yes, Chef.” I had a chance to make a pilgrimage up to Red Rooster in Harlem. And, again, just wanted to thank you for all you're doing.
SAMUELSSONThank you so much. That's very, very kind. And keep pushing and keep cooking.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Cole. You, too, can give us a call at 800-433-8850. Have you read any of Marcus Samuelsson's books or been to his restaurants, like Cole? Give us a call, 800-433-8850. Marcus, you say that once you began to live and cook in New York, you were shocked at how little the story of black cooking was being told. How have black food contributions been erased from the narrative, so to speak?
SAMUELSSONWell, it's a very layered question, right. Even the food from the continent, all the food that was ours -- coffee, wine -- it was taken out of us and really got the ownership of Europe. We think about Belgian chocolate. You think about coffee from the French roast coffee of Italy and France, but they're really from Ethiopia and Kenya. So, it starts with -- we didn't have the authorship, nor the ownership of our own food. So, the worth and value of why you would go into food was always in doubt. Could you own food, you know, as a black person, right? Could you be part of it, or were you just the laborer?
SAMUELSSONSo, that is a very challenged starting point, right. But then the contribution of you think about through the slave trade, the rise that came here and, you know, the Gullah culture, for example. So, so much of the food that we consider today, low country cuisine, or what we consider southern cooking, or we think about something like Creole cooking, all stems from the continent. And then, obviously, it got another revival when it came to America and became these very defined cuisines that we have today.
NNAMDIFor those of you who may not be aware, but whenever Marcus refers to the continent, he's speaking about the continent of Africa. (laugh)
SAMUELSSON(laugh) Yes. Thank you for that.
NNAMDIYou write: “I was born in a hut in Ethiopia, adopted by parents in Sweden, trained as a chef in Europe and chose to work in Harlem.” How does all of that influence who you are today and where you choose to call home?
SAMUELSSONWell, I would say, this is really what gratitude and privilege means, right. The gratitude of everything that the generation before me did, without the civil rights movement, I wouldn't live in America, right. And privilege. I come from a country like Sweden that had access to great education. I had an opportunity to travel. And I think, in times like this, with COVID, but also the even bigger pandemic of racism, as we're dealing with this now right in front of us, it's important to acknowledge the privilege and show gratitude.
SAMUELSSONSo, this book really was done this spring, but I had to stop it and rewrite a big part of the book, because I couldn't have launched "The Rise" without acknowledging how horrific and how challenged this spring was for us in the hospitality industry. And it's really changed us forever.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. We'd love to have you join the conversation. You can also send us a tweet @kojoshow. Here is Vincent in Fort Washington, Maryland. Vincent, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
VINCENTMarcus, hi. This is Vincent. I worked with you a long time ago in Aquavit, in New York. And your book at that time was called "Aquavit." And you said, Vincent, cook with passion. And ever since, I have, so just thank you so much for the inspiration.
SAMUELSSONThank you so much, Vincent, and keep cooking that Swedish food. You know, cold times are coming, so you need some of that Swedish herring and meatballs. You know that, Vincent.
VINCENTI know that. I know that. But you've just taken it to an entirely different level and, you know, it's about the passion. And even here in Oxon Hill, I hear people who say, you know, we know Marcus. We know Marcus. He came in, you know, to see us. So, just keep doing it, man. All right?
SAMUELSSONThank you. Thank you very much.
NNAMDIThank you for your call, Vincent. You, too, can give us a call at 800-433-8850. I'd like you to build on a theme that you already touched on, Marcus. You write that COVID-19 is not the only disease infecting America. The pandemic will eventually be overcome, though its effects will stay in the black community for longer than elsewhere. The bigger disease we must fight is the virus of systemic racism. How did this dual pandemics inform "The Rise"?
SAMUELSSONWell, I'm very worried what's going to happen to our black and brown communities, such as Washington, D.C., Detroit, Harlem, Overtown in Miami and etcetera. Because the pandemic stays in our community longer. We have less access to healthcare and generational wealth. So, when retails go, think how many people that owns mom and pops or works in mom and pops. But when the retails are gone in our community, it will be -- so goes the soul of our community.
SAMUELSSONAnd I'm very, very worried about this winter, because our hospitality industry will completely change after this. Habits have already changed. So, if you can hold on through this winter, the chance that you can rebuild your business and rehire, you're going to be fine. But it's just about truly holding on through this very, very difficult time in front of us.
SAMUELSSONYou know, America's relationship with race and class and caste is something that we've been dealing with for 400 years. And it's not just America, right. You think about today when we're speaking, Kojo, SARS is in Nigeria. And it shows the complexity of oppression. And it's not as simple as just race. It also has to do with class. And food is in the center of that, right.
SAMUELSSONWhen I look at American food, it's more -- people talk about food deserts. We don't have food deserts. We have food apartheid. This has been designed. Why fresh food was not in our communities, why we don't have access, as the richest country in the world, to have clean and fresh food in our communities, those are choices that we made that are more linked to Jim Crow than there are to anything else. So, I hope, post-COVID, that we really start a rethink, how we start to take care of one another, and look at food as a healing part of the process, cooking together, and make sure we get better nutrition into the poorest families in this country.
