IT’S the last day of July, and there’s a heat wave in New York City. I wake up at 7:30 a.m. to roast bell peppers and prepare my mise en place. I’m about to have a Zoom video cooking lesson with Marcus Samuelsson, chef and co-owner of Red Rooster and author of numerous cookbooks, including this month’s The Rise: Black Cooks and the Soul of American Food.
Marcus is an old friend, and normally we would talk over a meal at Red Rooster, but we’re doing a virtual meetup because I’m in strict quarantine, and his landmark Harlem restaurant is undergoing COVID-related renovations (as the lockdown began last spring, it began providing meals to Harlem residents in collaboration with the hunger nonprofit World Central Kitchen). I arrive to our Zoom with oily fingers, having just peeled the last of the peppers; Marcus, meanwhile, has his ingredients neatly laid out on the restaurant’s stainless-steel kitchen counter. Two assistants film him as he shows me how to pickle blueberries for Chilled Watermelon and Red Pepper Soup With Pickled Berries, one of more than 150 recipes in The Rise.
Marcus, in true pandemic fashion, is dressed casually in a baseball hat, black T-shirt, and drop-crotch sweatpants. He explains that I should bring vinegar, sugar, cardamom pods, mustard seeds, and water to a boil, and coordinates with his assistants to figure out which angle best allows me to see his mixture bubbling on the range. He points out that the peppers and vinegar should be the first things I prepare: “Get the time-intensive things out of the way first.” I proudly announce that I did my peppers in the morning. In terms of pickling the fruit, he says, it’s about celebrating the season you’re in—and since it’s summer, “Get your berry game on.”
He recalls pickling berries as a boy growing up in Sweden and then dives into talking about The Rise, a book he’s been working on since the 2016 election. “The moment of 45 shocked me to the core,” he says (he will not use President Trump’s name). “I always thought Red Rooster was my responsibility, providing jobs and connecting people. I felt like we were doing it. But the shock of 45 made me ask, ‘What’s going to be my contribution?’ For me it felt important to document the authorship of Black cooking and how diverse it is. If it’s not documented, that has consequences.”
The Rise is more than a cookbook; it is a conversation, a collaboration, and, above all, a declaration that Black Food Matters. The recipes bear influences from southern cooking, West Africa, the Caribbean, and East Africa, and are accompanied by a collection of chef profiles and essays by Samuelsson’s cowriter, Osayi Endolyn. These introduce readers to figures such as the historian Jessica B. Harris, a personal hero of mine, whose work focuses on the foodways of the African diaspora; chef Mashama Bailey of The Grey, in Savannah; Michael Twitty, author of The Cooking Gene; Leah Chase, queen of Creole cooking and former chef and owner of Dooky Chase’s Restaurant, in New Orleans; activist Shakirah Simley; Stephen Satterfield, cofounder of Whetstone magazine; winemaker André Hueston Mack; and chef Nina Compton of Compère Lapin in New Orleans. The Rise begins with a look to the future, exploring where Black food is heading, and then pays homage to cooks on whose shoulders Black chefs stand, and the migration stories that make the cuisine so diverse and rich.
I ask Marcus which five ingredients in the cookbook he would advise people to put in their regular rotation. “Everybody should have a jerk mix at home,” he says, “a good Jamaican jerk you can rub on fish, you can rub on vegetables, you can rub on anything. A really good pickle, a southern pickle. The acid—whether it’s a Haitian pickle or southern pickle, I think there’s something universal about that. Grits: We learned how to have polenta at home; why can’t we have grits at home? Broken rice came to us from South Carolina through slavery. The grain teff, so you can make injera, an incredible flatbread from Ethiopia.”
To appreciate how Marcus is uniquely positioned to push this particular conversation forward, it’s important to understand that his roots run through Ethiopia, Sweden, and a series of French kitchens in which he trained. Samuelsson moved to the United States in 1995, quickly made a name for himself, and, at the age of 25, earned three stars from The New York Times as chef at New York’s Aquavit. But the culture and foodways of Black America had been a preoccupation of his even as an adopted child in Sweden (where he was moved at age three). “He’s someone whose life has been shaped by migration,” says Endolyn, “some of which was not his choice and some of which was. The migration story is something he has thought a lot about, especially The Great Migration, and how much that impacted American food.”
“I’ve been on a journey since I came to this country,” Samuelsson explains. “I went to restaurants in New York, like Jezebel and B. Smith, and they were very different kinds of restaurants than the ones I cooked at in France. For me it’s ongoing work.” Nearly 15 years have passed since Samuelsson explored his African heritage in his book The Soul of a New Cuisine. “I had just met my family then,” he says. “I had just reconnected with my Africa. Today, I want to talk about the Black cooking family that is so large here in America and link the stories.”
The support of Black chefs played a significant role in his career. “When I came here, people like Patrick Clark [formerly of the Odeon and Tavern on the Green in New York] and Leah Chase showed me the way.” He has returned the favor in the years since, cooking with dozens of the chefs featured in The Rise. “I specifically opened Red Rooster in Harlem so aspiration and inspiration would take place in Harlem—that’s an amazing megaphone and stage for being able to cook Black food. I look at that as a privilege. I have to share these stories.”
The timing is ripe for The Rise. In a year that brought the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Ahmaud Arbery, David McAtee, and many others, as well as the subsequent civil uprisings and the centering of Black Lives Matter, food is playing a significant role in the movement for social justice and equity. Building on the legacy of Georgia Gilmore, a cook who helped fund the Montgomery bus boycott by baking and selling food, are 2020 groups such as Fuel the People, which feeds protesters on the front lines, and Bakers Against Racism, which has been staging virtual bake sales to raise money for organizations that support Black lives. “We need to know these incredible roots, techniques, and storytellers are around and inspire people to say Black food matters,” Samuelsson says. “It is a field that you can and should go into, and here are the storytellers and the chefs and the creators behind it. We deserve a day in the spotlight.”