So full disclosure this isn’t the first time that I’ve had the privilege to interview the Uber chef, restaurateur, culinary mogul Marcus Samuelsson. That happened about 7 years ago when I was an editor for an international magazine, we won’t name. At only 24 years of age being the executive chef of one of the most successful restaurants in the city Aquavit, then later winning Top Chef when reality TV was still a reality, later still decided to open Red Rooster in Harlem turn it into the hottest restaurant possibly on the planet. The next the time we sat down to talk I was guest editor for a coffee table book, that didn’t happen, so we won’t talk about that. This time Marcus was running several restaurants around the world, authored a cookbook in his quest for culinary domination and expecting his first child
Marcus & Maya: One Love
A t this moment things are completely different, I’m founder and Editor In Chief Ambassador Digital Magazine and Marcus is juggling a few more businesses, ( not just restaurants) his family, being a father to a heartbreaking cute rambunctious 4 year old boy all during a pandemic. Of the many things have changed there is one thing that has remained consistent which he shares with his own family and community. That is love. Marcus says without hesitation, “I was very loved. These white Swedish parents raising three adopted Ethiopian children in a majority white community. There were certainly challenges there. But there was never a challenge in love.” With a passion for cooking as a young person it would take him places as far as Japan where he was at times the only Black person to eventually America where at only 24 years old he would rock the culinary world by becoming the executive chef of Aquavit, the 5 star Michelin rated Scandinavian restaurant. He’d find global name recognition fame winning Top Chef on the hot reality show when it actually meant something. .
B eing chosen as the chef for newly elected first Black couple in the White Obama’s first State dinner to possibly his greatest triumph opening Red Rooster in Harlem and helping to revitalize its culinary scene. We all watched him become a mogul and do it with effortless grace and style. If their was an “It Man” he’d be it. It wouldn’t be complete for a rock star chef without a super hot companion. Enter his stunning Ethiopian supermodel wife Maya Haile. Where he attracts attention wherever he goes she manages to remain a bit more low key. The name Maya has many meanings, in Hindu it translate to an “illusion”, in Greek it means “good mother” and yet in Arabic; graciousness, in essence a Princess. All of those terms easily apply to my friend Maya. Six feet tall with Nefertiti bone structure and a swan like neck. She is the 10th child of 12 children ( six males and six females). She was in college studying to be a nurse when she was discovered by an agent in Holland. Against her closest sibling’s wishes she snuck to Paris to model and eventually signed with IMG in Holland and Paris which ultimately led to New York.
S he met Marcus in Harlem. One night at his former business partners housewarming party it got so crowded he decided to leave, but Maya was getting off the elevator so he decided to stay. They met up a couple weeks later and have been together ever since. After marrying and moving to Harlem, a few years later on July 19 they welcomed their beautiful baby boy Zion. Which also happens to be my daughter Jade’s born day. To be a high profile family in one of the most celebrated neighborhoods in the world they truly lead a reserved life. Which is just how this family prefers it. Go to work, carve out family vacation time and repeat. But 2020 would prove to be life changing for all of us. Beginning with the death of basketball icon Kobe Bryant and his daughter in a helicopter crash which led the world into mourning only to be superseded by a worldwide pandemic and economic shut down and then amidst all of that horrific savage murder of another unarmed Black man George Floyd by a knee on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds from the police sparked massive global Black Lives Matter protests some of which was met with rioting and violence the world had never seen. Both of these earth shattering events were not lost on Marcus.
I n true fashion he sprung into action. In the best of times he found ways to give back, with Harlem Eat Up! an annual festival that spotlights local Harlem restaurants and businesses that normally was held in Morningside Park, but these uncertain economically devastating Covid-19 times, he along with his many partners turned it into Harlem Serves Up! a televised fundraiser with Harlem icons, celebrity chef demos and special performances with 100 percent of the proceeds raised for non-profits that support Harlem BIPOC businesses and fight food insecurities in our communities. This helped serve our first responders, create jobs and keeps businesses afloat. His prize jewel Red Rooster, now shuttered, would realize during this pandemic it’s most important work ever by pivoting from being a restaurant to being a community center, a food pantry. Even though their were no guide lines, on understanding social distancing or where the food would come from at first.
B ut thankfully they partnered with World Central Kitchen and his workers showed up everyday to help feed thousands that lined up the block on a daily basis, eventually serving over 250, 000 meals collectively. Seeing those faces and being able to help his beloved community is something he doesn’t take for granted. “You have to acknowledge your privilege. My wife and son are healthy. I’m healthy. I can always find work that can provide for my family. That’s privilege. But doing this serving my community brings me joy. That’s a privilege too.”<br /> And he was also able to connect with his homeland of Sweden by co-hosting a podcast called This Moment with Jason Diakite, an African American musician and front man for the Uber popular Swedish group Timbuktu. On this social media driven platform he is able to flex his activist muscle with in-depth discussions on current topics with a variety of amazing guests.
