Staying put to support those who live and work in the city, even during the pandemic.
By Marcus Samuelsson as told to Nikki Vargas
Marcus Samuelsson is a James Beard award-winning chef and restaurateur with numerous restaurants around the world. He is best known for Red Rooster, in Harlem, New York,
This pandemic is the hardest thing that has ever hit me, my family, and all of us, because it’s such an unknown entity. We’ve lost co-workers, we’ve lost people in our communities that have been working and contributing for decades. I can’t even put it in words. That first or second week in March was very rough. We closed within the first 10 days. What I thought about right away was, what’s going to happen to my staff? In Scandinavia, I didn’t have to worry so much because there’s a working system that takes care of unemployment—it’s not something we have to recreate during a pandemic.
All other countries in the world that we like to compare ourselves with have a working unemployment system, so building it as we’re trying to figure everything out is very difficult. There are basic fundamental things this pandemic has shown that we need in a government. We need a right-size government, and we need a smart government. Not a government that just says all kinds of stuff, leaving us to figure out which one of those things matter and are of value.
I’m a chef that didn’t go anywhere. I stayed in Harlem. I stayed in New York to fight the pandemic. I say that because when you’re in it, when you see it every day, when you walk to work, it changes you. You can’t unsee what this does to you. When people say New York has emptied out, it hasn’t emptied out. If you go to the Bronx, if you go to Harlem, that’s where a lot of blue-collar workers live. America has been kept together by the essential workers like nurses, grocery-store workers, and people working on minimum wage. We owe that segment of the population a lot. It’s these people that have stayed here and worked to keep this city and country together.
We pretty quickly made the decision to turn our restaurants into community kitchens. Having the partnership with World Central Kitchen and José Andrés made it possible. This week we’ve served 50,000 meals to the neediest in Newark, Miami, and Harlem. With community kitchens, there’s a different level of service versus coming and sitting at the restaurant. But the steps of service are so similar, I knew from a hospitality and functionality level that we could deliver. What I love about the art of cooking is it’s applicable to the most basic and fundamental need to eat, but also to the most beautiful and esoteric art forms. This time, it was about figuring out how to feed the masses.
What does it mean to be a chef? You speak to clients, you speak to staff, you speak to purveyors. You’re a person that constantly links people together from different parts of the community. When I thought about Newark—knowing that it’s a predominantly African-American area that’s been hit very hard during the pandemic—I thought about who I know that could help us.
Don Katz—the founder and executive chairman of Audible—has done amazing work in creating jobs in Newark, so I knew he cared. I’m fortunate to know Michael B. Jordan—the actor from Newark—who has a massive reach. I called Senator Cory Booker, and was literally looking in my phone like, “Who do I know in this community that can make things happen?” Don at Audible stepped up, Michael stepped up, Cory stepped up. That is just one aspect of being a chef—asking myself who do I know.
The word “restaurant” means to restore your community, and restoring means you’re there on a rainy day and on a sunny day. This is about jobs, safety, and protecting people’s life work. In communities like Newark, Harlem, or Overtown in Miami, the pandemic is going to have huge ripple effects. This is about saving our communities. I have a reach, in hospitality at least, so that’s what we’re focused on. When you think about Newark, our restaurant serves about 500 meals a day. If we can get 10 restaurants to do that, then we have scale. Five hundred meals a day for the neediest and first responders is great, but it does a couple of other things too—it gets cooks back to work and takes care of the food infrastructure that is completely ripped wide open right now.
We’ve all heard the stories of how farmers are burning their food. If there are about 12 million people working in the food industry across the country, and 70 percent of the restaurants may not be open, what’s going to happen to the food purveyors? Just by partnering with World Central Kitchen, our three restaurants have served 50,000 meals. That means we’ve served apples, arugula, oranges, whatever it might be, which keeps farmers in business. There are many reasons why this is important. Yes, to serve the neediest, but also to get job infrastructure back. We’ve been able to hire 15-20 people back at each restaurant for this. It might not sound like a lot, but when you’re looking at 10 restaurants in three different communities, that’s massive.
The reality is that this pandemic has ripped the cover off of what America is—a division between the “haves” and “have-nots.” We knew that before, but the pandemic has just crystalized it and shown all the country’s flaws. Black and brown communities are suffering tremendously in this pandemic.
I’ll tell you this—the blessings of being Black are tremendous because we have a very real lineage of injustice. I look at that as a place that I draw inspiration from. It’s the only way to survive. How else are you going to deal with a young Black man going out for a jog and getting killed in broad daylight? Everyone knows this has happened for hundreds of years, so rather than me waking up every day and going crazy, I look at the blessings of being Black, the blessings of being an immigrant, and I draw from that and it makes me stronger.
I grew up in Sweden, a very privileged part of the world, and I was born in Ethiopia, in a hut with no electricity or running water. I come from a place of poverty, dignity, and resilience. I walk that balance every day. There’s not a day that goes by when I don’t think about the privileges I’ve had access to. My uncles were not harassed by the police. My aunties did not have drugs put into their communities so they would fail. It’s a very tough history, but I look at it from what we can do right now to help and assist.
Harlem is amazing, Newark is amazing, Overtown is amazing because people keep a level of spirit and community. Like when I came back the other day, people started a socially distanced dance party on the block in Harlem. The local barber shop is now giving haircuts on the street. People are going to find a level of entrepreneurship and will gather in a safe way. They aren’t necessarily looking for anyone to help out because they know that the injustices that are here today will be there tomorrow too.
The recent protest in Harlem was crucial for my family to be a part of since we’re living through such an important time right now. My life has benefitted from the Civil Rights Movement, so I wanted to pay my dues and share the experience with my son. As a Black immigrant, I owe the freedom I have to the Civil Rights Movement in many ways. To attend the peaceful protest with my fellow restaurateurs Melba Wilson and Tren’ness Woods-Black and to share my message with the crowd was very special.
I think about the amazing people and restaurant workers that I’ve met. They have been some of the most giving, most caring people in the world that I’ve met through just cooking side-by-side and serving. I love my industry, I love the people I work with, I’m proud to say I’m a restaurant worker.
Every day I think about reopening, and it will be done in phases. In Miami, we’re probably going to start takeout at the end of June. Same thing here in Harlem. We’re cooking and trying things out. Those restaurants that were great at takeout before COVID-19 are going to do an excellent job at it. A restaurant like Red Rooster—where so much of it is about coming to the place and getting this multi-layered experience between art, music, food and people—we’re really thinking hard about how we can deliver that magic in a box. Will it be a picnic experience? Will it be through a family party? We’re working through that, but it has to be delicious, it has to travel well, and it has to be of value.
I think about how we built Red Rooster. It was something that I started to work on post-9/11. A traumatic situation can really lead you to another thing. It’s important to remember the good days and to dream about how it can be reimagined. Out of that comes something great. That’s my process. Dreaming is what works for me. I dreamed of coming to America, I dreamed of being a chef, I dreamed of building Red Rooster, and so I will continue to dream.