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The Importance of Food Heritage

With Chef Marcus Samuelsson

Marcus Samuelsson
Season 3, Episode 7 | May 4, 2021

Food provides a window into our culture. Celebrated chef Marcus Samuelsson talks about the soul of American food, specifically Black food traditions, and how the origins of what and how we cook both influences and connects us.

Marcus Samuelsson is a chef, restaurant owner, cookbook author, and has served as a judge on multiple popular cooking shows, including Chopped, Top Chef, and Iron Chef USA.

When we understand our food traditions, it can affect so many things beyond the food itself — you may visit new places, learn new backstories, or even experience improved race relationships. Here are some of the things Samuelsson had to say about discovering the soul of our food:

  • “People are cooking a version of an Italian meal probably in 50 million American homes at this moment,” says Samuelsson. “We don’t refer to Italian-inspired food as food from another place. It’s from Italy. If we can do that with Black food, think about what that would do in terms of culture and race relationships.”
  • “Black food is a major part of American food. There are five original cuisines in American food that stem from the African-American journey: barbecue, low-country, Creole, Cajun, and what we talk about as Southern food or soul food,” says Samuelsson. “They’re all original cuisines that come out of our traditions. That’s something to celebrate.”
  • “Black food is not monolithic,” says Samuelsson. “You can be African American like Chef Nyesha Arrington, who is Korean African American from California, or you can be like Chef Kwame Onuwuachi, having Trinidadian, Jamaican, and Nigerian roots. Or Ethiopian American like myself, with a Swedish background. It’s very vast and has many genres.”
  • “We all want delicious food,” says Samuelsson, “but not only that. Food can be tribal, it can be spiritual, it can be nurturing, it can show aspirations, or where we came from. There are so many entry points, but they all want to be heard through our food.”

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Season 3, Episode 7   May 4, 2021

Food provides a window into our culture. Celebrated chef Marcus Samuelsson talks about the soul of American food, specifically Black food traditions, and how the origins of what and how we cook both influences and connects us.

Listen >

Transcript: The Importance of Food Heritage

Season 7, Episode 7  | May 4, 2021

Jamie Martin

Welcome to Life Time Talks, the healthy-living podcast that’s aimed at helping you achieve your health, fitness, and life goals. I’m Jamie Martin, editor-in-chief of Experience Life, Life Time’s whole-life health and fitness magazine.

David Freeman

And I’m David Freeman, the national digital performer brand leader for Life Time. We’re all in different places when it comes to our health and fitness, but no matter what we are working toward, there are some essential things we can do to keep moving in the direction of a healthy, purpose-driven life.

Jamie Martin

In each episode, we break down the various elements of healthy living, including fitness and nutrition, mindset and community, health issues, and more. We’ll also share real inspiring stories of transformation.

David Freeman

And we’ll also be talking to experts from Life Time and beyond, who’ll share their insights and knowledge, so you’ll have the tools and information you need to take charge of your next steps. Here we go.

[MUSIC]

Jamie Martin

Hey, everyone. I’m Jamie Martin.

David Freeman

And I’m David Freeman.

Jamie Martin

And we’re back with another episode of Life Time Talks. In this episode, we are excited to welcome another guest host. We have Courtney Helgoe, she is a features editor at Experience Life, and she just recently had the pleasure of interviewing chef Marcus Samuelsson for an upcoming issue of the magazine. For those listeners who might recognize his name, Marcus Samuelsson is a chef and cookbook author. He has been a judge on several cooking shows including Top Chef, Iron Chef, and Chopped, and he also several well-known restaurants including Red Rooster in Harlem. So, Courtney, we’re excited to hear about your conversation with him. How are you?

Courtney Helgoe

I’m good. Thanks so much for having me. I really enjoyed doing this interview and I’m excited to talk about it.

Jamie Martin

So tell us a little bit about some of your takeaways.

Courtney Helgoe

I felt really lucky to have a chance to do this interview because I’m a big fan of chef Samuelsson. He was one of the founders of Aquavit restaurant here in Minneapolis in the ’90s, which was actually a very sort of new and important restaurant. I was working as a server at the time, so I was like this is thrilling. We have this really important chef of Somali decent who’s making Swedish food. Minneapolis, our whole heritage here is sort of dually formed by Swedish immigrants and Somali immigrants. That’s really sort of the unique heritage of our city.

