NEW YORK — Marcus Samuelsson wants to lead with intent. This focus is centered on the delectable dishes prepared in its popular restaurants, but is also expressed with its staff.
“My restaurants are a reflection of the society in which we live. (In) Hav & Mar, we decided on black leadership, female leadership, because there was a void for that. Red Rooster opened in Harlem because we wanted to create jobs in our industry for black and brown people,” said Samuelsson, a multiple James Beard Award-winning chef. “I love food and I want to make it accessible to everyone, but the opportunities also need to be a little more evenly distributed.”
To celebrate groundbreaking restaurants founded by women and people of color, Samuelsson and his chef partner Jonathan Waxman host “Seat at the Table,” an eight-part original Audible series that premiered late last year. In the series, the chefs, along with many who helped found their restaurants, present an oral history of some of America’s most iconic restaurants, including New York’s groundbreaking Jezebel, started by Albert Wright, Washington, DC, Ben’s Chili Bowl, by Ali. Family, and The Slanted Door, created by Charles Phan in San Francisco. Food serves as the podcast’s roux, while the impact the stores have had on their communities and adds shrimp, sausage and fries.
“Coming out of Black History Month, going into Women’s (History) Month, I felt it was really necessary to share that, that we know our black stories are not monolithic,” said Samuelsson, who was born in a cabin in Ethiopia but grew up. in Sweden after his birth, his mother died during a tuberculosis epidemic in the early 70s. “I always feel that when you walk into a restaurant, you walk 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 his mission to uplift women and people of color, choosing restaurants for the podcast and diversity in the culinary world. Answers may have been edited for clarity and brevity.
AP: You mentioned that your goal is to elevate women and talented, diverse people. Why is this part of your mission?
SAMUELSSON: As a black chef with privilege and a platform, it’s very important to me to set the standard and create jobs for other black chefs… One of the reasons we always have open kitchens is that the staff knows they’re in a stage but also so that the customer can see who is cooking and working for him in the dining room. Same thing with Hav & Mar where our mission is to elevate women of color to leadership.
AP: How did you choose the restaurants?
SAMUELSSON: I didn’t do it myself. It was a constant back and forth with my partner on this, Jonathan Waxman. … He didn’t just read about these chefs, he found these chefs. But he knew these stories, and we would never have gotten so close to these incredible stories without Jonathan’s work.
(Chef) Thomas Keller doesn’t do many interviews, but he spoke with Jonathan. And that’s why the story of the French Laundry is so unique. And the story of Charles (Pham), that’s a story about the Vietnam War and how a true immigrant story begins and how a restaurant maybe wasn’t what they thought it would be in business, but it became a way of life for him and his family .
AP: What do you share in common with the chefs featured on the podcast?
SAMUELSSON: The desire to share your narrative. … I share this part with Charles, of course, as an immigrant, feeling that love of America is sometimes misunderstood as well.
Leah Chase (of Dooky Chase) has always been my mentor and someone I admire so much. But I also feel Alberta Wright and Jezebel—I was a kid growing up right across the street from Jezebel in Hell’s Kitchen in New York. And I know that if I hadn’t met Ms. Leah Chase, I wouldn’t have met Alberta Wright, I would never have created Red Rooster or Have & Mar, my restaurant here in Manhattan. … I owe a lot to that generation of incredible black women.
AP: How would you rate the culinary world in terms of diversity?
SAMUELSSON: Food is part of society… so we improve. We have a long way to go. And part of making this doc with Audible was really recognizing how much work, how much incredible black restaurants in America that were never recognized.
America’s history of diversity is very complicated. But it’s moving—through a lot of hard work, by a lot of people—in a better direction. I firmly believe that even if you (have to) work at it every day, we are moving towards a better experience as humans. And it’s important because as diversity grows in America, the world is looking at America. So it’s really, really important to get those little victories because the rest of the world is taking notice. As a Black man growing up outside of America, I know this first hand.
Follow Associated Press entertainment reporter Gary Gerard Hamilton at: @GaryGHamilton on all his social media platforms.