The award-winning chef serves up a tell-all of his life: struggling with cultural identity, paving the way for diversity in the cooking world and making Harlem a hot spot for foodies—all described in his memoir, Yes Chef.
Chef Marcus Samuelsson
Tavis: Marcus Samuelsson’s rise to the ranks of celebrated chef and restaurant owner could not be more unlikely. Orphaned as a child in impoverished Ethiopia, he was eventually adopted and grew up in Sweden.
Once in America, his passion for food led him to open the famed restaurant in Harlem called Red Rooster. The new book about his truly remarkable journey is called “Yes, Chef: A Memoir.” Chef Samuelsson, good to have you on this program.
Marcus Samuelsson: Thank you so much.
Tavis: You doing all right?
Samuelsson: I’m so happy to be here.
Tavis: I was just saying to you when you walked on the set, I was on a plane – I’m always on planes. I was on a plane a few weeks ago, I guess, and I was transfixed by this story in Vogue Magazine about you and your journey. Obviously, I knew your work as a chef. We’ve almost met half a dozen times.
Samuelsson: Yes, in Chicago, we almost met each other.
Tavis: We’ve almost met a few places, but never have quite met until today. But when I read that piece in Vogue about the book, which I hadn’t seen at that time, I said to my staff, “I got to get this book.”
Once I knew your backstory, I was like, wow, I did not know that much about Marcus. I’m glad that you could actually get out to Los Angeles and do the show today, so thank you.
Samuelsson: I’m honored to be here.
Tavis: Let me start then at the beginning, which is the part that gripped me when I started to read. I’m gonna just sit back in a second and let you tell the story. But when I read about what your mother did to save your life and your sister…
Samuelsson: Yeah, me and my sister and my mother, we had tuberculosis in Ethiopia and we didn’t come from Addis, the capital.
We came from a small place, in [unintelligible], and my mom walked for days with me and my sister to get to the hospital in [unintelligible]. She was so fixed and focused on us getting cured or us getting help, so she walked and that was the last thing she did.
She took us to the hospital and then she passed away, but we survived. About three months in the hospital, three months later, we got adopted to Sweden. Then really my life started again, you know.
So it’s funny in life, the worst thing that can ever possibly happen to you could also be helpful in a way. That was our ticket out, right?
I will never forget that when my mother’s dead and I sort of feel like with all the passion and work that I do now, I honor that. I represent that village. I represent that humble background in everything I do.
Tavis: She didn’t just walk. As you said, she walked for days. She walked about 75 miles. 75 miles she walks with two kids to make sure that she saves those lives. Do you have any memories?
Samuelsson: I don’t. I’ve never seen even a picture of my mother and I talk about that in the book, in “Yes, Chef.” But I know that woman. She might not have a lot of money, but she has a lot of wealth in dignity.
She’s strong, she’s slim, she wakes up at 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning to walk for two hours to get fresh water, clean water for her kids. She can make a meal better than any other chef that I know out of nothing, and she’s very spiritual.
So I’ve seen that woman not just in Africa, in Ethiopia. I’ve seen her many places and that was very important for me to write that for the reader to really connect with that. Because you can come from nothing, but you can have a lot.
She gave me everything. She gave me and my sister everything she had and she saved us. That gave me the opportunity to come to Sweden and then my life started there.
My Swedish parents were behind us, in front of us and next to us in every step in the way of life, you know. Every time there was a tough thing happening, my parents were right there in front of me.
Tavis: What was it like growing up in Sweden? There aren’t a whole bunch of Ethiopians in Sweden [laugh]. You kind of stood out there.
Samuelsson: In the 70s, yeah.
Samuelsson: No, my family, you know, my parents were white. My sister was half Jamaican, half Swedish, my other sister Ethiopian and my cousin was Korean, auntie was Jewish.
So we were basically an international family in Sweden. We had to deal with adversity at a very young age.
Tavis: You had the U.N. in one house, yeah.
Samuelsson: Of course, we became a strong family. Every time we went out, you know, my mom would make sure that we were properly dressed because she knew a lot of people would come up to us, touch our hair, touch our skin.
