Marcus Samuelsson Stirs the Pot

Marcus Samuelsson Stirs the Pot | In episode 63 of Light Culture Podcast, Paper Magazine founder David Hershkovits sits down with James Beard Award winner and Top Chef Master, Chef Marcus Samuelsson.

Top Chef Master, James Beard Award winner, Chopped judge–Samuelsson has cooked for the Obamas and became the face of a global American cuisine with his restaurants Red Rooster and Streetbird in Harlem. Born in Ethiopia and raised in Sweeden, Marcus fell in love with New York and made Harlem his home. His story and his mission are to celebrate diversity in food and society. Like his late friend the great Anthony Bourdain, he loves how food is a bridge between cultures, and recently created a food travel show “No Passport Required.”  This is just one project among many on this influential restauranteur’s busy calendar that includes the release of The Rise: Black Cooks and the Soul of American Food a book on Black Chefs in America and multiple restaurants working to help sustain their communities through a global crisis. Marcus tunes in to Light Culture to talk to David, who has known Marcus since he first arrived on the culinary scene in New York. They talk about Anthony Bourdain’s vulnerability, fine dining v. street food, Covid’s impact on the eating experience, and how Prince and Bowie inspire him.

Read Transcript

Q&A

David: [00:00:00] 

Marcus Samuelsson needs no introduction to TV cooking show lovers. But even if you’re not a fan of cooking shows, you should know Marcus Samuelsson because his story is unlike any other, and his mission is greater than any dish he ever prepared. He’s a Top Chef Master and James Beard Award winner, he’s cooked for the Obamas at the White House and in Harlem at his Red Rooster restaurant. To many, he’s become the face of a global American cuisine, championing diversity of foods in the kitchen and diversity in society at large. Samuelsson’s extraordinary origin begins in Ethiopia, moves to his adoptive home and new family in Sweden, and then to Switzerland before moving on to New York and its multi-ethnic stew of delicious delights. If there’s anyone who can pick up the mantle of a modern day Anthony Bourdain, it’s Marcus Samuelsson. Who can not only cook his ass off, but also has a larger purpose than feeding us. He wants to educate us as well. To validate difference and acknowledge excellence wherever it may be on the social hierarchy. So, welcome, Marcus Samuelsson.

Marcus: [00:01:19] 

Thank you for having me, David. Very happy to be here.

David: [00:01:21] 

Yeah. So since I made the comparison, let’s start with Anthony Bourdain. You appeared on Parts Unknown and went to Ethiopia with Anthony. To the country where you were born. What was that like? And why do you think Bourdain has become such a cultural icon?

Marcus: [00:01:42] 

Well, I think Tony showed vulnerability and he wasn’t afraid of showing vulnerability. Everyone can see themselves in Tony, and depending on what aspect, right? And you could also aspire to Tony, right? He ate with everybody. He truly would break bread with everybody. And I think no matter where you are in the political aisle, whatever, I think people aspire to do that. His curiosity came all the way into people’s living rooms. He’s lived a very interesting life. And he didn’t hide away from that. I’ll tell you, at the funeral and when we had dinner afterwards, I said to my wife, “You know, he’s sitting upstairs laughing at all of us now.” It’s exactly what Tony’s like. The dinner was in Chinatown, at one of these places where you had to go up to the fifth floor, and the people at that dinner were from all walks of life. You had the CNN crew with Tony. You know, with all those executives. You had the chef’s life of Tony, right? From dishwasher to famous chefs. You had the drug years of Tony. Right? And then you had the family feud Tony. It was beautiful. It was sad, but it was beautiful. And they didn’t try to hide any of this stuff. It was an incredible evening actually.

David: [00:03:46] 

I don’t want to compare you two totally, but there’s certainly something there to compare in your book, which I have here by the way, “Yes, Chef.”

Marcus: [00:03:57] 

Yeah.

David: [00:03:58]

Which I’m loving. I’m halfway through it. It is so well written by the way. So, congratulations there, as well. I know it’s been out a few years. I’m just catching up. But, you also are pretty open about your life as well.

