Say ‘Yes Chef’ to Marcus Samuelsson

Say 'Yes Chef' to Marcus Samuelsson

The beloved Harlem-based chef chats up his new book, race and Red Rooster

by Miles Marshall Lewis, July 2, 2012

Say ‘Yes Chef’ to Marcus Samuelsson

Marcus Samuelsson

Imagine telling three-star chef Marcus Samuelsson that his espresso machine is dead on the day his memoir, Yes, Chef, is released. You don’t wanna be that guy. “Can you just figure out if we called the coffee company?” he firmly asks an apologetic server at his always-buzzing Harlem restaurant, Red Rooster. “Part of the information is that the machine is out. The full information is: when are we fixing it, and are we ready for tonight?” Samuelsson is always sweating the details, even on a day full of Today show appearances, multiple interviews, and a stellar book review down the pike from The New York Times.

The world is Samuelsson’s kitchen today, and he’s regulating nicely. Dressed identically to the author photo of Yes, Chef—madras shirt, grey pinstriped vest, handmade tie—the Ethiopian-born, Sweden-raised restauranteur metaphorically balances several different dishes at the moment. With two Internet platforms, four restaurants and a handful of books, Samuelsson is the first major chef-as-brand of color, and he’s handling it all in high style. (He’s married to top model Maya Gate Haile; Vanity Fair named him one of the best-dressed people of 2011.) The 42-year-old culinary phenom welcomed EBONY.com in for some questions amid a busy lunch shift to discuss his steady rise.

EBONY: Speak about the gap between your romanticized version of Harlem from when you first arrived to New York in the 1990s, and the reality.

MS: When I read about it in Scandinavia, I read about post-[Harlem] Renaissance, ’40s and ’50s. Y’know, Langston [Hughes], Romare [Bearden], Apollo, that type of thing. Some of those landmarks are still in the community: Sylvia’s, Schomburg [Center], Studio Museum. But when I got here, it was just post-Bensonhurst, Rodney King. Crack epidemic, just post- that. The city had that problem, it wasn’t just Harlem. But it had a particular feel and look in Harlem.

But you could also see greatness. Those brownstones, those churches, were still magical. These historical buildings showed signs of, there were great things here. My books taught me that. I see the people walk with a great pride and energy. I still came up to 1-2-5. I just didn’t feel like the landscape for fine dining was there yet. I loved it just as much. But I knew that I needed to understand New York better. I’ve lived about 14, 15 years in New York. Half my time, I’ve lived in Harlem. I needed that first part of the time to study about New York.

EBONY: How would you compare Harlem to Brooklyn? Cosmopolitan Blacks in the city tend to pick one neighborhood or the other.

MS: Many similarities, many differences. Brooklyn is a borough; Harlem is a neighborhood. Brooklyn has a population of three and a half million people. It would be a huge U.S. town if it would be by itself. And it operates sometimes like a town or a city within a city. Harlem is a neighborhood. And although we have pockets in our neighborhood that are a little bit different—from Spanish Harlem to the Mexican side, to all the way up to Washington Heights, down to the west side to Columbia—those would be the different things.

And then, Harlem to me is very central. You come to 1-2-5, Lenox, you’re central. You see iconic buildings like Apollo, the Schomburg and so on. Brooklyn’s much more spread out. You can go to the beach in Brooklyn. Downtown Brooklyn has one urban energy, and there’s so many things. But a lot of the journey is the same. I got inspired a lot by what was happening in Brooklyn. “Hey, we’re gonna make restaurants in Brooklyn for Brooklyn. If you guys wanna come from Manhattan, go ahead. But we’re gonna make our own things.” That’s what you see in Fort Greene and so on. And so I took a lot of inspiration from that and said, You know what? Create something in and of Harlem that is for everyone. But it’s gotta be “in and of.”

EBONY: How has reality TV and the creation of the celebrity chef been a good or bad thing for the food industry?

MS: It’s amazing in the sense that it opens up the space, and more people want to come to the space. It’s confusing in a way. Yes, you have more people. But not necessarily [who] want to be line cooks, and then eventually one day sous chefs, and then eventually one day chefs. Regardless of color, it’s a humbling journey. You learn for a long time, and then maybe maybe maybe you get a chance. Now people want to do 18 years in 18 months. Well, you can do that, but it’s also about learning a craft.

EBONY: One of your Internet platforms, FoodRepublic.com, has been described as a GQ for food. What was your inspiration for Food Republic, and what do you hope to achieve with it?

