James Beard Award-winning chef Marcus Samuelsson spoke to The Economist Asks podcast about the challenges ahead for the hospitality industry.
Samuelsson recounted his past, revealing how his relationship with his adoptive Swedish grandmother instilled a love of food in him, and how Harlem became the place where he could realise his dreams as a chef of colour.
As a black man, Samuelsson said that Harlem came to represent the complexity, richness and diversity of America. Then the coronavirus hit the neighbourhood.
“The pandemic highlights what America needs to improve on,” said Samuelsson.
From inequality to health care and basic infrastructure, these are all wounds that have been torn open by the coronavirus.
Samuelsson turned his restaurants into meal kitchens, and with a team who were willing to work through the pandemic, he partnered with World Central Kitchen to serve more than 50,000 meals to the people of Harlem. Nine weeks into the lockdown and Samuelsson is feeding people who never would have dreamed that they needed to queue for food relief.
The chef referred to his new customers as his ‘new regulars’, but they are his audience and he still aims to impress: "'Hey chef, I liked the chicken better yesterday’ they might say. It’s New York so people have opinions,” he said.
He struck a positive note, explaining that he was born in a hut in Ethiopia, but went to America to open a restaurant with no money and achieved his dream. As a black African, he understands how to navigate adversity, and to adapt, change and stay strong. According to him, restaurants and restaurant workers will survive.
Samuelsson told about the effect the George Floyd killing has had on him, but he also spoke about the pernicious, subtle racism that came to light in the ‘birdwatcher incident’ in Central Park.
"You just hope there's going to be a different outcome," he said. "Why does there always have to be a black man and why doesn't there always have to be white cops. There's so much anger there, there's so much false narrative. There's so much generational racism that needs to be dealt with in-depth."