I thought even then I was excited about this chef who really combined history with his approach to food. And then he opened Red Rooster and that made him sort of famous on the world stage. I have a cousin who lives in New York and loves to eat there and raves about the food and how beautiful everyone is who seats you and the room. It’s just like a really great experience to be at Red Rooster. Of course, it’s also famous because it celebrates Black culture and Black food traditions, which is super exciting and special and unique. I just think he’s made such a unique contribution as a chef, and that’s what he really zeros in on in his new cookbook.

So, he talks primarily about Black food traditions and how rich they are and how they’re not monolithic and you have African influences and Caribbean influences and influences from the American South. So, Black food traditions themselves are so rich. Then he’s saying this is American food. This is really part of our collective food heritage and we are so lucky to have it. I just felt lucky to talk to him.

David Freeman

Yeah. When you think of culture, I mean the thing that you hit on just now that stands out to me is it’s a mix of so many different things and when you bring those things together it’s like a jambalaya. That’s what really brings the flavor out. When you said the culture and you mentioned a little bit about the cookbook. What were certain things that you remember from this interview that stood out to you in regards to the cookbook and how he implements a lot of that in his day-to-day life and how you do it as well in your day-to-day life.

Courtney Helgoe

Gosh. Well, the idea that when we cook we’re not cooking alone thanks to all of the wisdom and love and heart that our ancestors have put into their food. So, that really stood out to me. He and I are both adoptees actually so he was born in Ethiopia and grew up with a family in Sweden and happy ending to that story that he did end up reconnecting with his birth family in Ethiopia years later, so that’s lovely. But the way that food really can sort of bring people together and bond them across differences I think is a big motivator for him and I guess that’s a big motivator for me as a cook as well because I really love to cook for people and I love to cook what food is special for them and for me. It just feels like food as a connecting force is something I felt in common with him.

Jamie Martin

I was going to just add, Courtney, one of the takeaways I had, too, from the interview that I read in the magazine ahead of time, obviously we got a little sneak peek, was just his wanting to do good for his community. When everything happened with COVID last year and that struck and what he did with his kitchens and with his restaurants. I’m wondering if you can share a little bit about that. I know we’ll hear more about it in the interview. But I think that was an important for the good of community type initiative that is really important and worth talking about.

Courtney Helgoe

Oh, my gosh. Well, he was one of the chefs who really met COVID head on and said our job as a restaurant is to feed people. That’s our first mission. It’s not to make money. It’s not to be important. It’s not to impress people. Our first primary mission is always to feed people and especially in a crisis not just feed them but to feed them well. So, he worked with José Andrés to transform the kitchen at Red Rooster and make it sort of COVID safe for his employees and then they created a line where they were able to provide food for huge numbers of people in the neighborhood. I think he said that by the time they were done they’d served over 200,000 meals. So, they made a lot of food and the chefs were competing to make it well. It wasn’t just let’s make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. It was shrimp and grits. It was roasted chicken. It was fresh fruit. It was really delicious food, which is really what we all need when we’re down.

David Freeman

Well, I’ll tell you one thing, this podcast is definitely going to be something to feed our minds so without further ado let’s go ahead and get cooking with chef Marcus Samuelsson.

[MUSIC]

Courtney Helgoe

Let’s just start at the beginning. I would love to hear about how you go into cooking professionally and what made you decide to own a restaurant. It’s tough work.

Marcus Samuelsson

It’s funny, I never thought about it as tough work. It’s the work that I choose and the work that I love. I grew up, my uncles being fishermen, and I saw them work hard every day whether it was going out fishing or cleaning a boat or repairing the nets. I also saw them enjoying that, so I’ve been around food and making food all my life because my grandmother also cooked a lot. So, I just wanted to continue to grow and continue to develop young chefs. When you have something to say in food it’s the biggest privilege to be able to open a restaurant.

Courtney Helgoe

Agreed. And the biggest privilege to be able to eat at restaurants where people have something to say, I think. So, let’s talk about your wonderful new cookbook, The Rise. You have the words “Black food matters” on the back cover of the book. So, can we talk about that and can you define Black food for us in your view and then tell us why it matters right now, especially now.

Marcus Samuelsson

Yeah. I mean as a Black chef you live Black food matters. This is what you work towards, and you know it and it’s so essential that you want it to be understood correctly by Black chefs but also by non-Black chefs because we’re in America. So, for me, the challenge around the book was really how do we develop the right authorship for Black cooking in America for American food without dealing with this. We can’t really deal an honest look on American food because Black food is a major part of American food. It doesn’t live outside American food in this context.

Courtney Helgoe

You’re anticipating one of my later questions, so let’s talk about how Black food is part of American food. I think that’s a really wonderful thing to emphasize.

