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Marcus Samuelsson Speaks out on Being a Black Cook in America

The celebrity chef features locals Adrian Miller and Brother Luck in his newest cookbook, The Rise, which highlights American Black culinary professionals and the complexity of Black food culture.

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Ask chef, television personality, philanthropist, and author Marcus Samuelsson about his new cookbook, The Rise: Black Cooks and the Soul of American Food, and he slows down a beat. As an Ethiopian-born, Sweden-raised immigrant with 13 restaurants spread across the United States and the globe, host of a public television series, and national co-chair for Careers through Culinary Arts Program (CCAP), Samuelsson has plenty say about what it means to be a Black cook in America today—and how Black culinary excellence is finally being recognized. 

We didn’t know that the Rise would come out during this time, when America is having a huge conversation around social justice,” Samuelsson says. “But the perspective of Black food and its contribution to America is something I’ve always been passionate about. So much about Black culture and history is never by Black people, so this [book] was an opportunity to get the authorship corrected. Once you do that, you can set up people to have correct memories, the way we do with European food. When you have an Italian meal you don’t think it comes from Spain, do you know what I mean? The authorship is important and the memories that come out of that create the right aspirations for the next generation.” 

That encapsulates Samuelsson’s three-part mission for the Rise: To push back against biases around Black food culture; to reclaim African American authorship and history; and to inspire future generations of Black culinary professionals. In partnership with award-winning food writer Osayi Endolyn, recipe developers Yewande Komolafe and Tamie Cook, and photographer Angie Mosier, Samuelsson created a cookbook that’s unlike any other. There 150 recipes created in honor of the more than 50 Black pros featured in the book, as well as a spotlight on their contributions to the African American culinary canon, lists of additional Black chefs to follow and support, an in-depth ingredient glossary, market index, and much more.  

Denver native and award-winning author Adrian E. Miller. Photo courtesy of Lorenzo Chavez

It all supports the Rise’s central message, which, for Samuelsson and local author and “Soul Food Scholar” Adrian Miller, who is featured in chapter two, is that Black food is not monolithic. “Black food is as diverse, large, and complex as any other culture, and came to us through many experiences,” Samuelsson says. “We have five original cuisines in America that stem out of Black cooking: low country, Southern, Cajun, Creole, and barbecue. It’s all America’s food. And it’s important to know how we got here, what was the journey, who sacrificed, and where do we go from here?” 

Miller couldn’t agree more. Chapter two in the Rise is called Remix, which Samuelsson defines as the many cultures, ingredients, and geographies that are integrated into Black cooking. Miller is happy being a part of that conversation. “What I’m trying to show in my work, especially with Soul Food [full title: Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time] and with barbecue in my upcoming book, is how complex these things are,” Miller says. “There’s a tendency to oversimplify them; with soul food, it’s either slave food or the food white people didn’t want. But it’s much more complex: It’s bringing together the ingredients, culinary techniques, and traditions of West Africa, Western Europe, and the Americas. I’m trying to get people to think about these foods in a new way, which is what a remix does.”

Chef Brother Luck of the Culinary Hurly Burly
Colorado Springs chef Brother Luck. Photo courtesy of Four by Brother Luck

Chef Brother Luck, who owns Four by Brother Luck and Lucky Dumpling in Colorado Springs, is included in the Rise among a list of brilliant Black chefs Samuelsson suggests readers follow and support. (Also included is Mawa McQueen, founder of Mawa’s Kitchen in Aspen and the Crepe Shack in Snowmass Village.) “I’ve worked a lot with Brother Luck and he came up through CCAP, which is great. He has two restaurants, even though entrepreneurship in the Black community with food is challenging because access to traditional funding hasn’t always been there,” Samuelsson says. “Whether you’re an incredible scholar and mentor like Adrian Miller or a young chef like Brother Luck, they’re running their own food businesses and should be highlighted. We need to learn these stories and pass them down.”

Luck is honored, and also credits Samuelsson for helping him personally connect with his Creole heritage. “I was blown away when I first learned about how he was an immigrant and Ethiopian and raised in Sweden, and how he was running a Michelin-starred restaurant in Manhattan,” Luck says. “His story helped me embrace my story, as someone who is Creole but was raised in California, and how I’ve spent most of my career here in the southwest around Latin flavors. It’s a unique story.” 

Here’s more on being a Black cook in America, in Samuelsson, Miller, and Luck’s own words.

