Marcus Samuelsson is a lion of the modern food scene. This doesn’t simply come from his incredible string of successes in the kitchen (Aquavit, Red Rooster, Streetbird Rotisserie), his high-visibility TV projects (he’s a judge on Chopped and hosts No Passport Required on PBS), or even his Beard-Award winning writing (he’s authored New American Table, The Soul of a New Cuisine, Marcus Off Duty, The Red Rooster Cookbook, Yes, Chef, and Make it Messy: My Perfectly Imperfect Life) — though the degree of his success is undeniable. His incredible importance to food culture in America is also thanks to his spirit of inclusion. His desire to highlight new voices and spread love in a historically cloistered industry.
Nowhere is this so evident as with the release of Our Harlem – Seven Days Of Cooking, Music, And Soul At The Red Rooster. Samuelsson calls the book a “kitchen listen” — a riff on The Red Rooster Cookbook that forgoes dry recipe readings in favor of an eclectic, dynamic performance. You hear Samuelsson, his culinary friends, his team, and important voices in the Harlem community. You also hear a lot of laughter. The project is literally loaded with people having fun talking about where food and one of the nation’s most historic neighborhoods intersect.
Last week, I spoke with Samuelsson about the project, the modern food scene, and the controversial topic of food appropriation.
Let’s talk about Our Harlem, because I really liked it a lot. Can you tell me about it and how it came together?
When I did The Red Rooster Cookbook, I wanted the stories and recipes in it to come alive, right? It’s so powerful when you hear multiple voices of our community, our restaurant, and our culture come together. And The Red Rooster Cookbook really did that, but it was a cookbook.
So when Audible asked me to partner with them on what would become Our Harlem, I could quickly see that multi-faceted nature of the neighborhood, the different voices, and the deep texture of our community were all better articulated through voices and music than simply reading what was on the page.
For me, it was also important that I wasn’t the only person. This isn’t just about me, you know what I mean?
Sure. And I think you’ve become — over the past, I would say… decade — this massive voice advocating for food in both the black American heritage tradition but also the immigrant community. You’re fighting to tell the story of how these different voices in American food really create part of our shared American foodway. One that’s much more nuanced than I think people have understood historically in food media.
Yeah, but neither of those are coincidences, right? [Laughs] History is always told by through the lens of the winner, right? And I have the luxury of being a black man and I’ve also had the luxury of being an immigrant, right?
When you look at that intersection, there would be no modern American food without the contribution of African Americans and immigrants. And the fascinating thing is that through food media, we invest enormous amounts of money and know-how and tourism — going to Italy to talk about Tuscany or going to France… but we didn’t historically invest an enormous amount of money into this story about the American immigrant or the African American community in terms of food, right?
So this audio project is an opportunity to have authorship of how the African American experience is represented in the food world. This is an opportunity to tell stories and create a level of curiosity in urbanism and how a restaurant fits into that place, but also how much richer the community is because of it. Red Rooster isn’t just at an address that happens to be in Harlem. There is no Red Rooster without Harlem.
And for me, I wanted to show — I’m lucky and fortunate enough to be able to build this, but it wouldn’t happen without the massive sacrifices of others. I’m standing on the shoulders of the Civil Rights movements and people who gave their lives for the culture. This book — a digital cookbook… a kitchen listen… whatever you want to call it — gives an opportunity to share those voices and tell those stories.