Chef Marcus Samuelsson reveals the moment that fueled his philanthropy
At Hav & Mar, his newest New York City restaurant, celebrity chef and TV personality Marcus Samuelsson recalls a “groundbreaking” career moment.
“You’re talking to someone who was actually told by a three-star Michelin chef that I could work in a restaurant but could never own a restaurant because of the color of my skin,” Samuelsson, 51, tells USA TODAY. “It really does two things to you: you either quit, or you stubbornly go deeper into[your goal].”
It’s safe to say he’s delved deeper with a portfolio of 13 restaurants and eight James Beard awards, including Best Chef: New York City and Rising Star Chef of the Year.
More from Markus:Samuelsson’s meatball recipes that fuse flavors and cultures
“That’s why I came to America, because my parents believed in diversity here,” he says.
His journey from Ethiopia to America was anything but conventional. Samuelsson was born during a tuberculosis outbreak in the African country. When he was two, his mother walked him and his sister 75 miles to the nearest hospital, he says. She died in hospital, and the nurse took in Samuelsson and his siblings before putting them up for adoption. The children were adopted by a family in Sweden, where he later studied at a culinary institute.
“I can’t understand (the experience). I look back and think, ‘How did we survive?’” he says. “There are a few ingredients in my recipe that I would never want to take away: happiness and the loving acts of others.”
Now his acts of love include a desire to end food inequality. In 2020, Samuelsson partnered with Chef José Andrés’ World Central Kitchen to convert its flagship restaurant, Harlem’s Red Rooster, into a community kitchen and served over 200,000 free meals to those in need during the pandemic. At times, the kitchen fed 1,500 people a day. According to Samuelsson, that’s about double what Red Rooster normally does between lunch and dinner.
“I was lost during that time,” Samuelsson said of the early days of the pandemic. “A friend of mine from the industry passed away very young. So we knew we were at the forefront of hospitality.”
Good food, good deeds: José Andrés “can’t try to solve every problem,” but he can try to feed everyone who needs hope
Now, Samuelsson is focusing on his newest Manhattan restaurant, Hav and Mar. With that comes a new societal mission for the chef: nurturing talented, diverse people.
“Growing up as a young chef, I didn’t see women of color in leadership positions,” he says.
So he built the restaurant’s core executive team with women of color. Black artists are featured throughout the space. And the menu nods to Samuelsson’s Ethiopian and Swedish roots with seafood dishes — “Hav” means ocean in Swedish and “Mar” is honey in Amharic, Ethiopia’s official language.
“As a customer, the food has to be delicious, the hospitality has to be great,” he says. “But right in the middle it’s like, ‘Hmm, here’s a place where women lead.’ The “why” matters.
“As a person of color and privilege, it is a privilege to open a beautiful restaurant in Chelsea. With that privilege comes responsibility. How can you make the industry more diverse?”
Samuelsson tries to answer this question. And based on his past actions, he gets stubborn and goes deeper to make it happen long before he’s done.
This story is for the sixth episode of the series States of America. The full episode of “States of America” premieres January 13 at 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. EST on the USA TODAY NETWORK streaming channel. For a full list of platforms offering our FREE streaming channel, follow the link here and watch our full series on YouTube here.