Marcus: [00:04:18] 

I think that if you’re gonna go through the past, go through the whole. Open yourself up, which a memoir is, right? A memoir is not a victory lap, for me, it’s really the valleys of life. What makes life interesting. And I think that it was very therapeutic for me to write this book at that time. I got signed very, very early. And it took me six years to write the book, cause I wasn’t ready at the time I was signed to do the book. And it took three tries. I stopped, started. Three times. Because I had to be ready to share. To share a lot of things. And figure out a narrative. And Veronica, my co-author, we’ve been friends for a very long time – and she really pulled me through it. 

I think it’s the same this year. I’m coming out with a book called “The Rise,” it’s really about sharing black excellence. What does black food taste like? Obviously black food is, uh, not monolithic. So in Yes, Chef, I felt that was one of the first times where I could lay out this past. That it’s not a simple path to be a chef, and particularly to be a black chef. 

David: [00:05:48] 

But you didn’t even particularly think of yourself as a black chef when you were starting out. That wasn’t your ambition. Your ambition was to be one of the great cooks of French cuisine, five star. And then, something happened, right? What happened?

Marcus: [00:06:07] 

Well, I think- I think life happens, right? And that curveball of life is what makes it all interesting. First of all, when you grow up in an era where there’s no one looking like you, not on the block but in the world, doing it. Right? I knew black people were doing it, but we weren’t connected. There’s wasn’t Internet. There was no books that I could go find. I had to go out to the world and do it. And all we saw was a singular man and they were French. I remember loving Marco Pierre White from England, because he had long hair and was smoking. At least someone that looked a little bit like, you know, um, that I was related too. Like in the sense that he had long hair and he came out of rock and roll more than cooking. And I loved that. So, the technical aspect of cooking I picked up on pretty quickly. But then that’s not – just like, a musician – that’s not what makes a great musician. The feeling, the narrative, who are you cooking for? And all of those things, I think for me, came to life around 9/11. You know, when we changed in New York and when we changed forever. When all of us lost people. I cooked at the towers the weekend before 9/11, and sixty to eighty on that crew that died and it was some people I knew very well and some people I just knew from cooking with them. And that was really the beginning to me of asking the questions, “What am I here for? What am I doing?” And once you start asking those questions, you start asking, “Why am I only cooking for the one percent of the one percent? And why is my audience only, you know, one certain level. And so, you start going down that route. At the same time, I found my biological father. I started to engage more with my daughter. I found myself really dealing with life for the first time. Before I just dealt as a young professional and worked towards excellence. After 9/11, I had to start dealing with life. You can’t really go back just to cook after you start asking yourself those questions.

David: [00:08:50] 

I’m jumping around a little bit since we’re here. Uh. 9/11. Right now we’re living through something else, right, that’s also life changing. Obviously, lots of people are dying as a result of the Covid virus. Another moment of change going on as well. Do you feel that there’s lots of shifting currently? As a business, you had to deal with the repercussions of the city going through the crisis. Or the world, cause I know you have restaurants not just in Manhattan, but elsewhere as well. You immediately went out and closed all your restaurants, is that true?

Marcus: [00:09:35] 

Yeah. I mean, I think on a mental level, we’re amidst and in it and I think we’re all hurting, and I think we’re all grieving in a way. So, now you and I can talk about 9/11 with a distance. If this interview would have been done in Fall of 2001, we couldn’t have, cause we were still in it. Right?  I don’t think we’re out of Covid. And I think if you look at urban America, it will be for the next ten to fifteen years. I live in Harlem, my restaurant is Harlem, my office is here. What I see, between going those five blocks, going from my house to work everyday, it’s- it’s unbelievable. And it hurts me, because there is… a lot of hurt down there. On the street, people have lost hope. I’ve never seen as many heroine needles in my life. I’ve never seen such a drastic change in three, four months as now. So, when I put that in perspective, my restaurant issues are smaller than the New York City or the Harlem issues. You always have to put it in perspective. For me, it’s about acknowledging your privilege. Right? I’m a lucky bastard. If I don’t like it, I can go back to Sweden. Right? I’m also privileged and lucky enough to have healthcare, right? So, I can go to work everyday and I feel healthy, and my son is healthy, my wife is healthy. So, I start with that. Acknowledge my privilege, and then what can I do in the community that has been so tremendous to me? And that’s when we decided to shut the restaurant and create community kitchens instead. And Red Rooster, in New York, and my restaurant in Newark and also in Miami, on March 15th, we shut it and we became a community kitchen. And we served two hundred and fifty thousand meals together with World Central Kitchen here in Harlem. To first responders and the neediest. And in Newark, we’ve been able to do that same and partner with Newark Working Kitchen. And that helped the restaurants in those communities to stay alive, it helped the neediest, and it also helped the infrastructure of food that is completely interrupted. There are farmers burning their food because who’s buying it? And so on. So, I think we did probably the most meaningful work during this time. Now we’ve stopped it and actually opened back up. Not in Newark but in Harlem. Now we have an outdoor patio and we’re doing all that. And we’re doing the seating for that. And then slowly, October one, we’re going to open back up indoor dining for twenty-five percent. So, we are slowly coming back. But we were busy and we were working during this time, and I know we made a difference.