MS: The inspiration with Food Republic was really to create a conversational line where it was aspirational. You can learn—for us, as men first. Regardless of color, just of men first. What GQ did for our generation was that, around 1990, it started to be cool to know which tie to wear, or what cufflink your dad had—small details that gave us a vocabulary to date, or be the man, or be how we should look in the workplace. Food, I felt we were intrigued by it, but we weren’t there. Also, giving a conversational line that you can actually learn something. Not just like, “Mario’s pouring a beer on Marcus.” But actually, I’m gonna cook for my family tonight, and I’m gonna do a guy’s trip: this is what’s cool, and this is a gadget that really works. So this interest came from men wanting to cook, showing an interest in cooking more. There was a lack of something in the space.

EBONY: My wife started the artisanal bakery Pistache with French food critic Noémie Videau. At their Parisian culinary school, one day a chef instructor asked for the négresse, a black casserole pan. Well, négresse is also the feminine French N-word. In Yes, Chef, you mention hearing nègre—the male French N-word—from chefs while cooking in France. Where’d these terms come from, and do you think the terminology will change?

MS: Well, it comes from the history before us, right? Globally as Black people, we were empowered and then we weren’t empowered for a long time. But I think the goal is, where do you go from here and how do you evolve? When you are a young cook and you are a pastry chef coming up, just expressing that that’s probably not the right term doesn’t mean to say that this person’s racist, it’s just that’s not the right term. And if somebody’s a sensible person, they want to be on point. Because your wife was there, probably as one of the few or the only one, that means she was the first one to ask those questions. What you have to do is to express it, in whatever way you feel comfortable with and when it is your time to have the mic, and then make sure you point them in the right direction.

As people of color, it took a whole generation in many ways to get us out of the kitchen, and it’s gonna take us the same whole generation to get us back into the kitchen and have ownership of restaurants, hotels and stuff like that. With integration, segregation, before that we owned our restaurants and hotels. They were in certain areas of town, but we owned them at least. And post-, chains came in, lower prices came in, other things came in and we were slowly pushed out. We couldn’t get loans to start our own businesses. So there’s many factors why we’re not where we need to be in terms of the whole space. That does not mean we don’t have incredible professionals. One of the best French wine makers is an African-American man. One of the best beer masters in the world, Gareth Oliver [of Brooklyn Brewery], comes from, lives and works in Brooklyn. Leah Chase is one example I talk about in the book. And now we’re getting this whole new generation of other chefs coming up. So I feel like we’re positioned. We’re not where we should be, but we’re evolving.

EBONY: Yes, Chef lays plain your severe drive and focus. What was the biggest sacrifice you made to achieve your success?

MS: I would have to say my family. I’ve not been to funerals. I’ve set aside a lot of intimate moments within family to drive through, and I don’t wish that on anybody. It’s just the reality of what we as a family have decided. I think there is a core of professionals who can relate to that. But we all knew that I have to go hard, I have to go all the way, otherwise it’s not gonna happen. My family encompasses my daughter, encompasses my father, my grandmother’s death. And not just deaths. I’ve never been to graduations, there’s a lot of things.

EBONY: You made Vanity Fair’s 2011 International Best-Dressed List. Where are some of your favorite spots to shop?

MS: I’m inspired by the Harlemites. Going down the streets here, people might not have money, but they have style. They have two-toned shoes, there’s the throwback, there’s the hat. There is a looking forward to being out and being seen. That inspires me. Number two is, going to vintage shops. Vintage for me means that it was well done. It’s not old stuff. So for me, that inspires me. Down the street here in Harlem you have the wonderful B.O.R.N., 125th Street between Lenox and Fifth. Down in SoHo, you have Ina for men.

EBONY: J.Crew CEO Mickey Drexler always explains how men are more comfortable shopping for themselves now, paying more attention to style. Do you see a similar thing happening with men and cooking?

MS: Yeah. It’s about evolving, right? We want to be evolved creatures as men. I think the kitchen is the new garage. And I think for a guy that wants to go out and be an evolved person, he should know about his local favorite restaurant. He should know how to cook something. He wants to know about his favorite stove. He wants to know which IPA [India Pale Ale] to drink if it’s a beers night, and it’s okay to know in summertime what rosé to drink. These are just things, as evolved people, that we want to do. It takes somebody to push the conversation. For me as a chef, that’s my vertical, that’s my space. I have license to do that.

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