NNAMDIWhen the pandemic began, Marcus, you converted your restaurants into community kitchens, serving over 150,000 meals to those in need. What went into that big pivot? It's my understanding that you made a call to some guy named Jose Andres.
SAMUELSSONYes. We all love Jose, especially in the Washington, D.C. area.
SAMUELSSONBut he has really been a hero. I said, Jose is really what Bob Geldof was in the ‘80s to the music and the Live Aid movement. That's what Jose Andres have meant to us. You know, him and his organization, World Central Kitchen, that you're familiar with, came to Harlem. I called him on March 9th. By March 15th, we closed Red Rooster. We just, by the way, reopened it again, but we closed for six months, and we started to serve 1,000 meals a day.
SAMUELSSONAnd every day, Kojo, that line shook me to the core. It started with homeless and disfranchised people, but eventually became our neighbors. Because no one was working, and people needed a meal. And they became our new regulars. And it's also the first time when we started to look at chefs as first responders. And I share that in "The Rise." But it was something I will -- this will never go away, right. We did that. We were fortunate enough not to get sick, but we also lost a lot of people. My industry, hospitality, a lot of people were lost to COVID.
NNAMDIYes, indeed. 800-433-8850. Are you a black cook? Tell us about your experience in the restaurant world. Or are you an amateur chef? What dishes are you learning to cook, or what do you want to learn how to cook? Give us a call at 800-433-8850. Marcus, tell us about some of the extraordinary cooks and culinary experts who you co-author, the James Beard Award-winning writer Osayi Endolyn, features in her essays?
SAMUELSSONYeah, I mean, both Osayi -- this book would not have happened without Osayi. She did an incredible job, but also Yewande, the recipe developer. And it was very important that we did deeper dives. So, Osayi traveled across the country. She went to see Miss Nyesha Arrington in Los Angeles, that is both Korean and African American. Or someone like Tayana Gee, (ph) that is Filipino and African American.
SAMUELSSONTo really show, to be black in America, you can be part of the great migration, but you can also be part of an immigrant movement, or you can have a diverse background. We didn't forget about Guyana, because I knew you would ask me. (laugh) So, Tavel Bristol-Joseph came from Guyana via New York, and now has a wonderful restaurant in Austin, so we went to visit him. Edouardo Jordan that came from Florida, but now lives in Seattle. So, his food has that West Coast, but also southern ties, as well.
SAMUELSSONAnd it's just so many incredible stories went it comes to black cooking. Of course, we have Ethiopian food, my wife's food and my son's favorite food, but also Greg Gourdet, that is Haitian immigrant background. Jerome Grant, from D.C., as well, that is from Jamaica.
NNAMDIThat’s the man. Yep.
SAMUELSSONYes, of course. So, this was a way to show that there are so many of us. Please dive into this book, because what -- and if you're a foodie, if you like to cook, originally, this cooking is of African American culture, but it's for everyone. You don't have to be black to enjoy this food or black to enjoy this cooking. What a great way during the holiday season to have the conversation about race and culture, but have it in a delicious way. Cook from the book, and have a good time with it.
NNAMDISo, now you know that when I can fly again, I'm headed for Austin. (laugh)
SAMUELSSONYes, yes, yes. (laugh)
NNAMDIGot to go see my homey. Here's Lynn in Potomac. Lynn, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
LYNNHi. I have gone to the Red Rooster, and it's great food. My grandmother was a very well-known caterer and restaurateur. She was African American back in the ‘50s and ‘60s and the ‘70s in New York, and her name was Cleo, and she was on Lincoln Center. And, anyway, what I remember most about my grandmother and her cooking was she was an entrepreneur. And she was not just committed to the food, but what it meant in her community.
LYNNAnd she, as a caterer, had provided lots of part time jobs for people when they were doing bar mitzvahs and weddings, etcetera. These people were sending their kids -- with this extra money that they were making in all of these, you know, weekends, they were sending their kids to universities for the first time. Many of these people, you know, that were her employees were people that worked as housekeepers, you know, or in service, as they called it.
SAMUELSSONMm-hmm, in service. Yes.
LYNNRight. And they were able to provide -- she provided jobs, you know, for people. And that was really meaningful, you know, to her, sending people off -- you know, providing scholarships, you know, for people. So, I just wanted to say that food is something that is meaningful to black people, beyond just seeing the nurturing aspect, which it always was, you know, in our family. But it nurtured us in lots of different ways, as opposed to sustenance. It also provided many types of opportunities for us.
LYNNAnd I guess one little thing -- I'm sorry I'm going on and on -- was what I also remember is, as a caterer, there were black people that were being taken into very different locations. They were being exposed to all kinds of other cultures, to wealth. You know, they were seeing how other people lived. And many people aspired, at that point, to recognize that, you know, I overheard conversations about stock markets and those kinds of things. So, it has a profound change.
