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Chef Marcus Samuelsson on celebrating Black cooking


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: This is a time where cooking takes center stage. Often overlooked are Black chefs and cuisine.

Jeffrey Brown reports for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: Red Rooster in Harlem. A skeleton staff prepares for another day of socially distanced diners and takeout orders. The restaurant, a vibrant homage to Black food, art and culture, is the creation of Ethiopian-born chef Marcus Samuelsson, who, at age 50, has come a very long way.

Marcus Samuelsson: Jeff, you have to -- first, when you have a journey like mine, you have to acknowledge privilege and luck.

I was born in a hut that is smaller than two restaurant tables in my restaurant. I had tuberculosis, me and my sister. My mother died. But she took us to a Swedish hospital, that then a nurse had empathy for us and took us in, that then set us up for adoption.

Jeffrey Brown: Samuelsson would grow up in Sweden, train in top European kitchens, work in and then start his own restaurants here in the U.S. He became a citizen in 2004.

In an age of celebrity chefs, he's a star, including as host of the PBS series "No Passport Required." There, he explores American cities, not through their most famous restaurants, but in neighborhood places that capture the energy and tastes of immigrant communities.

Marcus Samuelsson: When I look at this food I see Brazil, right? This looks a pierogi. This looks like empanada.

Jeffrey Brown: His new book, a mix of history, biography, and 150 recipes, is a celebration of Black cooking and cooks and the incredible diversity within that community. It's called "The Rise."

Marcus Samuelsson: "The Rise," for me, is really an opportunity to tell and share the story about Black excellence and contribution to the American landscape, to talk about authorship, create memories, hopefully, that people cooked around it, not just African Americans, but all of us, and then also really create an aspirational level, so people want to go into our industry.

Jeffrey Brown: Why is the larger history, and the variety, why is that so little known?

Marcus Samuelsson: Well, I think, like, first of all, America's history at large is written very much from a European lens, right?

The more we learn about who contributed, the more respect and understanding we will have with one another. We can all agree that this is the year to have a conversation about race, class and identity. And when we talk about those things in terms of political or in religious context, it always gets to a hostile environment.

Food is actually a way for us to go into the holiday season, cook from a book, talk about us as Americans, as wider Americans, and enjoy each other.

Jeffrey Brown: One emphasis here, the powerful role of women, like Leah Chase. The famed Creole chef, whose New Orleans restaurant Dooky Chase served since the 1940s as what Samuelsson calls a safe Black haven for its community. Chase died last year at age 96.

These days, Samuelsson sees a new explosion of talent.

Marcus Samuelsson: One of the things that I feel so privileged that we could do was really to talk about the complexity around Blackness, that it's not just one thing, right?

I'm going to give you an example, Nyesha Arrington in California. She's African American and Korean, right? She grew up with a Korean grandmother that just spoke to her in Korean. And she's Black and she's a California chef. So her food, she's exploding on the scene.

It's Mashama Bailey in Savannah that worked in New York, but went back, did the reverse migration.

And then you have someone like Edouardo Jordan in Seattle. So, the Black chefs in this country are all over the country. That's why I want to have many stories.

Jeffrey Brown: Have the Black chefs and individuals been there always and weren't recognized? Or is it a matter of new opportunities?

Marcus Samuelsson: Well, I think it's a combination of all of it. I also think that, because of Internet and because of food coming in more to pop culture, Black chefs can now broadcast themselves in a way. So There'S less gatekeepers, which makes it a much more even playing field.

Jeffrey Brown: Now, of course, the pandemic is threatening restaurants and hospitality workers everywhere.

In March, Samuelsson chuck down Red Rooster and another of his restaurants in Newark, New Jersey. He also delayed the opening of a new Red Rooster in Miami's Overtown neighborhood. Instead, over the next several weeks, and with the help of Jose Andres' World Central Kitchen, these locations were transformed into community kitchens, feeding front-line workers and increasingly those most in need.

Red Rooster Harlem reopened at the end of September, but at a much smaller capacity.

And Samuelsson knows a new shutdown may be near.

How serious an impact is it having on your industry?

Marcus Samuelsson: It impacts the service industry much harder than any other industry. And in that service industry, a majority of the people that work in that are Black, BIPOC, people of color that are already disenfranchised and already COVID-hit in an inproportional way in terms of infection and death rates.

Jeffrey Brown: Clearly, though, many restaurants are not going to make it. Is there any way to rethink what it's all about, what you do, how you reach people?

MARCUSAMUELSSON: I think you said a very good word there. We have to rethink.

And in interrupted times like now, innovation will come out of that. And it's going to take a collective of the brightest, but also showing empathy from the people who have something.

Jeffrey Brown: And the story in his new book, he hopes, of work going on around the country by chefs, food writers and activists can show us how food has helped shape our past and offer a positive way forward.

Marcus Samuelsson: We are walking into the holiday season here. This might be one of the toughest holidays seasons we have experienced as a nation collectively.

So, we're going to cook in a new way. We might cook through Zoom or through Skype or -- but we are going to be social with one another, maybe in new ways.

Wouldn't it be great to be able to have a conversation about us as a multicultural America and eat in a multicultural way, and love and enjoy one another?

Jeffrey Brown: For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown.

Judy Woodruff: Food looks fabulous.

Let's hope as many of these restaurants as possible get open again as quickly as possible.

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