Over the past several decades, African Americans have broken down racial barriers in nearly every profession: academics, media, entertainment, sports, law, medicine, finance — and even the presidency.
But one area that has seen little integration is the culinary arts. As Ethiopian-born chef Marcus Samuelsson explains: “Our ancestors … would be shocked to learn that there are more black men and women who are partners at law firms than black men and women who are executive chefs at the top restaurants in the country.”
Samuelsson, who is most recognized as the winner of the reality TV competition, “Top Chef: Masters,” has been a trailblazer in this regard — breaking into a predominantly white profession, eschewing the industry’s obsession with European flavors and techniques, and embracing the tastes and styles of African cooking.
In his new memoir, “Yes, Chef,” Samuelsson chronicles how he grew from an orphan in Ethiopia to become the chef of the Obamas’ first White House state dinner. The book also explores the challenges people of color face in the culinary world.
Samuelsson was born in Ethiopia, but when he was just 2 years old, a tuberculosis epidemic took the life of his mother, leaving him and his sister orphaned. Soon after, a Swedish couple adopted them and they moved to Sweden, and his name was changed from Kassahun Tsegie to Marcus Samuelsson. From an early age, Samuelsson loved cooking and would spend hours with his adopted grandmother in the kitchen. When he failed to qualify for a competitive soccer team in Sweden, he decided to turn to cooking full-time.
While Samuelsson excelled in culinary school, being one of very few black people in Sweden — and in restaurant kitchens — proved difficult. Not only did his skin color make chefs skeptical of his cooking abilities, but when he did manage to get into a kitchen, he frequently became the subject of racist insults and jokes. But no matter what happened to him, his focus remained on his craft.
“As long as I learned how to debone that lamb, you could call me whatever you wanted,” Samuelsson said at a talk last week sponsored by the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C.
“When you’re a person of color, you know right away that your knife has to be that much sharper,” he continued. “All you want as a minority is that opportunity just to get in.” Because, Samuelsson explained, he knew that once he was given a chance to prove himself, his skills and hard work would stand alone.
Like most chefs, Samuelsson trained at top restaurants throughout Europe. But what set him apart was a job he took as chef of a cruise ship that sailed around the world, which allowed him to explore the flavors of South America and Asia. Later, he took several trips to rediscover the tastes of the African continent as well. “Who started the lie that France had the greatest food in the world?” he writes in his memoir. “Who’s going to make people realize that food dismissed as ‘ethnic’ by the fine-dining world could be produced at the same level as their sacred bouillabaisses and veloutes?”
Eventually, Samuelsson took a job in New York City, and it was there that his career took off. He became the youngest chef ever to receive a three-star review from “The New York Times;” won the James Beard Award, the Academy Award of cooking; authored several cook books, including “The Soul of a New Cuisine: A Discovery of the Foods and Flavors of Africa;” won the competitive reality TV show “Top Chef: Masters;” was tapped to be the chef of the Obama’s first White House state dinner; and opened the popular restaurant Red Rooster in Harlem.
While Samuelsson has achieved enormous success, he is one of the few black chefs to do so. The irony, of course, is that for centuries black people have been the cooks of this country; it is only now that cooking has become a glamorous profession that African Americans are being shut out. “A hundred years ago, black men and women had to fight to get out of the kitchen,” he writes. “These days, we have to fight to get in.”
African Americans “built the culinary foundation of this country,” Samuelsson points out. The foods typically thought of as quintessentially American — barbeque, Southern cuisine, Creole, Cajun — all come from the African Diaspora, he told the crowd at the Smithsonian, but African Americans haven’t created a narrative of black cooking to preserve this history.
This is precisely what Samuelsson set out to do with his new restaurant, Red Rooster. As he explained, the restaurant serves as a monument to African American cooking, where customers can experience the flavors of black America and where aspiring chefs can go to learn about it. All of this, he hopes, will “change the footprint” in Harlem, so that residents will have access to better food and black people will have more opportunities to enter the culinary profession.
Said Samuelsson, “When one of my line cooks opens up [a restaurant] across the street from me — and even outdoes us — that’ll be a success.”