'Food Apartheid In This Country Didn’t Just Happen. It Happened By Design.'

Renowned chef Marcus Samuelsson, who has pivoted to help his community, speaks about the current state of the food industry and the status of African Americans.

Chef Marcus Samuelsson — the owner of a slew of restaurants around the United States, Canada and Europe — tells Anna Rahmanan in our Voices In Food series that “change is coming to America.” Hailing from Ethiopia and currently a resident of New York’s Harlem, the chef has built a culinary empire that puts the African American experience at the forefront of conversations.

In reaction to COVID-19, Samuelsson joined José Andrés’ World Central Kitchen to launch Newark Working Kitchens, a project that delivers free daily meals to those in need across Newark, New Jersey. Samuelsson has also turned many of his kitchens into community efforts, feeding thousands of people weekly.

Here he discusses the effects that both the pandemic and the current political protests have had on the food industry and beyond.

On the protests that have taken over the country.

I think the protest is important. One of the reasons why I as an immigrant moved to America was because of freedom of speech. America is this beacon for big change. Look at what we’ve done with women’s rights, people of color’s rights, civil rights and the LGBTQ community. It all starts with freedom of speech. I came here as an immigrant wanting to add my part. It was 25 years ago, when being a Black chef in this space and having people dine here was important, and I’m extremely grateful for it.

Today, you have a perfect storm [for change]. You have injustice that has been going on way before this that we never really fixed. Systemic injustice. Then you think about that in terms of Black and brown folks and the pandemic — and people wonder why Black and brown folks are dying at a much higher rate? Everybody knows the answer: We are the only First World country that doesn’t have free health care. When you take all that — the pandemic, the injustice, the systemic racism — you [have a perfect storm].

Marcus Samuelsson pivoted the mission of his Harlem restaurant, Red Rooster, to serve the community during the coronavirus pandemic.
Marcus Samuelsson pivoted the mission of his Harlem restaurant, Red Rooster, to serve the community during the coronavirus pandemic.

On the violence that has distracted from the protests.

I think that during an analog gathering you’re going to have 99% of participants doing the right thing, and then you’re going to have 1% to 2% of people that are just frustrated. Looting has nothing to do with protest. I’m looking at the 99%, young and old, from any culture, from any religion, from anywhere, that have done an amazing job of protesting. Change is hard, right? We’re in the middle of a change, and it ain’t pretty. But I can look at my community and say I’m proud that it was done in a peaceful way.

On pivoting his businesses to help those currently in need.

We started [our community kitchens] the first week of March, and I’ve been serving for 11 weeks. Six days a week, 11 weeks, 1,100 to 1,200 people a day in Newark, in Harlem and in Miami. Now we have 3,000 to 4,000 meals a day being distributed together in Harlem. That is the way to pivot, right? That’s what this comes down to. So our new regulars are a blend of people who are needy, the fire department and nurses. I think one of the blessings of being Black and one of the blessings of being an immigrant is that you have no patience: You have to learn to just quickly adapt and change a situation. And that is what we’re doing.

On what regular folks can do to help.

A lot of what people are saying is, “Have empathy and compassion.” Let’s start there. The majority of Americans are seeing it. There are a couple of people in Washington, D.C., that are not seeing it, but they’re going to be left on an island by themselves. But I think it starts with compassion because we are going to work towards a more equitable America where we have more common jobs. The demonstrations, the protesters ― people aren’t going to unsee that experience. The world is still watching, and the only way to get together is to collectively work to create a fairer society and community.

On the political power of food.

Food is very political because we’ve made it political. Think of the fact that large African American communities don’t have access to grocery stores — a [fact] that goes back to Jim Crow. We have food apartheid in this country, and that didn’t just happen. It happened by design. Food is extremely political, and it is tied, just like anything, to law. All we can do is change those laws and the structure and make it better and fairer.

On systemic racism.

I think the Amy Cooper incident highlights another silent level of racism that is just as potent as the coronavirus. It’s sophisticated: You don’t think it’s going to happen. [Cooper] probably has Prince records at home. She probably has a Bob Marley T-shirt. That is fiercely dangerous because that’s the stuff that you don’t see. I think there’s different levels [of racism], and it’s got to go.

On his support of Harlem.

When I chose to move here, it was because I needed a community. I was living in Midtown and was in search of knowing my neighbors. Harlem is where I got to know amazing people through the parks, the brownstones and people sitting outside, through block parties. It all guided me to open Red Rooster. We have been so fortunate to be here during the good times, but we also have to be there during the tough times. I would argue that this pandemic has helped us find our purpose even more. But the reason why I started Red Rooster in Harlem was to take the authorship of hospitality in terms of Black excellence back because very often the authorship of what we contributed to food in America is forgotten. Because it was done either fast in someone’s home, or it was done anonymously. I want to take it from an anonymous journey to a visible one, and I’m extremely privileged to be able to do that.

On history repeating itself.

In 1968, America sent people into orbit, and, at the same time, we had the biggest race riot. In 2020, we have SpaceX, and it’s amazing, and we should celebrate it, and we have this situation. The last time New York City had a curfew was 1943, and it happened to be [in reaction] to a white police officer shooting a Black man. We can solve orbit and space, but we have a lot to do with humanity. Let’s focus on that.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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