Leave it to chef Marcus Samuelsson to tell the story of Black cooking in the United States. Never mind that he's Swedish-Ethiopian. He's also American.
Samuelsson is, perhaps, living proof of the theme of his new book, "The Rise: Black Cooks and the Soul of American Food" (Voracious, 316 pages, $38), which joyfully shows that Black food is not all made of the same cloth — or groceries. Yes, barbecue and gumbo make an appearance at the table. But there's a whole lot more to this defining feature of the American meal, and that includes the cooks.
"I'm saying, 'We are here, too.' We have been here, as creators and innovators, since the very beginning," he writes.
Minnesotans got their first introduction to Samuelsson 20-plus years ago when he landed in the Twin Cities to open Aquavit, the dazzling Scandinavian restaurant that lasted less than five years. He then moved on to a bigger venue, leaving behind a fan base, many of them Swedes, who sell out his visits when he comes back to Minnesota to talk about his books.
Samuelsson's own story still resonates: Born in Ethiopia, he was adopted at age 3 by a Swedish couple after his birth mother died. His Swedish grandmother piqued his interest in the kitchen before he headed off to conquer the culinary world.
"I've cooked every day since I was 17," he said in an interview from Red Rooster Overtown in Miami, which was expected to open last March, only to be delayed until December by the pandemic.
His eighth book, four years in the making, hit bookshelves this summer, when social distancing made the traditional tour impossible. But that didn't stop the accolades as readers dove into the new volume with its 150 recipes, a collaboration with Osayi Endolyn, who interviewed dozens of Black chefs, historians and food writers to examine Black foodways. The book landed on numerous "Best of Year" lists nationwide.
Samuelsson had a lot to say about his inspiration, the importance of strip-mall restaurants and how he has benefited from immigration, when we spoke recently. He will offer more perspective during a public Zoom talk on Jan. 28 (see box for details).
Q: What prompted this book?
A: I am a Black chef and I have a large following. I think it's my duty to share that platform and show that Black food is not monolithic. This is an opportunity in the food world to reconstruct it. I can't think about American food without thinking about West Africa. There are original cuisines in American food that stem from African American cooks. Southern, Low-Country, Creole and Cajun all have those starting points. Black people's journeys in terms of the contribution to American food have been under-documented and underrepresented, not in terms of effort, but how to broadcast it. I do think the book is an opportunity to broadcast it, to talk about it. And what would be a more delicious way as Americans than to try something new and learn about your neighbors this way and talk about it with your family?
Q: How did your own background inspire you?
A: I am a fortunate benefitter of American history in two aspects: the human rights movement and immigration. I'm lucky enough to have immigrated from Sweden. I'm not a refugee. I'm an immigrant and I can move back. That's a privilege. But without the civil rights movement, there wouldn't be opportunities for me to be here working in an ownership and leadership capacity. When these two things have been created by the generations before you, you have to do a look back and acknowledge that we stand on the shoulders of these amazing people.
Q: Where have the diverse chefs been in mainstream food?
A: For the first 40 to 50 years of this country for modern food, we thought of it as coming from France, so we were singularly devoted to one country, which wasn't our own. Then we opened that up to more European countries, so Black food was never in that mainstream. A lot of people didn't have access to this information, so I want to provide that access. There are some incredible chefs. Maybe they came through immigration to Minneapolis, where you have the Ethiopian community, the Hmong community or Somali community. Or maybe they came through the Great Migration. But it's lively, it's thriving and guess what? They are going to need your help to support them, whether it's takeout at this moment, or buying swag from the restaurant or taking a Zoom cooking class.
Q: You are often on the road and have said you will never look at a strip mall again in the same way. Can you tell us about those overlooked little restaurants?
A: What's beautiful about America is these small businesses, these family restaurants. Whether you travel in L.A., Minneapolis or Seattle, wherever you go, that's what communities are based on. Restaurants are not something just for your convenience. They are also a way to keep a neighborhood together. It's so much more. We have to decide what kind of community we want to live in. If I've learned anything in 2020, we have to value each other. I don't know what America would look like without restaurants, the more diverse the better.
Q: You posted a photo on Instagram of when your book was featured in Times Square, on the huge electronic billboard. Even for you, with all your success, this seemed like a gee-whiz kind of moment. Was it?
A: It was overwhelming. In moments like last year, we have to celebrate the small victories. All I could think of was thanking my team, thanking my parents, who are no longer here, with gratitude and humility. And thinking, 'Hey, we did something.' It's like climbing a mountain. You go on these climbs together — opening a restaurant in 2020 was the hardest thing I've ever done and then closing it [during the pandemic]. To come back from that, to have a No. 1 book [on Amazon] is just amazing.
Q: You are a prolific author. What motivates you?
A: First of all, books are part of who I am. My father was a geologist and he wrote books constantly. I remember my father was in the basement, saying 'Don't disturb me, I'm writing a book.' What book? It was always a book. I've realized I've become that person with the creative process. I think of going to those classic bookstores that used to be in New York and, in the cookbook section, would think 'Is your book able to stand out?' The only way for our books to stand out is if we truly have something to say. Very often for a book, it's one year of me doubting, going back and forth and asking, 'Is this a book or an article? Is this a flash-in-the-pan moment?' I'm very fortunate in that if I have a book idea, I can get it sold, which is the highest level of privilege. Well, just because you can doesn't mean you should. It has to be really, really good.