But rather than break us apart, it really made us really strong and we have this connection of love and family since we are a family.
Tavis: What were the difficult parts of that journey? I mean, your parents are trying to protect you and look out for you, but what are the difficult parts about not being connected to your birth mother, being in a strange land?
Obviously, you’re young, so you grow into what you know, but what are the difficulties of growing up in Sweden?
Samuelsson: Well, I think the challenge is always with identity and how do you deal with race. The race question always comes in.
I don’t believe that children are racist at all. It’s a lot of sandbox stuff that happens. There was a lot of give and take, but race and how do we deal with this.
My father gave me one set of tools to deal with it. My father made sure that he always told me you can never start a fight. You can never be in a fistfight. You cannot be in a fight because he was clear. You will get blamed.
He prepared me always for these things that would happen not just when you’re 11 or 12, but for later on in life. My mom was more like, “Let me call his parents.” My mom was just mom, you know.
But I do think identity and culture identity, searching for that, but we got something else. We got a lot of protection; we got a lot of love. We figured out as kids how to overcome a lot of hurts and I got a lot of confidence out of that.
My parents gave me confidence, not arrogance, but confidence. And that confidence took me to apprenticeship in Switzerland, even if I didn’t speak the language, and try to work at the highest restaurants in France.
Not only my mother, my grandmother gave me a lot of confidence. It’s really from my grandmother that I learned about the kitchen and it’s from my grandmother who really gave me the strength to go on to these professional kitchens because, mind you, the Black chef didn’t even exist.
Of course, we’ve always cooked for years, for generations, but into the fine dining world, it didn’t exist. So when they saw Marcus Samuelsson got the job and they saw me, their jaw dropped.
Tavis: We’ll talk about the lack of Black folk or people of color in kitchens even today and find out. We’ll come back to that because you spent time in the book talking about that. We’ll get back to that.
But you said something a moment about your father and I’m trying to figure out how you balance these two things. Your father says to you don’t start a fight or don’t get in a fight even because you’re gonna get blamed for it.
So on the one hand, I read that as your father – let me put it this way. That could have been read by you as taking on an air and attitude, a spirit of passivity. But being passive doesn’t get you to where you are in the world that you operate in.
Samuelsson: No, no.
Tavis: So how did you balance this passive emotion that your father is trying to get you to take on with the fighter that you had to be – does that make sense – to get where you are?
Samuelsson: Absolutely, absolutely. Knowing your spots, figuring out when the battle was really yours and when it mattered. I think the kitchen offered such – I have two places where I really felt that I belonged, in the kitchen and on the soccer pitch.
Both places are great places for high emotions, right? When you play soccer, you’re passionate and that works to your advantage. You can’t be angry, but you have to be aggressive.
Same thing in the kitchen. You have to balance, but you can be aggressive as a chef. It benefits the food. You have to be passionate. You can’t be angry cooking.
So knowing my spots and knowing when it really mattered, what mattered to me. My father was strategic with us from the beginning, even when he picked our names.
My real name, Kassahun Tsegie, he knew we needed an international name when he picked our names. Like Marcus and Linda were names that he knew already, that we’re probably not gonna stay in Sweden. My mom never thought about that.
My father was like, “No, let me give those kids international names because they will stand out already. So let me help them along.” He was hard on us learning English right away from day one. It couldn’t be when we just spoke English in the house because we had to prepare ourselves.
You know, that’s annoying when you’re eight years old and you just want to ask your sister to pass you the milk at the dinner table [laugh] and you have to say it in English. He constantly prepared us for the next step.
Tavis: You talk in the book about a trip back to Ethiopia many years later which allowed you to reconnect in a lot of ways. Tell me more about how you have, over the years, connected the dots culturally back to Ethiopia.
Samuelsson: Well, first, for many years I wasn’t ready to take on my African side as a chef and it was my sister that constantly pushed Marcus. If we can find our birth father, if we can learn more about ourselves as Ethiopian, we have to take that.
It wasn’t until I came to New York and started to see the African American community, but also the Ethiopian community here and started to eat the food, started to understand the music. I said, you know, I got to go and understand the culture. So me and my sister went.
