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The New Harlem Renaissance

Chef Marcus Samuelsson and museum director Thelma Golden have long swapped ideas about food and art. Recently they teamed up to give a party in Harlem celebrating Samuelsson’s new African cookbook.

At a party in his Harlem apartment, chef Marcus Samuelsson and his co-host Thelma Golden, director of the Studio Museum in Harlem, are passing around cranberry caipirinhas. Two of their guests, the jazz pianist Jason Moran and the choreographer Bill T. Jones, are exchanging stories about life on the road. Both are touring with new works and in the past six months have been in more than 45 cities, from Rio de Janeiro to Melbourne.

"We’ ve all been everywhere else," says Samuelsson, the chef and co-owner of Manhattan’s renowned Swedish restaurant Aquavit. "What we don’t know is Africa." In an effort to change that, he and Golden have invited more than a dozen friends to an African-accented meal inspired by recipes in his newest cookbook, The Soul of a New Cuisine. Samuelsson is playing a CD called Afrikya that he put together of all the music—African and African-inspired—that he heard as he crisscrossed the continent researching his book; the compilation, to be released this fall by Rasa Music, includes Cape Verdean, Arabic, Afro-Cuban and Bahian sounds. Like Samuelsson’s book, the CD mirrors the cultural exchanges between Africa and the rest of the world—Europe, Latin America, the Middle East, Asia.

Golden, in a mustard-colored dress by Tracy Reese, urges everybody to fill their plates. "I think Bill should choreograph our movements," she jokes as the guests descend on the buffet. Moran and his wife, Alicia, fall in love with the quince sambal served with lamb, Samuelsson’s riff on the fiery condiment that Indonesian and Malaysian slaves brought to South Africa as an accompaniment to rice and curry dishes. It’s spicy and tart with a zesty ginger flavor. Kara Walker, the provocative silhouette artist, likes the crunchy okra in the roasted sweet potato salad tossed with wilted spinach and tangy capers.

Golden was always proficient in the kitchen, but she wasn’t experimental. Befriending Samuelsson, whom she met at a dinner party about a decade ago, opened her up to new ideas. In fact, it wasn’t until they started going to art exhibits and eating out together that she began to think about cooking in the same focused way she thinks about art. "Pre-Marcus, my food aesthetic was all over the place," she says. "I was willing to take on any cookbook and imagine that I was going to master it." When under the spell of Madhur Jaffrey’s Indian Cooking, she became obsessed with curry; Barbara Kafka’s book Roasting had her cooking everything in her oven at 500°. And so it went for years until she met Samuelsson. "He taught me that cooking is not just about science but about feeling, too," says Golden, "and as a result I feel more confident experimenting, because I don’t feel like my success is based on being a purist."

Just as Samuelsson has taught Golden to be a more daring cook, he has encouraged her to be adventurous and eat outside her comfort zone. Because he believes in rewarding chefs who take culinary risks, he often tries the most unusual dishes on a menu and urges Golden to do the same. Samuelsson also does not allow Golden to "eat like a girl," she says. "With Marcus you have to indulge big time. There’s none of that two-bites-and-you’ re-done business."

Although Golden is considered one of the foremost authorities on African American art, she admits to knowing very little about African food. "I could give you a dissertation about French food, but African cuisine is still very foreign to me," she says. People like her inspired Samuelsson to write his book, which features recipes from countries across Africa, including Tanzania, Zambia, Morocco and Uganda. "I want people to understand that African food is not esoteric," says the chef, who was born in Ethiopia, but raised by adoptive parents in Sweden. "You’ re talking about meats like lamb and beef, okra, sweet potatoes—foods that Americans cook at home all the time." Consider the spiced leg of lamb Samuelsson serves at the party, his version of a recipe from Mozambique. He butterflies the lamb and sprinkles it with paprika, ancho chile and ground cardamom, a rub inspired by the flavors of a chile-laden piri-piri sauce. In addition to the quince sambal, he also serves a cooling tomato-cucumber chutney based on the ones Indian traders brought to the East African coast.

In exchange for his gastronomic lessons, Golden has helped Samuelsson refine his art sensibility, suggesting up-and-coming talents he should know about and exhibits he should visit. Guiding him was easy because he grew up loving art. Samuelsson has been painting since he was a child. His father, a geologist, painted as a form of stress relief, and he often invited his children to join him. "Art was always around," Samuelsson says. "We kind of just took it for granted." Some of the pieces on Samuelsson’s walls, like "Afro Pick" by Sanford Biggers, are contemporary, some are flea market finds and still others were created by him.

The friends have developed a ritual: dinner and an art exhibit. "I pick the opening and he picks the restaurant," Golden says. At an exhibit, she makes a point of reading all the wall labels; he is equally diligent when looking at menus. "You can’t even talk to Marcus when he’s reading a menu because it’s like he’s reading a book," says Golden. "There’s a whole analysis involved."

Golden has supported Samuelsson’s artistic pursuits, "but I have never encouraged him to quit his job," she makes clear as she finishes her dessert, a creamy rice pudding flecked with crunchy poppy seeds. "It’s not because he’s a bad artist, but because the world would lose a brilliant chef."

Lola Ogunnaike is a culture reporter at the New York Times.

Published November 2006
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