David: [00:12:45] 

Yeah. It sure sounds like it. Do you think that a lot of this will not be able to be recovered? I was listening to the radio the other day, and someone was talking about how we haven’t mourned this passing way of life. Even if we haven’t lost an individual or friends, family, we’ve lost a certain way of life that you’re saying is gonna be fifteen years. I don’t know how long. Some people are a lot more optimistic. But obviously a lot of the small businesses are not gonna be able to recover quickly, and we’re gonna have a lot of closed storefronts for a long time. 

Marcus: [00:13:28] 

I think we mourn and grief on numerous levels, right? You know, the mourning of him being in office, that’s a mourn, that’s an embarrassment and it’s a mourn and they’re actually connected to how we’re dealing with this as a nation, right? So, that’s one. Two, Covid impacts people of color, black and brown people, severely different. Very, very different. Because of its access to healthcare, and most black and brown people don’t have the option to work from home. Right? That’s why the numbers hit us so differently. My chef and cooks that work in the restaurant, they couldn’t do that work from their apartments. So it does impact us all very, very different. And then how do we come back as a city? You know, I love the days when you jump on the train and you go to Brooklyn to have dinner and come back. Or when someone from downtown comes up to Red Rooster. The whole idea of Red Rooster is to bridge the city, and have people coming from downtown, meeting the local, that’s what makes New York City unique. So when I look at it from that aspect, the tourists will come back. It will take three, four, I don’t know how many years. But he or she will come back. And then you have that very unique relationship that we have as New Yorkers with one another. Are you gonna go out to a place that is twenty minutes outside your neighborhood? You might think about it. And you never thought about it before. There is a dent there that I think slowly, surely we can eventually fix. But restaurants are a big part of that, the word restaurant means to restore your community. And if the lights are not on in your local community, wherever you live, that doesn’t give you confidence to tell your friends to come down here, wherever that is. So, it’s very important that we come together as small businesses. Not just to be feeding people, but actually feeding the soul and keeping the lights on for so many different reasons.

David: [00:15:55] 

When you first came to Manhattan, and you write about it beautifully in your book, you talked about how, you’re privileged or lucky, but you actually worked really, really hard. Nobody handed you anything and made it easy. As a person of color, you also had to deal with that on top of the whole restaurant, dictatorship-

Marcus: [00:16:21] 

Yeah.

David: [00:16:24] 

That takes place that you described what it takes to work yourself up. But let’s just start with New York. Let’s go back. What was that like? 1990 or thereabouts when you came?

Marcus: [00:16:37] 

Yeah. 93, ’94. I would say that like our friend, Fab 5 Freddy, that was my history teacher, I took notes. When I looked at MTV, Yo! MTV Raps, that was my homework. It was my homework in terms of sonically, but also what to wear, how America looks like. Right? And I- and I fell in love with New York, as a black kid living in Sweden, America, black excellence in America, I was always drawn to. The way I studied Prince, for example, it just blew my mind what this person was doing in the States. He played every instrument. My icons were always in America. And so, it was clear to me that one day I would live in America, and I would live specifically in New York City. And, you know, the people I admired were very much the people that you and Kim wrote about in Paper, right? It’s people that added to, that changed the city or the culture they were working in for the better. And it’s very opposite for how you’re raised in Sweden, where you have much more passiveness to it. And if you’re great, you’re not supposed to talk about it. Where hip hop is the opposite. If you’re great, talk about it. You know what I mean?