Q: You have always seemed to be connected to the arts. The walls of Red Rooster in Harlem are filled with it.
A: I was so fortunate to grow up in Sweden. My father was a fisherman, but also a geologist. Going out in the boat with him, he brought an easel with him, and if you wanted to be on the island with him, you had to paint. Our home in Sweden is filled with his art. My father's parents and my mother's parents were very, very poor. Some of those paintings are from the '40s and the '50s when Sweden was still poor and it looked very, very different. That was our way of learning about it. It was an artistic and academic environment for me. At Aquavit we had an art program that was way above normal. If you're going to have art, it should tell the story about the restaurant and I've continued that at Red Rooster with art from the highest African American artists.
Q: What final takeaway do you want people to have with the book?
A: Go there. Cook this with your family. Go through all the emotions, from comfortable to delicious. Laugh, cry, be upset about the history of how it was. Go there fully. The process of American food history may have had an awkward, ugly start, but we are here today to celebrate and we need tools like this in a time like this to come together. Let's celebrate the first Black female vice president. What could be better than to cook from "The Rise?"
'Meet' the author
Marcus Samuelsson will hold a virtual book talk as part of a collaboration between the American Swedish Institute and Cooks of Crocus Hill.
When: 7 p.m. Jan. 28, via Zoom.
Cost: Talk only is $10 for ASI members, $15 for nonmembers; talk with a copy of his book mailed, $55 for members, $60 for nonmembers. (Pick up your book at ASI and get a $5 discount; use the code ASIPICKUP when registering.)
For reservations: asimn.org/calendar
Roasted Cauliflower Steaks With NOLA East Mayo
Note: Inspired by chef/owner Nina Compton of Compère Lapin and Bywater American Bistro in New Orleans. She's originally from the island of St. Lucia in the Caribbean. Sambal oelek is a chile sauce; a substitute is Sriracha or a Chinese chile sauce or paste. Ras el hanout is a Moroccan spice blend; find it online and at Middle Eastern grocery stores, such as Holy Land in Minneapolis. (There are also several recipes online to create your own.) From "The Rise," by Marcus Samuelsson with Osayi Endolyn.
• 1 c. mayonnaise
• 1/4 c. minced dill pickle
• 2 tbsp. minced onion
• 1 tbsp. sambal oelek (see Note)
• 1 tsp. fish sauce
• 1/4 tsp. celery salt
• 1/4 tsp. paprika
• 1 large head cauliflower, tough outer leaves and stem removed
• 2 tbsp. olive oil
• 1 tbsp. ras el hanout (see Note)
• 1/2 tsp. kosher salt
Place the mayonnaise, pickle, onion, sambal oelek, fish sauce, celery salt and paprika in a small bowl and whisk to combine. Cover and set aside.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Set the cauliflower on the counter and slice from top to bottom into 4 (1-inch-thick) steaks. Reserve any florets that remain or have fallen apart for another use.
Lay the 4 steaks on a baking sheet. Brush all sides with the olive oil and evenly sprinkle with the ras el hanout and salt. Roast 30 to 35 minutes, turning halfway through, until golden brown and cooked through. Serve with the flavored mayo.
Lagos Plantains With Yaji Dip
Serves 4 as an appetizer.
Note: Inspired by chef/owner Edouard Jordan of Salare, JuneBaby and Lucinda Grain Bar in Seattle. He's originally from St. Petersburg, Fla. From "The Rise," by Marcus Samuelsson with Osayi Endolyn.
• 2 tsp. kosher salt
• 1 1/2 tsp. five-spice powder
• 1 tsp. chili powder
• 1 tsp. garlic powder
• 1/2 tsp. ground cumin
• 1 tbsp. vegetable oil
• 1/2 habañero chile, stemmed, seeded and coarsely chopped
• 2 garlic cloves, sliced
• 1/2 c. crushed peanuts
• 1 tbsp. creamy peanut butter
• 1/2 c. unsweetened coconut milk
• Juice of 1 lime
• Vegetable oil, for frying
• 1 tbsp. grated Parmesan cheese
• 1 tbsp. chopped fresh parsley
• 2 tsp. chopped fresh cilantro
• 2 yellow ripe plantains, cut 1/4-in. thick on the bias
To prepare the spice mix: Combine the salt, five-spice powder, chili powder, garlic powder and cumin in a small bowl.
To prepare the Yaji Dip: Heat the oil in a small saucepan set over medium heat. Once the oil shimmers, add 2 teaspoons of the spice mixture, along with the habañero, garlic and peanuts. Cook, stirring continually, until the pepper and garlic are tender and the peanuts begin to brown slightly, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the peanut butter and coconut milk, bring to a boil and remove from the heat. Transfer to a blender, add the lime juice, and process until puréed. Set aside until ready to use.
To prepare the plantains: Add a few tablespoons oil to lightly cover the bottom of a heavy pan and warm pan over medium-high to high heat.
Place the remaining 4 teaspoons of the spice mixture in a large bowl and add the Parmesan, parsley and cilantro.
Gently add half the plantains to the oil and fry until golden brown, 4 to 5 minutes. Transfer to the bowl with the seasoning mixture and toss to coat. Transfer from the bowl to a serving platter, leaving behind the remaining seasoning. Repeat with the remaining plantains and seasoning mixture. Serve with the Yaji Dip.
Lee Svitak Dean is a former writer and editor at the Star Tribune. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.