It’s been four years since Houston has seen celebrity chef, restaurateur, TV personality and award-winning author Marcus Samuelsson. The last time he was in town, he held a pop-up lunch with chefs Seth Siegel-Gardner and Terrence Gallivan of The Pass & Provisions, followed by a cooking class and book signing at Central Market to promote his New York Times best-selling memoir, Yes, Chef.
This past Sunday he was back in town — again with former colleagues Siegel-Gardner and Gallivan — for a sold-out pop-up brunch and book-signing featuring dishes from his latest work, The Red Rooster Cookbook: The Story of Food and Hustle in Harlem.
The Houston Press caught up with Samuelsson for an interview over a brunch that included cocktails, kolaches, Double Dragon fried rice and shrimp, fried chicken and waffles, and sweet potato doughnuts. HP: Welcome back to Houston! The last time we saw you was during your press tour for Yes, Chef. Now you’re back with another book. Tell us about it.
MS: This book really starts where Yes, Chef ended. This picks up in Harlem. I tell the story through the people that built the community before me, through all these amazing storytellers that made Harlem what it is. And I think that one of the reasons why we misunderstand very often African-American communities, poor communities, is because we haven’t engaged in the value of their culture. So, in Harlem, at the restaurant, we celebrate that. Because we learned so much from them. We learn about spirituality, we learn about style, about procedures that are very American.
HP: You’re adopted and you grew up in Sweden, but your roots are Ethiopian. Growing up, did you have any sort of identity crisis?
MS: Being a chef is about getting to know yourself, right? And so, Ethiopia will always be a base. I will always work with Ethiopian berbere [an Ethiopian spice], and the spirituality of Ethiopia comes out in the food. I will always have Swedish influences. I grew up with fish, mostly. And now my wife and I, we live in Harlem. So those three identities, I’ve landed on now. It’s mine. It’s home. But it took a long way to get there. But it helped me in a way, because my cousins were Korean, my auntie was Jewish, my parents were white, my other cousins were French-Canadian, so we lived in a very 21st-century family.
HP: But Sweden is a very homogeneous environment, is it not?
MS: It is, but our family wasn’t. But I think for all of us, the teenage years (regardless of race), identity is awkward for both boys and girls. But I had the luxury of being a black man. The luxury of being able to have a filter that’s immigrant. The luxury of coming from a place like Ethiopia. You could view them all as obstacles, but I view them as luxuries.
HP: That’s an interesting point to make — one wouldn’t necessarily think of these things as luxuries.
MS: But it is. I came to this country with $300. Nothing was ever in my life given to me. So, I have very low expectations of what I’m going to get, but I have high expectations of myself and I aspire very high. And my parents never lowered my goals and standards. So that’s the luxury that I’m in now. Let’s go. I have a very clear vision and mission and I can connect the two.
HP: Okay, then, what is your vision and mission?
MS: The vision for me, it’s about how great food does not have a ZIP code. The two civil rights that I value the most [are] that people have access to technology and great food. Poverty and food in America hits you very differently than poverty and food in Africa. If you’re poor in Africa, you still eat great. You have organic food, locally bought. If you’re poor in America, you’re surrounded by Popeyes and trans fats, and there’s no available access to fresh food. So my whole thing from a restaurant point of view is to create a dialogue in those communities, to create jobs for cooks and servers, create a farmers’ market environment at an affordable price that’s going to engage people to cook more.
HP: When you gave the talk at Central Market in 2012, you said that people couldn’t get fresh corn in Harlem at the time. Can you do that now?
MS: (smiles) We now have six farmers' markets in that community. Not only do we have six farmers' markets that serve culturally appropriate ingredients; [they] give you many different ways of paying. So you can pay with food stamps, or you can pay with Square if you want. So it’s about being entrepreneurial and also being clever about how you engage.
HP: I haven’t read through the entire book yet, but I found it very interesting that in your introduction, you said you moved to Harlem the day that a white guy mugged you in downtown NYC.
MS: As you read it more, you’ll see that’s just a tiny window, one of many moments that led me to Harlem. I think it was this search for community. There was this level of community that I didn’t get in Midtown. I mean, it’s like you work and you don’t even know your neighbor. It wasn’t my neighbor’s fault. It was equally my fault for not engaging, right? It was post-9/11 and I was really searching for community. And I also knew that fine dining had taken this different course. I wanted to move to a community where I did know the neighbors. I was also thinking about how to make food affordable. I was cooking for the 1 percent of the 1 percent for such a long time. And I was like, "Let’s cook for that guy, but that’s also cook for the woman who works in the library. Let’s cook for the guy that works in the post office." Because I didn’t grow up only cooking for the 1 percent of the 1 percent.
HP: There’s a great anecdote in your cookbook about how you spent two years researching fried chicken that ended with John Legend telling you: “Just fry the damn bird!”
MS: It’s good to be intimidated by a dish, ’cause it gives you great humility and you do your homework, you know?
HP: And you were intimidated by the chicken because you thought you’d get it wrong? Or you were under so much pressure to get it right?
MS: When I worked at Aquavit, we were all about the salmon and the seafood. At Rooster, I knew that it would be about the pig and the bird. And the chicken would be the main staple. So I wanted to have a narrative and a point of view that was inspired by the fact, but that was also truly ours. And that really became bone-in, dark meat, the brine, the twice-fried, the crackling skin.
HP: [Talking about the Double Dragon rice with grilled shrimp recipe served at brunch] This is unexpected; you wouldn’t expect to find this in Harlem, would you?
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MS: Well, I don’t know. That’s really what the book talks about. Harlem is extremely diverse, much more diverse than what people think. It’s really influenced by two major things: the food of the migration, Southerners coming up; and then global migration. So you have Chinese food in Harlem. You have really good — used to be Puerto Rican food, now it’s more Mexican food. You have Caribbean food. Close to Columbia you have a lot of sushi joints. You have historically West African, so this dish to me has very West African notes. There’s a broken rice that came to America through the slave trade from Senegal and Ghana. The broken rice was the broken rice that the slaves cooked with. And this is how they cooked it, with a little bit of fermented shrimp paste.
And then, the other thing you see in Harlem is the Caribbean influence, where the Chinese woman married the Indian guy, or the Indian woman married the African guy. So those mixups, there’s a lot of that. There’s a lot of Asian undertones in Caribbean cooking.
So those are the nuggets of surprises that I want to tell.
The Red Rooster Cookbook: The Story of Food and Hustle in Harlem, by Marcus Samuelsson, was released on October 18, 2016, and is available for purchase in major bookstores and on amazon.com.