David: [00:18:16] 

And even if you’re not great, uh- [laughs]

Marcus: [00:18:17] 

Yeah. Exactly. People like Rakeem and Tribe Called Quest, and all of that stuff, I was drawn to all of that. And I got the New York bug. I remember the very first time I came to the States in the late-80’s with my soccer club. We got robbed in Times Square. And I thought, “That was great!” You know what I mean?

David: [00:18:42] 

[laughs] Cool, man.

Marcus: [00:18:42] 

[laughs] We ran after them. We ran after those guys, got our bags back, and everybody was like, [claps] “What happened?” I was like, “That was exciting. That’s what I came to New York for.” [laughter] You know?

David: [00:18:54] 

Adrenaline.

Marcus: [00:18:55] 

You’re either drawn to that, or you’re not drawn to that. And I was drawn to that. You know what I mean. Culture has always been what I like. And if it’s not creative and it’s not culture, it’s not me.

David: [00:19:15] 

Well, the city was also full of surprises though. Because you knew about that a little bit at least in advance, but then you discovered all this multicultural world that existed with the different food. And that became even bigger, then the culture or the hip hop.

Marcus: [00:19:34] 

Yeah. I mean, I think that navigation, you know, as a black person, you very often navigate two lives. You know how to navigate through things, through situations. My two lives were also very often around food and non-food. Right? So, food for me, discovering Chinatown was amazing. That was something that was familiar to me, because I, at that point, I’ve already traveled the world and I’ve been in South East Asia a lot and been to China already. And I was like, “There’s two Chinatowns in New York?” Like one in Queens, one in Canal Street. In one city. How incredible is that, you know? And that got me access to calamansi, lemongrass, galangal, all these ingredients that the Midtown chefs wasn’t reading up to. This gave me a sincere advantage, I felt. It was stuff like that. I felt that the city constantly pushed and pulled me in a way that I needed to be jerked at that time. 

David: [00:20:40] 

And you continued to explore. You really never stopped. And then when I think, today even, what kind of chef are you? I don’t think you can really put a finger on it, you could do Swedish. You studied in Europe, so you know that whole fine dining experience. You have your Red Rooster, but then you also have Streetbird Rotisserie which is different. And you love street food.

Marcus: [00:21:19] 

Yep.

David: [00:21:19]

You take something from everything, right? So how would you describe your cuisine then?

Marcus: [00:21:25] 

Well, I would describe it as I’m- I’m deeply in love with food, right? I love food. And when I look at David Bowie or Prince, if you think about from Ziggy Stardust to Tin Machine to Let’s Dance to finishing with a jazz album, right? I mean, come on. What type of musician was David Bowie. Like it’s the people I admire that you can’t- Prince’s journey, between ’85 and ’87, he worked on five albums and two movies. Right? What type of music? Like what type of movie? Between Sign of the Time to Around the World in a Day. If you go backwards or forwards into French movie basically, right, Under the Cherry Moon. I look at people like that that I truly, truly admire, and I’m curious about putting their records on. I don’t want to know what’s gonna come out of that album, I know that they were deeply engaged in music, and I’m deeply engaged in food. If it’s not experiential, I’m actually not that interested in doing it. I’m not. Like it has to be an experience. And that was what Red Rooster is, for me, it’s a love letter to the city. But it has to be experiential. I remember, one of the very first parties we did with – before we opened – we did Kim’s almost sixtieth party, right? And she brought David Byrne, for example, and I was just like watching David the whole time because I’m like that, he’s an icon to me. Like a creative genius and he gives to the city. I’m like, “If David is smiling, I know we’re on to something.” Do you know what I mean? And at that point, we didn’t even have gas. We had to cook out of the basement, that smelled that nice New York piss. We were right next to the subway. For all the creative people in the room, that wasn’t an obstacle to them, because most of them were around when New York City smelled like piss everywhere. And they knew that we’re all in on the journey. That was different. That was two weeks before we opened the restaurant. And it’s one of my favorite events that we ever did. The Pink Martinis performed and all of that stuff. Right? It set the tonality that created this is a place for creatives, all creatives.

David: [00:24:04] 

And you also had a music venue downstairs. Music has been a very important part of your life as well as cooking, obviously it sounds like you listen to a lot of music.

