Chef Marcus Samuelsson elevates the diversity of the culinary world

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NEW YORK — Marcus Samuelsson is interested in leading with intention. That approach is etched into the delicious dishes prepared at his popular restaurants, but it’s also expressed in his staff.

“My restaurants are a reflection of the society in which we live. (At) Hav & Mar, we decided on black leadership, female leadership, because there was a void for it. Red Rooster opened in Harlem because we wanted to create jobs within our industry for black and brown people,” said Samuelsson, a multiple James Beard Award-winning chef. “I love food and I want to target it towards…everyone, but the opportunities should also be spread out a little more evenly.”

To honor pioneering restaurants founded by women and people of color, Samuelsson and fellow chef Jonathan Waxman present “Seat at the Table,” an eight-part Audible Original Series that premiered late last year. In the series, the chefs, along with many involved in starting their restaurants, present an oral history of some of America’s most iconic restaurants, including New York’s groundbreaking Jezebel, started by Albert Wright, Ben’s Chili Bowl in Washington, DC, by the Ali Family and The Slanted Door, created by Charles Phan in San Francisco. The food serves as the roux of the podcast, while the impact the establishments have had on their communities and adds the shrimp, sausage and potatoes.

“After Black History Month, going 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 was born in a shack in Ethiopia but was raised in Sweden after his birth mother died during a tuberculosis epidemic in the early 1970s. “I always feel that when you walk into a restaurant, you’re walking into a piece of American history… that’s really what we want to capture in ‘Seat at the Table’. It’s beyond the food, it’s really the people that make it so special.”

Samuelsson spoke to The Associated Press about her mission to uplift women and people of color, selecting restaurants for the podcast and diversity in the culinary world. Answers may have been edited for clarity and brevity.

AP: You’ve mentioned that your goal is to uplift women and talented and diverse people. Why is that part of your mission?

SAMUELSSON: As a black chef who has privileges and a platform, it’s very important to me to set the standard and create jobs for other black cooks… One of the reasons we always have open kitchens is so the staff know they’re in a stage but also so that the client can see who cooks and works for him in the dining room. same with hav & Mar, where our mission is to elevate women of color in leadership.

AP: How did you choose the restaurants?

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

(Chef) Thomas Keller doesn’t do many interviews, but he did talk to Jonathan. And that’s why the history of The French Laundry is so unique. And the story of Charles (Pham), that’s a story about the Vietnam War and how a real immigrant story begins and how a restaurant maybe wasn’t the way they thought it would be in business, but it became a way of life for him and his family.

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

SAMUELSSON: The desire that you want to share your narrative. … I share that piece with Charles, of course, being an immigrant, feeling love for America is sometimes misunderstood as well.

Leah Chase (from Dooky Chase) has always been my mentor and someone I greatly admire. But I also feel Alberta Wright and Jezebel: he was a kid growing 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 never would have created Red Rooster or Have & Mar, my restaurant here in Manhattan. … I owe a lot to that generation of amazing black women.

AP: How would you rate the culinary world when it comes to diversity?

SAMUELSSON: Food is part of society… so we’re getting better. We have a way to go. And part of doing this document with Audible was really acknowledging how much work, how many amazing black restaurants there were in America that were never recognized.

The history of the United States in terms of diversity is very complicated. But it is headed, through a lot of hard work, by a lot of people, in a better direction. I am a firm believer that even if you have to work at it every day, we are heading towards a better experience as people. And it’s important because as diversity in America advances, the world is looking at America. So it’s very, very important to get these small victories because the rest of the world is taking notice. As a black person who grew up outside of the United States, I know this firsthand.


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

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