Marcus Samuelsson

For me, it’s really three buckets that I wanted to develop and ask questions around with The Rise was the authorship of American food but also the incredible contribution Black chefs have done through generations. Then it was how can we create memories for not just Black people but for everybody when they think about Black food. The authorship has been told the right way and so the memories can then be correct. We’re not saying that Portuguese food is Polish food just because they both come from Europe.

Courtney Helgoe

Right.

Marcus Samuelsson

Then the last piece to this is if the authorship is done right, told the right way then the memory has a higher chance to be recreated in a way that are accurate to its history and respect its history and then you can build the right aspirations because food is also value proposition. But if you’re only viewed as laborer and never owned anything and you’re never acknowledged in books or in media, what is the worth to going to food as a Black person? These are all channels that we talk about in The Rise.

The last aspect is also Black food is obviously not monolithic. You can be African American like chef Nyesha Arrington that is Korean African American from California or you can be like chef Kwame Onuwuachi, having both Trinidadian, Jamaican, and Nigerian but growing up in Virginia roots. Or Ethiopian-American like myself with Swedish background. So, it’s very fast and has many, many genres. So, it lives in a much larger scale than maybe people can imagine.

Courtney Helgoe

On the question of authorship, is this why you’ve included the profiles of all these wonderful Black chefs in your book so that we understand that everyone’s story contributes to their dishes, to their cooking? What did you want us to get from this?

Marcus Samuelsson

In my other cookbooks it’s very much been about my restaurant and my own journey, writing Yes Chef or The Red Rooster cookbook or even going back to [inaudible] cookbook, but I knew I couldn’t tell this story on my own. I had an incredible team with Yewande Komolafe who made the majority of the recipes and of course Osayi Endolyn the writer and then honoring these chefs, really telling deep, exploring these chefs in terms of their backstories and their journeys and some of them are not chefs to know what’s important, too. To create Black food there are many people that are not chefs that have contributed a lot, people like Jessica Harris, people like Toni Tipton-Martin and so on.

So, it was both a look back to people like Leah Chase and chefs like that but also looking in the present and the future.

Courtney Helgoe

I really appreciated the home-cooked stories because it made it feel very approachable. These are recipes made in someone’s actual kitchen and not necessarily by professionals. So, let’s talk a little bit more about traditions, which also seems to be a very important concept that you’ve visited. So what changes when we don’t know where our food comes from? If we don’t have a relationship to food traditions, how do you see that as affecting us?

Marcus Samuelsson

It impacts everything way beyond food. Just think about what understanding would we learn from the Italian-American immigrants. It fueled our aspirations to go to Italy. It changed how we cook everyday food in American households. As we’re speaking right now, people are cooking a version of an Italian meal probably in 50 million homes at this very moment. Do you know what I mean? We don’t refer to that Italian-inspired food that is food from another place. It’s very specific. It’s from Italy and if you have a lot of knowledge you can even reference if it’s from Southern Italy or from Northern Italy. If we can do that with Black food, think about what that would do in terms of culture and race relationships.

There are five original cuisines in American food that stems out of the African-American journey: Barbecue, low-country, Creole, Cajun, and what we talk about as Southern food or soul food. They’re all original cuisines that comes out of our traditions. Now, that’s something to celebrate and that would spark the same level of tourism that we’ve done to Italy and France. Think about that changes something if you go to the South. If you go to Charleston and visit Rodney Scott or if you go to New Orleans and you go to Leah Chase because now you’re going and searching for these backstories. They might also ask you how did that rice come to Charleston. Where did that come from? And us [inaudible] the slave trade will now have a completely different meaning and we can actually talk about it in an American way, and we can learn about not only how wrong it was but it’s a part of all of our history and we can debate it and realize how much impact it has on our lives not just from 1619 but actually to today’s life.

Courtney Helgoe

Can you talk about how it influences today’s life?

Marcus Samuelsson

I have so many examples. I mean think about who owned the land and who worked the land and then think about the generational wealth that that built or didn’t build. So there’s that but then also there’s a stigma around food for a lot of Black people because we were never part of the ownership of something. Think about how we know now the story of Ernest Greens, the one that actually developed the recipe for Jack Daniels. So how many Ernest Green stories are there that were incredible craftspeople but didn’t have the tools or the law behind them to create a company and actually for their families to create generational wealth. That’s a story that to the core explains how America is setup.

Courtney Helgoe

It really does. Thank you for that. Let’s talk about how Black food traditions inform your restaurants and I’m wondering if they influence the hospitality as well as the food?