Marcus: [00:24:16] 

You have to. Breaking bread is one way, but you know, sometimes music can be the first step of understanding another culture, right? And we were so in thirst for that right now. 

David: [00:24:43] 

Well, for real, I think appreciation of other culture’s music is certainly lacking in a large swath of our country. Not to mention, even our favorite representatives are often weak in the department. They really haven’t spent very much time understanding or connecting with other cultures. Which could be like a good message for the future. It’s one way to help with the recovery.

Marcus: [00:25:14] 

Absolutely. Any time I change my opinion, I probably did it with music first or food first. When I was in Asia, street markets smell a certain way. And if it doesn’t smell that way, I’m not going, you know? I don’t trust it. Or a second thing, there’s a sound about eating outside you’re gonna hear the mopeds motorbikes have a certain sound. And if I don’t hear that stuff, I’m not liking the fish, you know what I mean? So, urbanism and that culture, for me, it either speaks to you or it doesn’t. And it’s so much of what I’m passionate about. It’s people, but it’s also the beautiful thing in life that is about discovery, is about being curious, is about learning from other people things that I didn’t know. And I don’t fully understand why people are so afraid of learning the unknown.

David: [00:26:17] 

One of your shows, No Passport Required, does just that. It goes around the world, meets some people, goes and talks to them and tries to understand the culture through the food.

Marcus: [00:26:31] 

Yeah. It’s hard to do a traveling show now during this time, but it’s such a blessing to be able to connect people again. And telling the stories of the unknown very often. Did you know that there was a huge Filipino community in Seattle? Or what about the Armenian community in Los Angeles. There’s something beautiful in telling this story of the underdog. Seeing there is so much culture and history through that. And that’s why America is the most beautiful. When you go to East LA and you find a Armenian shop that has been there for sixty, seventy years, and they basically haven’t changed their culture or the- the way they preserve things for five hundred years. And you can discover this in East LA. Or in East Hollywood. That’s why I love America. 

David: [00:27:39] 

It’s a perfect show for you. Let’s just talk about food- TV food shows for a minute, because you’ve been on many of them on both sides, cooking and judging. What is the fascination, do you think, of the public for these shows? Most people are not gonna try to make most of those dishes, right?

Marcus: [00:28:06] 

No. I think in many ways, you know, food has kind of entered where MTV was, maybe, in the late-eighties, early-nineties. Where in the beginning, you’d have to be a music head to watch it. And then in the later part, it was just part of pop culture. And Food Network, in many ways, it’s sort of mirroring what MTV has done, right? Like you don’t have- the first people watching it was probably really food- like chefs and people who were really into it. Other people, it’s, “Hey, I aspire to.” Or it’s background noise, or it’s like, “Oh, as a family, we can actually watch this and do this.” With Chopped, which we’ve been doing for eleven years now, the amount of families that are engaging in Chopped and doing it at home. And it’s not a lot of shows that a whole- from an eight-year-old to whatever age can everybody, to grandparents, can be all in. So, I think it covers that family setting. That we can all do it as a family. I think that food is also something that everyone sees themselves in. Whether it’s to have an opinion. Whether I don’t like it or I do like it. And any time you can have an immediate reaction. People want in.

David: [00:29:27] 

Yeah. It’s kind of universal, right? Cause everybody feels they’re educated enough to have an opinion.

So, it’s a very universal, uh, thing obviously. But it still has, uh, a sort of distinct space on the TV world. Is there a show that you would like to do now, do you think?

Marcus: [00:30:05] 

Well, I’m thinking about it. Obviously, doing something about this… social justice movement that’s happening right now with Black Lives Matter. Maybe something around my book, The Rise, where we highlight African American black chefs. I love on Netflix, the show about the history of hip hop where you learn from, all the way from the Bronx to essentially trap and everything in between. But hearing those early stories, I know the history, but I wanna go back and look at it and listen to it again. It’s something like that, you know. Showing that we’re not monolithic. Showing that people are hurting out there. But through food and breaking bread, I think we can come back to it.

David: [00:31:07] 

Do you think there’s been any change since you first started working, with regard to black chefs or African American, working in the industry?