That first time I came to Ethiopia, the spices, the spice plant, the music, the red clay, just landing in Africa, it wasn’t like I felt right away I’m home, but I knew that this was a side of me that I had to explore not only as a chef, but as a man.
Once I started to understand the food and the culture and that I came from this place, I knew I couldn’t go back and just cook food the way I’ve done it before with France and Sweden in mind only or maybe a little bit of Asian touch. I had to put Africa in my food.
Tavis: Your sister. How is she, where is she?
Samuelsson: My sister is in Sweden. Both of my sisters are in Sweden. The reason I can sit here with you is really because my sisters take care of my mother.
You know, in every family, I feel like there is somebody there who is maybe the one that’s outgoing and doing things in our lives in public, but we also have a whole tribe behind us that does that other stuff.
You know, I haven’t lived in Sweden for years, but I know that my mother’s okay and that’s because of my sister. She has memories of Ethiopia. She was five. She spoke the language fluently. I didn’t. When she met our birth father, they have memories together and I didn’t.
So I felt almost like the outsider with them and they’re very tight. But that’s the difference. You know, she was five and I was two. I always tell my sister, “What did you do in that hospital?”
You know, in that hospital, Tavis, there’s thousands and thousands of kids that are sick or just been cured that don’t have home. Somehow, my sister pushed us up in the front of the line and made sure that we got adopted. How that happened, I have no idea.
But it really shows that we’re here because of others, right? Part hard work, but also part luck and circumstances that we might not be in the driving seat of, and that’s what I talk about in the book.
Tavis: What have you learned from your birth father about your mother, the one who you do not recall, don’t really know, don’t have a picture of, but who gave all for you and Linda? What do you know from him about her?
Samuelsson: It’s a mystique question for me. I’ve asked him so many questions. Each time I go there, I go with intention to learn more. You know, he come from a [unintelligible], the tribe leader.
He always says, “Marcus, you guys were educated in the west, you guys are okay, you can’t look back too much.” You know, it’s not a direct answer the way you and I are asking. He just feels like you have to move on. She’s not with us, but you guys are okay.
It’s very hard to go deeper for getting other information. But I ask and each time I get closer. I met her sisters and brothers and I met my cousins on my mom’s side. Each time I get closer and maybe one day I will also get a picture.
Tavis: Your father who named you Marcus Samuelsson passed away. You were very close to him, but you didn’t make the funeral.
Tavis: Your grandmother who introduced you to the kitchen passes away. You don’t make the funeral.
How do you navigate forward – not that you don’t get closure on losing loved ones, but how do you turn the page, so to speak, having not been able to get to either one of their funerals or services?
Samuelsson: I don’t know if I ever can actually. The journey of committing myself in the way that I’ve done it, there’s a price tag to that. I’m not saying that I picked the right road, but I’ve picked a road.
It’s nothing I’m proud of, but the circumstances were that I couldn’t leave. I couldn’t leave the states because I was working on my papers and I had my mom’s blessing…
Tavis: Your immigration papers, yeah.
Samuelsson: Yeah, my immigration papers. I had my mom’s and my sisters’ blessings. So as a family, we decided that I would stay. But that doesn’t take away the sorrow and the memories of not being there.
You know, I always laugh when people think about the journey of a celebrity chef and then you add a Black celebrity chef at the top of that. The journey is part – so much of what I do is about the journey of the anonymous Black laborer to the visible laborer and what you have to sacrifice in order to reach something.
It’s not for everyone, but I don’t think about so much me. I think about the legacy 15, 20 or 30 years from now when our field is more diverse.
To create that road, there’s a lot of sacrifice a lot of people have to do. Those were two that I had to do, among others.
Tavis: You talk courageously, I think – my word, not yours – but courageously in the book about your daughter, the disconnect, the reconnect.
I wondered going through the text how much of that reconnection had to do with your – if in fact it did – to do with your not wanting her to grow up disconnected from a parent like Marcus grew up disconnected from a parent.
Samuelsson: Well, writing about my daughter was probably the hardest part of the whole book.
