Chef Marcus Samuelsson increases the diversity of the culinary world

NEW YORK (AP) — Marcus Samuelsson is striving to lead on purpose. This focus is reflected in the delicious dishes prepared in its popular restaurants, but it is also reflected in its staffing.

“My restaurants are a reflection of the society we live in. (At) Hav & Mar, we chose black leadership, female leadership, because there was a gap for that. Red Rooster opened in Harlem because we wanted to create jobs for both black and brown people in our industry,” said Samuelsson, a multiple James Beard Award-winning chef. “I love food and I want to balance it with…everyone, but the options should be a little more evenly distributed.”

To honor pioneering restaurants founded by women and people of color, Samuelsson and colleague Jonathan Waxman are hosting “Seat at the Table,” an eight-part Audible Original Series which premiered late last year. In the series, chefs, along with many who helped found their restaurants, present an oral history of some of America’s most famous restaurants, such as New York’s groundbreaking Jezebel, Albert Wright’s, Ben’s Chili Bowl of Washington, DC, of Ali was founded by Family and The Slanted Door, created by Charles Phan in San Francisco. Food serves as the podcast’s roux while adding shrimp, sausage and potatoes to the impact the farms have had on their communities.

“As I finished Black History Month and went into Women’s (History) Month, I felt it was really necessary to share this, that we know our Black histories are not monolithic,” said Samuelsson, who lives in a cabin in was born in Ethiopia but grew up in Sweden after his birth mother died during a tuberculosis epidemic in the early 1970s. “I always feel like when you walk into a restaurant, you’re walking into a piece of American history…that’s really what we’re trying to capture on Seat at the Table.” It’s more than the food – it’s really the people that make it so special.”

Samuelsson spoke to The Associated Press about his mission to uplift women and people of color, choose restaurants for the podcast, and Diversity in the culinary world. Responses may have been edited for clarity and brevity.

AP: You mentioned that your goal is to advance women and talented, diverse people. Why is this part of your mission?

SAMUELSSON: As a black chef who has privilege and a platform, it’s very important to me that I set the standard and create jobs for other black culinary professionals… One of the reasons we always have open kitchens is because the staff know that they are, e.g. on a stage, but also so that the customer in the dining room can see who is cooking and working for them. The same goes for Hav & Mar, where our mission is to empower women of color.

AP: How did you choose the restaurants?

SAMUELSSON: I didn’t do it alone. It was a constant back and forth with my partner Jonathan Waxman. …He didn’t just read about these chefs, he made these chefs up. But he knew those stories, and without Jonathan’s work we never would have gotten this close to those incredible stories.

(Cook) Thomas Keller doesn’t give many interviews, but he did talk to Jonathan. And that’s why this story about The French Laundry is so unique. And the story of Charles (Pham), that’s a story about the Vietnam War and how a true immigrant story begins and how a restaurant might not have been what they imagined but it became a way of life for him and his family.

AP: What similarities do you share with the chefs featured on the podcast?

SAMUELSSON: The desire that you want to share your narrative. … I share this piece with Charles, of course, as as an immigrant I feel that the love of America is sometimes misunderstood too.

Leah Chase (of Dooky Chase) has always been my mentor and someone I admire a lot. But I also feel, Alberta Wright and Jezebel – I grew up right across the street from Jezebel in Hell’s Kitchen in New York City. And I know if I hadn’t met Ms. Leah Chase, I wouldn’t have met Alberta Wright, I would never have started the Red Rooster or Have & Mar, my restaurant here in Manhattan. … I owe a lot to this generation of incredible Black women.

AP: How do you rate the culinary world in terms of diversity?

SAMUELSSON: Food is part of society…so let’s improve. We have a long way to go. And part of doing this document with Audible was really acknowledging how much work, how many incredible black restaurants in America have never been acknowledged.

America’s history of diversity is very complicated. But it is moving – through much work and effort of many people – in a better direction. I firmly believe that even if you (have to) work at it every day, we as humans are moving towards a better experience. And it matters, because as diversity advances in America, the world is looking to America. So it’s very, very important to get those small wins because the rest of the world is taking notice. As a black man growing up outside of America, I know this firsthand.


Follow Associated Press entertainment journalist Gary Gerard Hamilton at: @GaryGHamilton on all his social media platforms.

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