B ut it’s became more than a podcast. “So for me this was about how you can evolve and work on Black Excellence without the normal canvas. What would an artist do. It’s why I started our podcast This Moment with my buddy Jason, an African American living in Sweden and me a Black man from Sweden living here in Harlem. What would these two Black creatives do. So we talk about it. Even though we have amazing guests it’s part podcast but it’s also part healing. But also focusing on Black Excellence. I’m coming out with a cook book this fall featuring 40 of the most influential African American chefs and food writers in this country. Black food history is American history. We have to take the authorship about our food back and put it into the history books. Because if you look at American history books now we’re not in it. Yet we worked the land, we cooked the food and we created a huge part of American food scene.”
A nd at this moment in history nothing is more in your face than racial tension and police brutality and killing of innocent Black people. Black Lives Matter everyday to these two Black men, fathers even more in light of the recent deaths of Ahmaud Arbery George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Jacob Blake being shot and paralyzed by seven times in the back in front of his children. “It’s so saddening, it makes me so furious but I can’t walk around angry every day but that’s how I feel. Not yet again. The names are changing but the narratives and the stories are not changing. If you close your eyes and imagine Breonna Taylor. Where should you be the safest is in your bed, in your own house. It’s impossible to fathom. Here is Jacob Blake in the community breaking up an argument, a community person. And like clockwork you know what’s next the deconstruction of us. It’s happened with George Floyd. About what drugs he was on and major media platforms allowed that conversation to happen.
I t’s disgusting. The crimes to us happens and then the deflect comes. But each story is different. Going back to Tamir Rice, here you have a 12 year old with a plastic toy gun which kids are playing with all the time get him killed in less than two seconds by cops upon seeing him and then you have a white 17 year old Kyle Rittenhouse with a rifle being able to cross state lines and walk pass cops kill people and then back pass them cross state lines again. Then still you have an unarmed Jacob Blake being shot seven times in the back in front of his children. All of this happening during the convention. There are just so many conversations to be had. But at the same time I’m equally proud of the athletes who are taking a stand and speaking up. People like LeBron James leading the charge. This is a very unique time and there is so much coming at you and it’s hard to digest. But Jacob Blake’s sister really said it the best. Her composure. Go back and listen to her. And the world is watching. Covid we couldn’t wrap ourselves around and the war on racism which has been our ugly history for hundreds of years. We need to deal with them both because they’re horrible.”
A s the city continues to go through it’s phases with little to no fanfare Red Rooster quietly opened is patio for outdoor dining. As the summer comes to an end complete with social distancing and Harlem’s favorite live band Rakiem Walker Project with Gloria Ryann only pared way down. The crazy fun nights now much tamer seem to be the new normal. Which can be seen and felt by everyone but no one more than Marcus. “On a professional side I won’t be healed until Rooster is back up. Until Ginny’s Supperclub downstairs has its band going, until Rakiem and Gloria are fully there on a Monday night. And we are all together. So I’m hurting inside. I did this for all of us. And I’m happy when downstairs is jumping, the kitchen is busy upstairs. The room young and old is in the house. Sure it’s great to be open on the patio and we really appreciate everyone coming together to do that but I miss, what makes Rooster what it is. Which is a busy upstairs and busy downstairs. And people just being together. I know we have to do it in the safest way possible but I know I won’t be fully healed until that comes back.”
S o who better then Marcus to ask. What is the future of the restaurant industry? Marcus reflects for a moment then with razor sharp focus says, “Its two parts. First of all it’s too early. We’re still in it. I can’t look on the outside. I don’t see the light of the end of the tunnel just yet. But I do think the model that we created in Newark, where you have the private sector and public sector coming together. In Newark we did it with World Center Kitchen and Newark Center Kitchen. Audible, founder and Executive chairman Donald Katz and superstar actor Michael B. Jordan raised the first money. You have the private sector and someone like Michael B. Jordan who can broadcast it throughout the world. Then the local government came in and supported that as well. That saved Newark’s restaurant industry. So if we are going navigate out of this we need help from the private sector, and the local government to acknowledge that eighty percent of our workforce is going to be unemployed. So we need help and support to navigate our way out of this very difficult situation.”
I know we have to do it in the safest way possible but
I know I won’t be fully healed until that comes back.
I t’s been said that Harlem is a microcosm of society. A nexus, a cross section of culture, history, it’s immediate realities, its farthest hopes and ideals. My ancestors and Civil Rights leaders opened doors for all people of color, immigrants to come to this country with vision to add their unique gifts and talents. It’s those gifts that enrich our lives and give us hope for a brighter future. It’s people like Marcus Samuelsson, his wife Maya and their son Zion who represents the best of that along with all of our families. That even in these socially distant times our closest connection is still each other. One Love.
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