Tavis: I figured as much, yeah.
Samuelsson: And for so many reasons, some of them selfish. But more than anything, I wanted to protect her and she always knows that I’ve always loved her and I will always love her and I will always be there in the way that I can be there for her as a family, as a father.
I had to get a lot of help from my mother and my sisters to learn that because everything else they could solely take care of. This one wasn’t necessarily on them. This one I had to and wanted to participate.
But I also want to be honest that I was a child when it happened and I was becoming a man and as I grew into becoming a man, I was more ready and owning up to my responsibility.
I thought about myself also a lot as a Black man not wanting to become the classic number of a Black man not taking care of his child. I hated that fact, hated that fact, but I couldn’t blame anybody else. I had to blame myself.
You know, that’s not how I was raised. But my mother was always there in front of me and making sure that we took care of our responsibilities not only on one side, but also on the love side.
But when you do a book like this, for me it was very important to be honest. There’s some valleys and there’s some ups and downs, but I have no right to take the readers’ time if I wouldn’t be honest.
Tavis: I agree. As you can imagine, sitting here every night, I have to make decisions about who I want to talk to and don’t want to talk to.
So much of it has to do with how authentic are they being in the text and, if they’re not, you’re wasting your time, my time and everybody else’s time, for that matter. So I understand that.
Speaking of the book, I love the layout. You got beautiful, tasty recipes sprinkled throughout the book.
Samuelsson: Yeah, yeah.
Tavis: So you read a little bit, you get a recipe. You read a little bit, you get a recipe. You read a little bit – that’s the reward for reading the book. You read, recipe; read, recipe.
That was your idea to lay it out that way?
Samuelsson: Yeah. I mean, I knew I had to be taste and delicious. The words have to be yum and delicious. That’s the chef in me. But the rhythm, it needed to read not just for chefs.
This is the type of book that wasn’t out there for me when I was coming up. I had to create a narrative. You know, even the chef hats, they didn’t fit my jheri curl hair or whatever I had.
So much was about creating something that a young person going into a professional field would say, “You know what? I can read that book and I can learn a little bit how he did it” not just from the victory lane, not just on those days when we’re picking up the awards, not when we’re just cooking at the White House.
Those days are not easy, but those things are the celebrations, but also on the darker days.
Tavis: How did you know that is gonna end up being your career path, that was your calling?
Because you mentioned earlier, what you really love was soccer and it turned out that soccer wasn’t gonna be the answer to the prayer, but obviously the kitchen was calling. When did you know that?
Samuelsson: Well, around 16 or 17. I took all the words of wisdom my parents gave me, but also what I learned on the soccer field. In soccer pitch and in the kitchen, it’s pretty similar.
You got to listen to coach, you got to say “Yes, Chef” in the kitchen. You’re part of a team or a brigade and you get humble. You got to work hard in both places. But if you do work hard, it’s very rewarding.
In the kitchen, you can eat, the soccer hopefully you win, but it’s rewarding and you’re part of something that’s larger than yourself, especially when you’re that age.
I always say that’s the guys – most kids, most boys, 50-50 kids, they’re not meant to do bad stuff. But if they’re around something positive, they’re gonna do something positive, and the kitchen sort of became my thing.
You know what? I like it here, I like it here. I like working with the guys who are a little bit older than me and talking about their journeys and I want to be like them.
Then when you just match their intensity in the experience, there was always a mentor that was watching you and saying, “Hey, you know what? I’m gonna send you abroad. I’m gonna send you to Switzerland, I’m gonna send you to France.”
I’ve always had mentors. This relationship, mentee, mentor, now I’m a mentor and now I’m sending other guys. The kitchen has taught me that. It taught me so many lessons.
I think it’s fascinating, you know, for Black people. It took us so many years, so many generations, for us to get out of the kitchen. Now we got to work really, really hard to get back into the kitchen, now a multi-billion dollar industry. We’re not there.
Tavis: As I travel around the country, there are two things to this very day – I don’t know if this will ever change for me, but maybe it will. But there are two things that tickle me and bring me just obscene joy, as oxymoronic as that sounds.