Marcus Samuelsson

Yeah, I mean my choices in contributing to American food is really by three lanes, by being a teacher and a chef. Teaching chefs and my team, my front of the house team through our restaurants and then I’m being very strategic and specific where do I put the restaurants, so Newark, Overtown, Harlem are all outposts that are significant and important to the Civil Rights Movement but also the African-American journey.

Then hiring within those communities is game changing within those communities but it’s also game changing in terms of who comes to the restaurants. So, for me, I think as a Black chef, having a large platform, for me it’s a job not only when you have a choice where you can put your restaurant but not only the restaurant. It’s also the office, it’s the architect, it’s all the people that come with that. Putting your foot down creates jobs. I mean it creates also a traffic of professionals coming into those places that may or may not have been there before and that has ripple effects, and it inspires people that work in the restaurant one day I can go and do that. I was told one day I couldn’t own a restaurant and that was the spark for me to say on day I will.

Courtney Helgoe

Someone told you, you couldn’t own a restaurant?

Marcus Samuelsson

Of course. Many times.

Courtney Helgoe

Well, you’re laughing now because that didn’t happen.

Marcus Samuelsson

It was a different time and I was in France and it was in the early-’90s and I was 20 years old and he just said you should lower your ambition. I don’t think it’s possible. In his world there was that. There was no Black restaurant in Europe that had the ambitions that I had. I couldn’t argue with him that it didn’t exist, but I did argue with him on the ambitions because I did know there was a lot of Black chefs that had ambition that maybe didn’t have the financial structure or backing to be able to do it.

Courtney Helgoe

How did you get traction? How did you get started and get that backing?

Marcus Samuelsson

Well, I think the most backing I’ve ever gotten has been from my own family, from my grandmother, seeing her work ethic, from my uncles, from my parents, so there’s different types of backing and the belief I had for my parents. My parents said you can go and do it, but you have to do it at the highest level, so go into Japan as a teenager. Go into France in the early 20s and [inaudible] being able to go and work in Switzerland. So, always having the support of my parents, that was the backing. It wasn’t the financial I needed. That was up to me to figure it out, but I always had their support and that was very, very important in a field that was very foreign to them in many ways. Not food but owning a restaurant was and working in a restaurant was.

Then, once I came to New York I had mentors that saw something in me that I probably didn’t even see in myself at that time. So, again, having the support, having mentorship. Leah Chase came to see me in the early-’90s. People like [inaudible], Jonathan Waxman, Charlie Trotter, but also having the chance to sit down with Jessica Harris in the mid-’90s to see her side by side, watch her create these incredible books that really showed me how important narrative and storytelling in terms of our field was but having friends like Marvin Woods and Patrick Clark that were executive chefs in New York City at the time. That was very relatable and important for my growth.

Courtney Helgoe

It sounds like you had a lot of people who believed in you and your parents gave you confidence.

Marcus Samuelsson

Yeah. I was very fortunate, and I think mentorship and mentees is one of the most beautiful things that we have in our industry. It’s almost like that unspoken rule that you definitely…if you’re part of food you owe it to the next generation really to work with the young ones, set them up for success. That’s very, very important.

Courtney Helgoe

And that value I’m sure informs how it feels to be in your restaurants if there’s that ethic of care. I’d love to talk about current events for just a moment. When the pandemic hit you turned Red Rooster Harlem into a community kitchen, correct?

Marcus Samuelsson

Yes.

Courtney Helgoe

And can you talk about that and what you learned from the experience and how that might affect your restaurants going forward?

Marcus Samuelsson

I was here in New York when 9/11 happened. I thought that would be the most transformative, horrible experience that happened in my life. But I drew out of that experience a little bit when COVID started, the pandemic started. Around March 15, I called my friend José Andrés and he said we have gloves, we have masks. We can come and setup in your restaurant. I didn’t even know what that meant to serve 200 people, 300 people, 400 people, 11 hundred people a day in the community, 15 hundred people a day, which we ended up doing. When all of this was said and done we served 225 thousand meals in Red Rooster. But it wasn’t just serving those meals. It’s how do we serve them but also looking into those eyes and talking to our new regulars, people that came to the restaurant every day and counted on us to get that meal.

It changed for me what it means to be a restaurant in Harlem, in the work we’re still serving in New York. What the means to be a restaurant in Overtown. In Miami, we hadn’t opened the restaurant. We tried to open it but we converted it quickly also into a community kitchen.

Courtney Helgoe

So not just Harlem.

