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

Miles Marshall Lewis

by Miles Marshall Lewis, July 02, 2012

Say 'Yes Chef' to Marcus Samuelsson

Marcus Samuelsson

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

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