Celebrity Chef Marcus Samuelsson Gives his Compatriots the Respect They Deserve
By Beverly Stephen
“Black food matters,” so declares Marcus Samuelsson in his new book The Rise: Black Cooks and the Soul of American Food.
Note that the title is not “soul food” but rather the “soul of American food.” Samuelsson laments that “many readers may still think that Black food starts and stops with dishes like fried chicken and grits—a certain idea of ‘soul food’ stuck in time.” The diversity is far greater than that and Samuelsson sets out to show it through the profiles of black chefs and other professionals with a wide range of styles. “If you really want to understand the culture and history of the United States, you need to understand Black cooks and Black food,” he writes. And it couldn’t be timelier.
If “The Rise” could accomplish only one thing,” Samuelsson writes in an email, “it would be “A greater conversation surrounding the amazing contributions that generations of Black chefs and culinarians have given to American Food.”
Though the book is somewhat encyclopedic, Samuelsson insists that it is not “an encyclopedia” but rather a “feast.” There is extensive reading material but also 150 delicious recipes which give readers the opportunity to cook and taste. They can also visit the numerous restaurants of the chefs profiled in their home cities or when they travel throughout the United States.
Samuelsson himself was born in Ethiopia, adopted as a young child by a Swedish couple, worked as a chef in Europe, and finally came to New York where he quickly became a star at the Scandinavian restaurant Aquavit. Within 10 years, he found what he believes to be his true home in Harlem and opened Red Rooster.
“I always wanted to work in America because of its diversity. Even though America is not perfect, it’s the preferred place. I have so much gratitude for the Civil Rights Movement and I wouldn’t be able to open Red Rooster without everything that was accomplished from the movement”, Samuelsson wrote in an email.
His visibility as a celebrity chef and television personality enables him to have a strong voice for the black community. When Covid-19 struck, he was on the verge of opening a restaurant, Overtown, in Miami and within hours was on the brink of closing everything. Fortunately, he was able to strike up a partnership with Jose Andres’ World Central Kitchen and turn Red Rooster into a community kitchen which has since prepared an estimated 200,000 meals for first responders and people in need. The experience gave Samuelsson a new appreciation of his foodservice colleagues: “I never thought of cooks and servers as first responders.”
His experience as an immigrant also gave him a different perspective on the United States: “given that contributions by American people from the African diaspora have had such indelible influence on American culture, it is shocking to me at times, even as a Black man, to note how easily those contributions are dismissed.”
Samuelsson believes we “have a steep learning curve to overcome” and “The Rise” is his contribution to overcoming it.
“When he came to New York, he started giving back to a community that was new to him. I’m very impressed by what he’s done,” says Albert Lukas, Restaurant Associates supervising chef for the Washington D.C. region, whose responsibilities include the Sweet Home Café at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.
“I’m a huge fan of two chefs in his book, Mashama Bailey (The Grey Savannah) and Rodney Scott (Rodney Scott’s BBQ, Charleston). It’s great to spotlight people like Bailey and Scott so young people can see there is a diverse opportunity. He did a good job picking people from across the country and showcasing different types from fine dining to traditional BBQ.”
It’s eye-opening and inspiring to read the diverse profiles of the chefs presented so beautifully by his collaborator Osayi Endolyn and the recipes developed by Yewande Komolafe and Tamie Cook.
“The purpose of the book was to celebrate Black excellence and show that it’s not monolithic,’ explains Samuelsson in an email. “Osayi and Yewande traveled around the country finding many of these incredible people to highlight. We’re really proud to present so many incredible chefs, historians, and farmers who have such unique stories to tell through their life’s work. Hopefully, we can demonstrate how American food can be traced to every part of the country and how important it is to share and celebrate Black excellence in the American culinary space.”
Following are highlights from three of these chefs.