Marcus: [00:31:19] 

Absolutely, I think there is. It’s progress but we have a ways to go, right? And I think about all aspects of it, the fact that, as a Nation, we know more about French cuisine or Japanese cuisine than we do about black food in our own country, which is America’s food. Right? That’s on the consumer and the guest side. But then also, on acknowledgement, Thomas Jefferson’s chefs were black. And of course it was slaves, enslaved, but the executive chefs at the time were two young women. One was fifteen and one was nineteen, and they were executive chefs. I’d say it’s not just cooking, the person that came up with the recipe for Jack Daniels, Nearest Green, was black. He didn’t get a dime. So just think about, historically, what the difference would have been if he would have gotten fifty cents on every bottle sold. The aspiration, the acknowledgement, the money – Not just the money, the institutions that could have been built around that, owning land, cooking, working with food, it has real consequences if you don’t acknowledge and do what’s right. So, we’ve come far but we have to do much, much more.

David: [00:32:55] 

Your book, The Rise: Black Cooks and the Soul of American Food, that’s not out yet, right? 

Marcus:: [00:33:01] 

October 27th, yeah. Coming out next October.

David: [00:33:03] 

Okay. Fantastic. I’m really looking forward to that as you were speaking, I was thinking that what you were saying is actually, so true about so much of American culture, black culture is American culture in so many ways. I recently had Lisa Cortes talking about women in hip hop, to the extent that fashion has been a component of black life.

Marcus: [00:33:32] 

Yeah.

David: [00:33:32] 

You know, as far as you want to look, but it has never really been acknowledged. Certainly, pop music today, you know, wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t part of black culture. You know, food, as you say. We could probably continue the list. But in many cases we don’t know, you have to dig up this information. Like you were just saying about these, amazing stories about Jack Daniels, for example. I just had no idea about any of that. So now it’s a time to acknowledge a lot of the work that has been going on, and people who haven’t gotten the credit. But a lot of the commentary today revolves around ownership, as well. That’s how people wind up getting the credit for doing what they’re doing. In the music world, you had all these great artists creating, but who was running the record companies.

Marcus: [00:34:29] 

Well, I mean, you know, restaurant, it’s a very expensive endeavor in many ways, right? But the great thing today about it is that to be a black chef you don’t have to own a restaurant. You can be a caterer, you can do it- people find you through Instagram. So there is a liberation with social media that fits, black entrepreneurship in a positive way. As an immigrant, I had an easier chance to get access to a black bank loan than as a black person, being from this country. How ownership changes is, honestly, there’s a structure to that and there is an institution to that. And when black people didn’t have access to any institutional money, it changed stuff. In the book, The Rise, we talk about the past but we also talk about the present and future. Because we can do a lot of different things. One thing that was very important for me, that we focus on about forty people – but we’re mentioning and putting their Instagram handles in for over a hundred and fifty people in the book. Cause I want companies, people to know, if I live in Cincinnati and don’t know where there would be an African American restaurant in my area, you’re going to be able to find someone through the book. So it can also work truly as a tool to find a chef locally. But also, as a traveling tool. Like, hey, if I’m traveling with my friends and I’m going to Chicago, I want to visit this chef. You know?

David: [00:36:17] 

In your book, Dooky Chase is one of the people that, uh, you talked to, right, from New Orleans. Where, actually, I lived there for a period in the ’70s. And, discovered it was all black cooking, right? Everything. There was basically nothing else. 

Marcus: [00:36:54] 

New Orleans, it’s an iconic city. And why do we love it? We love it for the culture of the music, and we love it for the cultural food, and the great people. You think about the origin of jazz, but we also think about the origin of Creole cooking, and so on. That city is so magical. And if you would take black culture out of that city, it’s not that magical anymore, right? As Americans, we have to learn to live with each other and we have to acknowledge each other. And food and music, for me, is forever linked. And it’s two of the best ways to get to know people. You know? And, um, clearly Republicans need to eat. [laughter] You know what I mean?

David: [00:37:39] 

More soul food, yeah. Let’s sneak it into their water somehow, you know?

Marcus: [00:37:43] 

Yeah.

David: [00:37:43] 

Like put it in- Uh. I wanted to also ask about cooking with cannabis. Have you experimented with that at all?