Luck on meeting Samuelsson for the first time…

I didn’t know many Black chefs growing up. You might have gotten a glimpse of someone like Patrick Clark but back then, no one was talking about Leah Chase or Edna Lewis. I found out that Marcus was going to be a guest chef at a hotel in California; I was maybe 18 years old. I bought a plane ticket and flew there because I wanted to work with him. I got in there as a stage, a young cook that was there to assist all these amazing celebrity chefs, from Marcus to Gordon Ramsey. It was such an amazing week, but Marcus was who I wanted to meet. I got to help him cook his signature foie gras ganache cake. I cleaned duck tongues with him. 

At that point, I had no idea of his connection to CCAP, and he had no idea that I was a CCAP alumni, so it was funny that was how we met. When you fast forward all these years later, I’m one of the CCAP alumni who speak heavily on what the program did for me: how it got me off the streets and got me into the culinary industry, how it gave me an education and what I’ve been able to accomplish because of that. It’s really cool how it comes full circle.

On how Black food can help heal racism in America…

Samuelsson: Food plays a major role. We all need a different way to enter the conversation about what it means to be American and what it means to be in a multicultural society; food can be one of the most delicious ways. This is an opportunity for us to be curious about each other, be loving towards our fellow Americans no matter what our backgrounds are, and to keep eating and cooking together.

Miller: I’ve always believed that food is a great connector; when you sit at a table with somebody, it really breaks down barriers. You recognize someone’s humanity when you share a table with them. I think that’s why Jim Crow laws were so big on keeping Black and white people apart. When you start talking about food, you realize what people have in common across cultures.

On what it means to be a Black cook in America right now…

Samuelsson: It’s a very exciting time because of all the people who have come before us—the Leah Chases, the Edna Lewises—and because of the connections we can make that weren’t possible before. There’s lots of work left to do. The interest around Black food has never been bigger, so it’s our time now to go broadcast it and share it. I hope readers will follow their curiosity. Cook out of the Rise. Search out those foods you may not have heard of. Be curious in your own community. Going into a new market in your own city can be like traveling—it’s exciting. Let’s celebrate that!

Miller: Being a Black cook today is about having a split personality, in the sense that your food and traditions are still either neglected or under appreciated and marginalized but there’s a spotlight on you now in a way that hasn’t existed in a long time. When you look at the media from 50 or 100 years ago, Black cooks were celebrated. There was often a tinge of racism in those accounts, but they were celebrated; white food writers would mention ‘my Black cook did this.’ In recent years, celebrating African American culinary artists and their traditions hasn’t been at the forefront but this moment is bringing us back to the fore. What’s really cool is starting to see more African American fine dining chefs embracing their traditional foods and searching for ways to reconnect with West Africa.

On what they wish more Americans knew about Black food culture…

Samuelsson: Black food is not monolithic. It’s very diverse. It came to us through many experiences: through the journey of slavery, but also immigration, the Great Migration, and other moments in our history. Black food is as diverse and complex as any other culture. Go into the markets where you live and get to know the okra, the peanuts, the journey of the rice—it all comes from West Africa. The more we understand where things come from, the fuller our life experience will be. It’s so important to be correct in our storytelling.

Miller: I think readers need to understand the complexity and artistry involved in Black cooking. Don’t go to those oversimplifications that it’s slave food, it’s poverty food, it’ll kill you if you eat it on a regular basis. If you look at what nutritionists are telling you to eat, it’s more dark leafy greens, more sweet potatoes, okra, hibiscus; these are all components of soul food. Don’t focus only on the glorious things like the fried chicken and cakes because those are just one aspect of the cuisine.

Samuelsson on supporting Black-owned restaurants during the pandemic…

I’m very nervous for Black-owned restaurants and businesses right now. A lot of them are surviving check to check. One of the things that came out of the Rise was a fund called the Black Business Matters Matching Fund [BBMMF], which is partnering with Uber Eats to fund grants for Black restaurants across the country. There are so many reasons to support mom-and-pops of all kinds, but particularly the ones owned by Black entrepreneurs. Black businesses need support everywhere.

To learn and do more: Here’s where you can buy The Rise, and here’s where you can find more information about the Black Businesses Matter Matching Fund; during the month of February, Uber Eats is donating $1 for every order made at a Black-owned business in their network in the U.S. and Canada to the BBMMF, up to $250,000, and have matched that with an additional $250,000 donation. Here’s where you can preorder Adrian Miller’s forthcoming book, Black Smoke: African American Adventures in Barbecue, which comes out in the spring. And here is where you can make a reservation at Four by Brother Luck and find out more about virtual events and classes that Luck is hosting.

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