Marcus Samuelsson

Not just Harlem, no. I learned a lot about my team. I’m extremely proud of all the members that went in when it was hard to be especially in urban environments, and I will be forever grateful for that.

Courtney Helgoe

Is there anyone who really moved you who you met in the line?

Marcus Samuelsson

I think the line, for me, gets stronger and changes. In Miami, five days into it, a lot of our staff that we had to let go came to the line. There were people that were on the other side just a week before and were ready. So that excitement that the restaurant opening has and then five days later their worlds were upside down like many other people whose worlds were upside down, but they knew they could get a meal with us. I’ll never forget that. I’ve also got to say that there was a lot of homeless people and Harlem that helped people in the line how to — they know how to wait for shelter, for example. They’ve been around lines in a completely different way than someone that maybe just lost their jobs.

So, they were the one talking about leading the line showing up early. If we’re starting the feeding program at 12 they came at 10 30. They were socially distanced, they were masked. So there’s an enormous amount of dignity in things that I learned that I just didn’t have a clue about before.

Courtney Helgoe

Thank you for sharing that. I’m curious, how do you cook to scale for that? What did you make for the lines? That’s a big headcount.

Marcus Samuelsson

Yeah. I mean cooking scale is something that you do learn as a chef because when you do major events for 800, 900 people sometimes, but we took pride. I mean we did jerk chicken. We did really good Cuban rice. I mean we’re chefs. so we took pride in our food.

Courtney Helgoe

That’s why I asked. I’m sure it was delicious.

Marcus Samuelsson

We made sure that purveyors gave us apples or oranges, so we got some fresh fruits in those bags as well. We wanted to outdo each other. We texted each other like [inaudible]. So, we took an enormous amount of pride in our food. I mean we had fun with it, so very often we had gumbos. We had shrimp and grits. We just tried to make real great meals, you know what I mean?

Courtney Helgoe

That’s wonderful.

Marcus Samuelsson

And sometimes we think cooking, a restaurant, is just fine dining. That’s a chef’s journey. You realize sometimes it is being a relief worker or first responders, sometimes it is cooking for your family, sometimes it is cooking in a restaurant. It’s not just one aspect of it. When you have the capability of food it gives you license to go where you’re needed.

Courtney Helgoe

Right. It’s a really versatile gift. So you’ve lived all over the world. You were born in Ethiopia, you grew up in Sweden, you’ve moved to New York and lived in various cities, I believe, in the U.S. So is there anything that we all have in common when it comes to food that you’ve seen?

Marcus Samuelsson

I think we all want delicious food and we all want — food can be tribal, it can be spiritual, it can be nurturing, it can show aspirations, where I’m going on vacation, where I came from. There are so many different entry points, but they all want to be heard through food and seen through our food. What something like The Rise does, it gives us a window in to our culture, American culture that hasn’t been documented enough. So, now we can dive in and learn about the [inaudible] or we can learn about the incredible Gregory [inaudible] or all these amazing people that are incredible chefs working across the country and those stories need to be told. We need to revisit them, we need to support Black chefs because it’s one of the most important things we can do in this moment because if you don’t support the chefs now those businesses will disappear and we will have missed so much of what is American food if we allow those businesses to disappear.

Courtney Helgoe

Thank you for bringing that up. It does feel so important just at the level of civilization that we maintain these places where we can be together and eat together and connect over food. We can’t afford to lose that, especially now.

[MUSIC]

David Freeman

Thanks for joining us for this episode. As always, we’d love to hear your thoughts on our conversation today, and how you approach this aspect of healthy living in your own life. What works for you? Where do you run into challenges? Where do you need help?

Jamie Martin

And if you have topics for future episodes, you can share those with us, too. Email us at lttalks@lt.life, or reach out to us on Instagram, @lifetime.life@jamiemartinel, or @freezy30, and use the hashtag #LifeTimeTalks. You can also learn more about the podcast at el.lifetime.life/podcasts.

David Freeman

And if you’re enjoying Life Time Talks, please subscribe on Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts. Feel free to write a review, and also let others know about it, too. Take a screenshot of the episode, and share it on social, share it with your friends, family, work buddies, life coach, you get the gist.

Jamie Martin

Thanks for listening. We’ll talk to you next time on Life Time Talks. Life Time Talks is a production of Life Time, healthy way of life. It’s produced by Molly Schelper, with audio engineering by Peter Perkins, and sound consulting by Coy Larson. A big thank-you to the team who pulls together each episode, and everyone who provided feedback.

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