Marcus: [00:37:53] 

Yeah, I have. And I think, you know, for me, it’s more about… it’s sticky. So, I want it to be delicious first, right? And it’s hard to get delicious from it, unless you completely cover it with a lot of sugar or a lot of chocolate or something like that. And that’s not the point, right? So, I think that, you know, it’s fun to see that edibles are now becoming much, much, much more popular. But I think it went through this period of, “Oh. Look what I’m doing. I’m cooking with cannabis.” Alright, that’s kind of like, “Hi, I’m cool” type of period. Now, it’s actually going through that second phase of, can it be healing? Can it be helpful? And then the third phase of that, I think, would be, “But it’s also delicious.” And, again, I don’t mean delicious in the sense of overloaded with sugar and other things to hide the flavor, but actually how do you cook it and enhance the flavor. The way, let’s say, alcohol is a flavor enhancer, right? You put rum into rum cake and it tastes delicious. You know, you’re not trying to hide the rum from that. So, it- for me, we’re not there yet with that. We’re definitely there with step one and two. But we’re not there when you go to the supermarket and I’m- I’m buying that X, Y, Z because of so and so. Right? We had a little bit- we have ways to go. Probably have to learn from Jamaica.

David: [00:39:34] 

[laughs] Well, you’re probably gonna get some calls or letters from, uh, people who are gonna want you to sample some of their things.

Marcus: [00:39:41] 

Yeah. Yeah, exactly.

David: [00:39:43] 

Their wares, you know, to see if you’re right or wrong about that. I noticed with regard to Streetbird, you started a delivery service. I was wondering about that. You know, the way people are adjusting to life today and eating at home more. Wanting better food, but delivered. Is- was that a response to the situation or a bigger plan altogether?

Marcus: [00:40:14] 

First of all, people say, “When are you going to get back to normal?” People’s habits have already changed. I don’t know if we’re gonna- I don’t know what that looks like. I think the fact that people order in more is not going to go away. The fact that you send a- a gift of- of great food now to someone is here to stay. As a chef, as an entrepreneur, it’s always important to figure out, “Okay. That’s just noise, but that’s here to stay.” Right? With Streetbird, it’s always the restaurant that I travel with. We call it, party in a box. We do pop ups all over the world. Because it links hip hop and great music and great food together. You look at traditional retail in a restaurant in one way, and I look at Streetbird as a brand in a different way. It made perfect sense. Actually, I remember one of the first Streetbird events we did was actually at the Paper office.

David: [00:41:18] 

Right.

Marcus: [00:41:18] 

We came as a surprise for you guys. Uh. It was fun. One of the very first Streetbird experiences we did. 

David: [00:41:26] 

Yep.

Marcus: [00:41:27] 

One of my favorite things, I don’t want to get off topic, was always coming off that elevator, I think it was the eleventh floor, and then going straight to the covers. And, the covers, for me, they’re like an art installation. The covers that you got shot, they’re really an exhibit by itself. And it’s a love letter to New York City, to downtown New York.

David: [00:41:53] 

Yeah. That was sweet. That office no longer is there.

Marcus: [00:41:56] 

Yeah.

David: [00:41:56] 

So, uh, you won’t be able to see that anymore. But I’m glad you have a good memory of it.

Marcus: [00:42:00] 

Oh, the best memories.

David: [00:42:02] 

Dictatorship in the kitchen, is something I’m curious about. Obviously, it’s needed. It’s a dangerous place. People have knives, they have all these machines that, as you talked about, you know, there are accidents there. People can get seriously hurt. But at the same time, it’s fairly antiquated- and in these days of, you know, social justice and people just being a lot more sensitive about, the bosses being the way they are, or what do they call it, a bad workplace environment and things of that nature. How do you feel about that? Do you think that’s something that needs to be preserved?