Tavel Bristol-Joseph, chef/partner of Emmer and Rye in Austin, is the first pastry chef to be named a best new chef by Food & Wine magazine 2020. His impoverished childhood in Guyana didn’t include fine dining restaurants but he learned he loved baking from an aunt who first made her young nephew help her bake as a punishment, but he soon learned he loved it. He found his calling at culinary school and then worked in New York at the River Café and the W hotel’s Blue Fin. He met his future business partner Kevin Fink while working in Tucson as an executive pastry chef. In 2016, they launched Emmer & Rye, a celebrated fine dining restaurant known for milling heritage grains and an innovative dim sum style service. Bristol-Joseph’s dishes noted in the book include black garlic ice cream, roti with curry, a dark and dense black rum cake, white Sonoran wheat chocolate chip cookies with Texas pecans.
Bristol-Joseph is devoted to helping young black culinary students who might otherwise find the cost of culinary school prohibitive and has set up a Bristol-Joseph Culinary Arts Scholarship at Austin Community College. He also believes there are too few high-profile black chefs to inspire prospective students and that it’s important for them to see someone who looks like him and who will mentor them.
Nina Compton (Compere Lapin, New Orleans) came from a more privileged background. Her father was the first prime minister of St. Lucia and is considered its founding father. She attended a boarding high school in England. She was a newcomer to New Orleans and had made her name on Top Chef. She had to succeed as an outsider and as a black woman. Tall orders. Coming from her background, it took her some time to compute the racism that exists in the United States. But once she did, she felt the need to speak out. “Being in New Orleans, I look at what Leah Chase did for the community. It’s only right to continue on that path and pass the torch on,” she said in a telephone interview. She stands by what she recently told The New Yorker. “I can’t make a huge splash, but I can make a ripple. And then, hopefully, that becomes a wave.” She continued, “you become a role model. People think if Nina can do it, so can I. When I came up there weren’t many black people in the kitchen. When you see more faces, like yours you feel more comfortable. It gives you confidence. Giving people hope is the first step. The Rise is a wonderful book because it shows how many black chefs are cooking at such a high level.”
Her wildly popular St. Lucian food—her signature dish is curried goat with sweet potato gnocchi—is making a wave. She continues to dig deep into her roots, the food she grew up with. Research is important in order to trace the foods back to Africa. “Rice and grains and okra, treating those things with respect is very important,” she believes.
In Charleston, BJ Dennis is the ambassador of Gullah cuisine. The origin of Gullah dishes goes back thousands of years into West African history before these dishes were transported to South Carolina by slaves. Dennis is a recognized authority on Gullah Geechee cuisine and spreads the gospel both in his catering and in speaking at such conferences as the Worlds of Flavor at the Culinary Institute of America. His specialties include Gullah fish head soup, collards sautéed in coconut oil, and Gullah rice with sausage, chicken, and shrimp, field peas and lima beans, shrimp and crab perlou. “My mission is to bring this to the forefront,” he says.
He too came out of fine dining and didn’t really appreciate his own heritage until he was working in St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands. There he saw that “black island cookery could hold its own in professional kitchens so often lauded as hallowed ground for French traditions. That the African roots of Low Country food—its ingredients and the people who developed it—had their traditions too. And those recipes deserved center stage as much as anyone’s.”
Luckily, Dennis is able to give center stage cooking to his “culture food.” “He introduced Anthony Bourdain to Gullah Geechee food in an episode of Parts Unknown. He rediscovered a rare type of African rice in Trinidad and was written up in the New York Times. He is gratified to affirm stories from his grandfather with his own research and that of his friend and prolific historian David Shields.”
Dennis is unassuming and, while grateful for his recognition, is always quick to share credit.
The Rise: Black Cooks and the Soul of American Food by Marcus Samuelsonn with Osayi Endolyn. Recipes with Yewande Komolafe and Tamie Cook. Copyright © 2020 by Marcus Samuelsson. Photographs by Angie Mosier. Voracious, an imprint of Little, Brown and Company. New York, NY.
Beverly Stephen, the former executive editor of Food Arts magazine, is a principal of the culinary travel company Flavor Forays. She is the co-author, with Barbara Mathias, of On the Road With Flavor Forays An Insider’s Guide to Four of America’s Hottest Food Cities—Austin, Charleston, Portland and New Orleans.