Born in Ethiopia, raised and trained as a chef in Sweden, and now living and cooking in Harlem, Marcus Samuelsson understands food’s power in placemaking and reclaiming histories. His new cookbook, The Rise: Black Cooks and the Soul of American Food, co-authored with Osayi Endolyn, addresses the history of Black cooking and its significance in shaping the American identity. Along with Toni L. Griffin, professor in practice of urban planning, Thelma Golden and Mark Raymond, Samuelsson will present a guest lecture at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design on October 15.
The Rise: Black Cooks and the Soul of American Food
By Marcus Samuelsson
“It’s the last week of February, and I’m in Miami setting up my new restaurant, Red Rooster Overtown. I’m talking to chefs, cooks, dishwashers, investors, all part of the frantic setup before we open.
Fast forward to a week later and this coronavirus is real. Twenty-five years of work, from coming to the US as an immigrant in the mid-90s to growing up as a chef at Aquavit to opening Red Rooster in Harlem and expanding to Overtown, is falling apart.
It only took ten days.
My phone rings. I speak with my business partner in Miami. The opening is not going to happen. We let go of the staff we’ve been training for weeks. Marcus B&P in Newark, New Jersey, follows, and then Red Rooster in Harlem. I don’t want to shut down. I want to hold on.
The next day, everything is still. The first time in years.
I gather with my team and we pivot. Who can help us out of this—knowing that Covid-19 will live very differently in Harlem, Newark, and Overtown compared to the rest of America? One thing about being Black and an immigrant is that I never really trust the system—you learn to go through a lot of adversity on your own. I think about my father, a leader in a small Ethiopian village.
How he led his people to build a well out of nothing. How every night they prayed and held themselves with dignity. Now is the time to pull from that side of me.
The first call is to Jos. Andr.s and World Central Kitchen. In two weeks, Jos.’s team helps transform Red Rooster Harlem into a community kitchen to feed hundreds of people a day. The next question is who will stay in Harlem to help? Robert, our greeter, is in. Jamie, our server, says, “I can.” Nicolette, our hostess, says to count her in as well.
I don’t know what to expect from our first days of service. Would there be nurses on the line? Firemen? Teachers? Or the folks who most of the time we ignore? The homeless. Folks from the nearby methadone center. They become our new regulars. The daily number rises to five hundred, and more.
Chicken one day, gumbo the next. Then rice and beans. Chile con carne after that.
We start a new routine I never learned in cooking school. Instead of yelling “Behind you! Hot pan!” we yell “Six feet apart! Please stay in line.” Robert coaches the line on social distancing. But how do you instruct someone who is high or mentally ill and appears unstable, next to a mother trying to get food for her family?
At the beginning of April, the folks who make up the food line shift again—the working class is now joining in. People start to arrive early. Jamie and Robert hold back portions for the elderly who can’t make the line, do an extra run to Ms. Johnson in 4B, to aunties and uncles who cannot stand for hours to receive a nourishing meal.
The worst calls have begun to come in. The virus is more than just numbers in the news. We lost my friend Chef Floyd Cardoz. Samuel Hargess Jr., from the iconic Paris Blues, is dead—a veteran of an incredible juke joint where the best musicians in the world have performed. Gary Samuels, who played in our band for nine years every single Sunday, is now gone. Kerby, another door greeter, and Reggie, a manager, have each lost a parent. Customers are also dying.
We reach twenty thousand meals served, with kitchens firing away in Harlem, Newark, and Overtown. I never thought of cooks and servers as first responders. In this moment in America, once again, the immigrants are helping. The guy at the deli. The lady delivering your package. These people are the first to not get health insurance. The first to be looked down upon or pushed aside. They are my heroes.
Through this, we are survivors. Our heritage has long shown how we continue to prevail even when the light seems dim and fades to black. A cultural experience of healing that we must all go through now.
But 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.
Alongside the rise of the coronavirus this year, we saw the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd by police. David McAtee, who ran YaYa’s BBQ Shack in Louisville, often served food at no cost to struggling members of his neighborhood and police officers, yet he was killed by the Kentucky National Guard in the aftermath of Black Lives Matter protests. In these and too many other violent tragedies we have seen the ugliest and worst of America.
We have also seen the bravest and best in response. Some of the most important work in fighting back against racism has happened during this pandemic. Although John Lewis passed during this time, his legacy has never been stronger. The changes we are a part of now are having a ripple effect—not only in America’s Black communities and communities of people of color, but in marginalized and Black communities throughout the world.
It will also have a tremendous impact on the food industry.
Food has always been part of the movement for racial justice. Change has often come from ordinary people doing extraordinary things through food, and changing our table. Take Georgia Gilmore, a mother of six in Alabama who fed and funded the Montgomery bus boycott for more than a year in the 1950s. Her cooking and efforts to organize the “Club from Nowhere” raised hundreds of dollars a week for the civil rights movement. Or Zephyr Wright, the chef for Lyndon B. Johnson, who was constantly in the President’s ear about injustice and how America needed to change, and who later was invited by the President to personally witness the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Sometimes leaders are famous and widely documented. Sometimes they are not as well-known. The contributions of Black people in this country have always been underdocumented and undervalued. We can change that narrative. And we must.
We have to get rid of our biggest wound in America: racism. I hope that feeding each other, learning about our food and who makes it, is part of what will help us heal.
The Rise was created to highlight the incredible talent and journey of Black chefs, culinarians, and writers at work today, and to show how the stories we tell can help make a more equitable, just industry. I hope this work, and this moment, leads to us raising up Black winemakers, authors, and farmers. I hope it leads to us supporting the next generation of Black chefs and hospitality workers who will change our industry forever.
And I hope that this movement becomes a part of a permanent and much broader social change.
So much beauty and achievement has come out of tough times throughout history, and it is inspiring to see communities across the globe coming together to care for one another. We also know that the road “back” from the current crisis will be harder for Black people because of the systemic challenges that disproportionately affect Black restaurateurs and creators of all kinds. That’s why it’s so important for everyone to help bring more equity to this industry. See the Resources section on page 301 for a few starting points to take this message and turn it into action in your own life.
We are the Black Food Community: Black chefs, Black servers, Black bartenders, Black food writers, Black culinary historians, Black recipe developers. Our food stems from challenged communities and challenged times. It comprises enslavement, poverty, and war, yet our food has soul, and has inspired and fed many. We will rise, we will shine, we are survivors.
Black Food Matters.
Marcus Samuelsson is the acclaimed chef behind many restaurants worldwide, including Red Rooster Harlem, Marcus Restaurant + Terrace in Montreal, and Marcus B&P in Newark. Samuelsson was the youngest person to receive a three-star review from the New York Times and was the guest chef for the Obama Administration’s first state dinner. He has won multiple James Beard Foundation awards including Best Chef: New York City and Outstanding Personality for No Passport Required, his television series with VOX/Eater.