Marcus: [00:42:48] 

I think that that model of operating, it’s just outdated. Right? I think you grew up in an era and that’s your era, good or bad, and then you have to evolve from there. I worked in a kitchen in Switzerland where, you know, we were kids. The average kitchen there, we worked from eighteen to twenty-two. We needed a very structured environment. We were people from various countries, various languages, so it needed to be super strict. Those kitchens, for me, I actually didn’t take it as racism. Those guys yelled at everybody all of the time [laughs] as a matter of fact, right? But I do think that today, you can’t operate that way. It gave me, coming up as a kid, that could have gone either way, it gave me the structure that I needed. But I do acknowledge that it’s not an environment that I want to purvey in my kitchen- provide in my kitchen today. You know, there were not a lot of- lot of women. There were definitely no people of color. And you weren’t nurtured. I threw up everyday. Not because I didn’t eat, it was because I was stressed out. And no nineteen-year-old kid… I used to measure on a clock. I was able to throw up, run to the bathroom, throw up, clean myself up, run back and come back within seven minutes. Right? You realize today, that that shouldn’t go on. And I had nobody- you had nobody to talk to. You like you get thrown to wolves. And who are you gonna talk to? There were a lot of things that wouldn’t have lasted today, and that’s a good thing. I’m very appreciative of how I came up. I got nurtured in those kitchens. It was harsh, it was hard, it was difficult, and I traded that for skills and know how. And I worked with some masters that no longer are around or wouldn’t be able to work today. When I take the horrible habits away and I just look at the pure, incredible magician craft people that they were, they were amazing. I’m happy that we evolved and when I looked at Red Rooster, I wanted to do the opposite, right? I wanted to have an open kitchen. I want it to be very transparent who works here. I want to motivate through positivity, not through negativity and- and fear. You know? But I wouldn’t have landed in that space or place, unless I would have gone through that journey.

David: [00:45:43] 

Cause it was good for you. I remember you telling everybody, you know, just keep quiet, keep your head down. You know, this is what you have to do. The only way to survive. And believing in the system that at the end, you know, like good works will- will prevail and- and you will be recognized for your work. So how does it work today, with regard to that? Do you still have the, “Yes, chef”? Uh. That’s still real.

Marcus: [00:46:08] 

I think the, “Yes, chef” works in the line of service. But, you know, there were no pillows. There was no pillows of comfort. Right? I remember one kid, he cut his finger off on the machine, kids didn’t know their way out, right? So, he said, “Okay.” He did the math. “I’m cut one finger off. It’s gonna bleed. It’s gonna hurt, but it’s worth it.” Do you know what I mean?

David: [00:46:39] 

No. [laughs]

Marcus: [00:46:39] 

One guy tried to put his hand through the meat grinder. It’s a panic attack. It was so brutal. We can’t manage that way. You just can’t. So I think today is much better. I just feel like I want young students today to just get the skills and have the patience to get the skills to become that crafty chef. Because it takes time. There’s so much to know. And you can’t do that quickly. Everything can’t be experienced online. Cause you need repetition. One of those reasons why those bastards were so good, because they repeated many, many, many, many times. So sometimes I feel like, for young chefs today, they might shoot too fast. And the beauty is actually in the repetition.

David: [00:47:37] 

And there’s also so many secrets, it seems. Like even in your book where you talk about meat coming out of the freezer and why it has to be kept cold- it’s kind of a chemistry process as well. That’s the kind of stuff you can’t really learn other than being in the kitchen and- and doing it.

Marcus: [00:48:03] 

Take the abuse away, the structure of what I was taught was fantastic. For me, it was very important to take all the abuse away. Cause that never encouraged anybody. They didn’t want to make mistakes. I would have respected or feared those chefs enough, even if they weren’t abusive. 

David: [00:48:23] 

Yeah.

Marcus: [00:48:24] 

You guys are incredible, therefore you don’t have to just scream constantly all the time. I’m gonna trust your skill level and you’ll be alright. You know what I mean?

David: [00:48:36] 

Right. Well, you’re incredible too, Marcus. And I’m glad you didn’t get injured too much along the way. And you made it here to New York, to Harlem, so we could all enjoy not just your food but your company, your presence. Your vision, your positive action as, um, a restaurateur, just as a citizen of this State, the country, and the world. Thank you very much for being on my show.

Marcus: [00:49:03] 

Thank you, David. And I want to say thank you to you and what you and Kim created. It’s an inspiration for so many of us. You always looked out for the odd man out. You guys were always curious for a different story, not saying it was ever weird, you were always willing to try out stuff. And I think holding that flag up, is what a city like New York needs. So, thank you for all the contributions that you guys have made for the city. 

David: [00:49:38] 

Alright, man. Thanks, Marcus. Hope to see you soon.

Marcus: [00:49:41] 

Some day. Thanks.

 

Subscribe

* indicates required
Interests