National Museum of African Art Director Dr. Johnnetta Cole began her discussion with acclaimed chef (and now memoirist) Marcus Samuelsson by asking in “Have you eaten injera today?” I’ve sampled injera, a staple food from Samuelsson’s homeland of Ethiopia. What I didn’t know prior to this discussion was that that question is a common Ethiopian greeting.
Cole and Samuelsson, along with host Michele Martin of NPR’s Tell Me More, displayed ease and great chemistry.
Samuelsson had is own question for the audience: would we all stand up and shout “Yes, Chef” (the title of his new memoir) in our native languages so he could capture this on film. (Of course those gathered at the Hirshhorn’s Ring Auditorium complied with enthusiasm.)
Samuelsson, of Top Chef fame, told Cole and the audience that despite all of his success, he sometimes still thinks of himself as a failed soccer player rather than an accomplished chef since his early goal was to be a world-class soccer player. He has found similarities in the discipline and teamwork required to soccer and working in kitchens and overall says he is glad he found his way to cooking.
He was forthright about the challenges has faced as a man of color and his desire to see more people of color and women running their own kitchens and restaurants in the U.S, noting that it is easier for immigrants to get loans than it is for African Americans to get loans. Samuelsson expressed admiration for the late Sylvia Woods of “Sylvia’s Restaurant” in Harlem and talked about his efforts to employ people from his immediate Harlem neighborhood at Red Rooster, his popular restaurant.
Samuelsson, an Ethiopian who was adopted by a Swedish family, spoke of how upbringing and his cultural heritage informs his ideas about food and prepared him for his career. In Sweden, he says, they didn’t have a lot of money but they eat well, while in the U.S., ‘we have money but choose to eat trash.’ He said that in Ethiopia, people “eat with a spiritual compass.” And he told of how his fishing family in Sweden would divide a catch of 40 fish: 10 would go to the poor or elderly, 10 would be for the family to eat fresh, 10 would be smoked for a time when there was less food and 10 would be sold to tourists.