The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art’s second program in the Director’s Discussion Series featured Chef Marcus Samuelsson in a discussion of his memoir, Yes, Chef lead by Dr. Johnnetta Betsch Cole. The discussion was introduced by Michele Martin, host of NPR’s Tell Me More. Dr. Cole began by setting out the parameters of their talk addressing the Chef’s life, his work, his passion for food and his view of food as art.
Samuelsson has made his mark in the competitive restaurant world. He is an internationally acclaimed chef, philanthropist and a New York Times best-selling author. He is the youngest chef to achieve two three-star reviews from the New York Times and has been honored by the James Beard Foundation on multiple occasions, including “Rising Star Chef” (1999), “Best Chef: New York City” (2003), “Best International Cookbook” (2007) and “Best Television Program” (for Chopped in 2012). The author of several award-winning cookbooks, Samuelsson released his best-selling memoir, Yes, Chef, in June.
Speaking to a packed auditorium the celebrity chef recounted his remarkable journey of a tubercular three year old orphan adopted by a Swedish couple. Born in Ethiopia, raised in Sweden, classically trained in Europe and landing in America where he fully embraces the African-American experience. Attributing his success to a combination of random luck, a work ethic and faith it was during those formative years his Swedish dad provided fundamental instruction necessarily acquired by successful people of color, i.e., your knife must be sharper than the others. As a man of color seeking opportunity and access he couldn’t settle on just being good but strive toward being the best.
The chef spoke on how to this day he sees himself more of a failed soccer player than an accomplished chef. While soccer may have been his first love he ultimately focused on the craft of cooking and for good cause rising up through the ranks of his chosen profession he tells of the stress of coping and overcoming countless challenges. Launching his career Samuelsson writes “I had to get to France, anyone who wanted to know greatness had to go to France. Yeah, I found French food too heavy and rigid and fussy sometimes, with technique overshadowing flavor, but there was no question that it embodied excellence, history, and craft—three qualities that appealed to me. Plus, I needed that pedigree in my pocket.”
Not only did he conquer France but took on other rigorous challenges including a cruise ship stint with no days off. With commitment, discipline, and fortitude he anchored in New York fulfilling a dream of his own restaurant in Harlem, the Red Rooster. Addressing the adoring crowd and much like his memoir Marcus Samuelsson was engaging, expressive and frank. He touched on such themes as eating with a spiritual compass, the significant narrative of Black cooks, and mystical Harlem. Inspired by the artists of the Harlem Renaissance the Chef spoke on the significance of the Red Rooster and how he approaches food as art.
Comparable to a moveable feast those in attendance left the evening’s conversation, book signing and reception feeling delightfully engaged and sated.