NNAMDICooking can take...
SAMUELSSONWell, Ms. Cleo, I just have to say, that's how small business looks like. We just got a prime example of what it looked like in the ‘50s for a black lady. Well, that's how it's going to look in 2020, '21, as well. Somebody who says, I can cater, I have a skill, I'm going to hire people. It's a local business, and it was relevant then, and it's relevant today. And it doesn't always have to be through a restaurant. As a matter of fact, most businesses in hospitality, not restaurants, there might be a caterer, there might be somebody that's a private chef. There's so many different ways to enter our industry.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Lynn. And here now is Sandra, in Washington, D.C. Sandra, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SANDRAThank you, Kojo. My father was West Indian, from Jamaica, and was a chef in Atlantic City, New Jersey, our hometown. So, we grew up with the Caribbean influence, and my mother was from North Carolina. So, we had a combination. And, once a week, all the people working in the restaurant would come to our house and they would have their -- go to different houses and they would cook, and they would talk and they would drink and they would eat. And you had that fellowship and that camaraderie and that history about the food all right there, because they would cook their own special dish.
SANDRAI'd love "The Rise" and can't wait to get it because it celebrates that Diasporic food ways that we have. And the other question is, what's going to happen with the Harlem EatUp! going forward? Thank you.
SAMUELSSONThank you. Well, even that story, I think, is amazing, because when somebody says you're Jamaican, okay, my next question is, black Jamaican with Indian influences or Chinese influences or with European influences? Because Jamaicans, it's like a mini-United -- you know, it's like United Nations, right. And then when you then bring the more traditional sort of southern from the Carolinas, now you have a cuisine that is highly unique. Right? And then to come up north through the migration, right, they're a part of that.
SAMUELSSONSo, that's exactly what you just mentioned -- we just talked about what "The Rise" is about, that you can have -- one of those things that I'm the most appreciative of is that, as a creative person, I've been allowed to tell complex, multilayered stories. Normally, our version of creativities always simmer down to something you are this, or you are Y, or you are X. And you know, Kojo, it's also not our stories. Our stories are highly layered and complex.
SAMUELSSONIn terms of Harlem EatUp!, we converted our food festival this year to a telethon or TV show to raise money for World Central Kitchen. It's called "Harlem Serves Up." And we raised a lot of money, and that was one of the reasons we can work with World Central Kitchen collectively and keep feeding our community. Hopefully, next year, we'll do another telethon and raise some more money, so we can keep feeding our community. Not until all of this with COVID is done do we know when we can do a festival again.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. Here now is PJ in Silver Spring, Maryland. PJ, it's your turn.
PJThank you, Kojo. Marcus, I wanted to say thank you for cooking with joy, and also not shying away from these fundamental moral questions. Thank you for not, as some people say, sort of just cooking and then being quiet. I wondered if there are particular establishments or institutions or folks that we, in the D.C. area, can support, or people further around the country that we could order from that you wanted to highlight a point to.
SAMUELSSONSure. Well, that's a great question. One of the things -- we highlighted 40, but in the back of the book, there is about 150 African American chefs. Because I wanted exactly, this question, if anyone calls and says, well, we don't have black chefs in our area. Right? When you go in the back of the book, there's 150 with their IG, their Instagram account. Because black chefs will need you right now.
SAMUELSSONFor example, in the D.C. area, whether you order from Jerome's restaurant or whether you support someone like Michael Twitty, and also the local immigrant black restaurants, right. So, it could be anything from a corporation level to do a bigger catering. It could be something to follow people on Instagram, and then figuring out can you do takeout in my community.
SAMUELSSONBut I do -- just be curious, ask questions and support, whether that is you ordering out once a week or whether you as a company do it. Because our restaurants, the BIPOC restaurants in our communities are at stake, here. And when they shut, so goes our neighborhoods. It's a very, very important thing. So, thank you for asking that question.
NNAMDIAnd, PJ, thank you for asking that question. I'd like to end with a quote from Marcus Samuelsson in the book, which says: “No one person could command the full knowledge of every tributary of the great river that is black food.” Marcus Samuelsson, thank you so much for joining us.
SAMUELSSONThank you so much for having me, Kojo. And all the best to you and your family for the holidays, okay?
NNAMDISame to you. Marcus is a chef, restaurateur and author of many books, including most recently, "The Rise: Black Cooks and the Soul of American Food." Currently, he hosts the PBS series "No Passport Required." This segment with chef and author Marcus Samuelsson was produced by Julie Depenbrock. And our conversation about rising food insecurity was produced by Richard Cunningham.
NNAMDIComing up tomorrow, the largest voting bloc in the country might surprise you. It's nonvoters. The Knight Foundation shared insights about the 100 million-plus eligible voters who skip the polls. Plus, this Halloween, everyone will be wearing masks, even the adults. But what will it be like during a pandemic? We'll see what people have planned to still have fun while staying distanced and masked. That all starts tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening, and stay safe. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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