I’ve been fortunate that I am who I am and you are who you are. Oftentimes, if the pilot knows I’m on the plane, he will walk out before the plane takes off or at the end of the ride and introduce himself to me, “Mr. Smiley, glad to have you on my flight.”
I get so tickled when that pilot happens to be an African American because I rarely see that. The same is true when I go to find restaurants. I mean, most places I go, I kind of have some idea who the chef is which is why I want to go.
But as I travel and I’m in a restaurant and I don’t really know who the chef is, but I want to go eat here, I’m being taken to this restaurant, if the chef comes out as they often do and introduce themselves and he happens to be Black, I just get giddy.
I just get so turned on because I know what they had to do to get to that level, which raises the question of why it is, to your brilliant point, so hard for us now to get back in the kitchen particularly in fine dining institutions?
Samuelsson: Well, it’s somewhat layered. I think segregation is part of it because back in the day before integration-segregation, all the restaurants in the Black neighborhoods were Black-owned, all the hotels were Black-owned and the chefs weren’t called chefs then. We were just cooking, right?
Then it was very hard. There was a lot of loss in the 69s and 70s. It was easier for immigrants to get loans from banks than it was for African Americans.
The restaurant is actually a small business that you can start with your family, but you need a loan. You need somebody, you need an uncle, you need somebody, so that wasn’t there.
The other layer is also the fact that I didn’t work this hard to send you to college for you to go back into the kitchen, right? When you’ve been the serving tribe for so long, it’s very hard to say, you know what, I’m a lawyer, I’m a doctor, now my kid’s gonna become a chef.
So we’re just now slowly getting back into the industry of service and it’s okay. I’m a servant and I take pleasure when my diner is having a good time, regardless of color.
But we’re getting back into it now and I’m happy that we have role models like Sylvia’s in Harlem. She’s just half a block away from me, Leah Chase down in New Orleans that started one of the first integrated restaurants.
Tavis: Dooky Chase, yeah. I love it.
Samuelsson: Dooky Chase, you know. This is American history. You got to take care of that because they did it in the 40s and the 50s. Sylvia’s is turning 50. The restaurant is turning 50. Leah opened her restaurant in 1946.
Tavis: And how is Red Rooster doing down in Harlem?
Samuelsson: Oh, we’re so blessed, you know. Couldn’t be happier to serve the community in Harlem. A third of our guests are Harlemites, third New Yorkers and third visitors.
The whole idea with the restaurant was to open a place that inspire-aspire. If you’re a young professional living in Harlem, you don’t have to go downtown to get vindication anymore. You could, but it means something for you.
You can put on your resume, “I work in Harlem.” That’s really changing a bedroom community. You don’t have to just live uptown and then work and play downtown.
Also, the other thing is about changing the footprint in New York City, right? For people to say, hey, we’re gonna go uptown tonight. We’re gonna eat uptown. That challenged the Farmers Market, that challenged the grocery store to have fresh vegetables.
So it’s an incubator, it’s an activator, it’s an idea that it can happen in urban America. I think that’s where the next opportunity is in terms of fine dining. It has to happen in Harlem. Therefore, it can happen in Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles and other cities.
Tavis: Well, if you’re in New York and in Harlem and you can get into Red Rooster [laugh], you might want to check it out if you can get in. A nice experience, I’m sure, you will have there.
But even if you don’t get to Harlem, you can get to a bookstore or to your computer to Amazon and get a copy of the new text, the memoir from Chef Marcus Samuelsson.
The book is called “Yes, Chef: A Memoir” and I can promise you it’s delicious, it’s tasty and tonight we just had an appetizer for what you are about to get when you get the full course meal with the new text.
Chef, good to have you on the program. Thanks for your work and I’m delighted to finally meet you.
Samuelsson: Thank you so much.
Tavis: Good to have you here.
Samuelsson: Thank you.
Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Until next time, thanks for watching and keep the faith.
Narrator: Every community has a Martin Luther King Boulevard. It’s the cornerstone we all know. It’s not just a street or boulevard, but a place where Walmart stands together with your community to make every day better.
Narrator: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.