US chef Marcus Samuelsson had a landmark year in 2020. Opening a restaurant in Miami, launching a new podcast, serving over 220,000 community meals, turning fifty and finally, releasing a new cookbook celebrating the diversity of black cooking.
The Harlem-based chef, best known for the Red Rooster restaurant took four years to write The Rise: Black Cooks and the Soul of American Food (co-written with Osayi Endolyn), and it eventually landed in a poignant year when the Black Lives Matter movement gained global traction. "It's the start of a conversation, which unpacks the question, 'what is black food?'," Samuelsson says of his book. And it's a question he sets out to explore through immigration.
The book collates the stories of 45 black chefs and cooks. "Each with a different amazing journey," says Samuelsson. "It's not a list of who’s in the book and who’s not in the book. It's more about showcasing the breadth of black cooking."
That covers a wide range of styles, from Creole to southern food and BBQ. But in essence, it's about making sure people know the authorship of black food in America, where it came from, and how it migrated to different parts of the country from Africa. "As you get to know black chefs, you realise we are not monolithic in our experience and that’s probably the biggest point."
The book is written from a black narrative, he explains, "but it’s for everybody, because everybody can jump in". He draws a comparison to the diversity of music: "You listen to Aretha Franklin, Prince and gospel. They’re all American music, that has deep blues and African American spirit, but it’s for everybody."
Just as Samuelsson had fun cooking the recipes in the cookbook with his wife and son in his home kitchen, he encourages everyone else to do the same, regardless of who or where they are. "The recipes are delicious, they’re great to get into and have that conversation with your family and your friends."
From New Orleans chef and Queen of Creole cuisine Leah Chase, and chef Michael Adé Elégbèdé from Lagos, to chef Nyesha Arrington in LA and Eric Gestel in New York, Samuelsson highlights their differences. "You know the word black doesn’t really explain our experience. Blackness is a word that covers so many different things. It was important to understand that."
"We have to unlearn a lot of things that we’ve learned and this is a delicious way to learn that and discover the similarity between a jambalaya in New Orleans, and a jollof rice in Senegal."
Arrington was raised by a Korean grandmother but is African American and living in LA, while Eric Gestel, who’s been working at New York's 3-Michelin-starred Le Bernadin for 25 years is a "black chef that we all know in the industry how amazing he is, but he never had the chance to tell his truth fully. People like that, I didn’t discover him, I’ve known him forever, but he needed a platform to tell his story."
Likewise, Samuelsson wants to uncover the African origins of various commodities, like Belgian hot chocolate being made with Ghanian cocoa beans, or French roast coffee being made with beans from Ethiopia or Kenya. "There’s so much to unlearn, to unpack. That doesn’t mean France and Europe aren't important. The room is big enough for both."