Marcus Samuelsson Talks Food Education, Cooking for the Obamas and His Upcoming TV Show
Red Rooster chef (and Chopped judge) Marcus Samuelsson is joining actor Ethan Hawke to promote the YMCA in a new campaign. In a video released this weekend, Samuelsson talks about the branch in Harlem, New York, where he’s been a 10+ year resident and owns two restaurants. His flagship restaurant Red Rooster—which Michelle Obama has called one of her favorites—and the more casual Streetbird Rotisserie are both just blocks away from the Harlem Y where the chef works out and volunteers.
While many people think of the Y as a gym, the organization is trying to shake that stereotype. The Harlem location has offered periodic cooking classes, for example—yes, taught by Samuelsson. The chef invited member children to his home to replicate the State Dinner he cooked for Obama and former Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in 2009.
“We literally took the same dinner we cooked for former Prime Minister Singh and Obama and re-created it,” Samuelsson tells Food & Wine. “We cooked red lentils and made everything from cornbread to collards. It was one of my first memories with the Y.”
He was just as nervous creating the meal the second time around, Samuelsson jokes, but for different reasons. “It was fun to bring the kids home though,” he says. “I teach kids to cook just like I teach adults to cook. Sweet, salt, umami.”
In 2012, the chef teamed up with home renovation show George to the Rescue to overhaul the kitchen at Harlem’s Grosvenor Neighborhood House Y. It hadn’t been used in over a decade. Counters were re-finished in glossy red and topped with with indoor herb trays, while the room’s natural light was preserved to inspire kids to want to be there. The episode ended up winning an Emmy.
Holistic initiatives like these—focusing on food as well as fitness—have become more relevant than ever to underserved families, as school programs and federal aid face cuts in funding. Earlier this month, the Trump Administration proposed to replace half of SNAP benefits (formerly called food stamps) with pre-selected, non-perishable goods. If approved by Congress, it would take away much of the food sovereignty that SNAP was created to engender in the first place.
Despite the Y’s impact—the 173-years-old community service organization is the nation’s largest—Samuelsson recognizes that no one entity can fill this gap. Chefs also have a duty to help, although some are able do more than others. “Restaurants are small mom-and-pop businesses, and they’re working really hard on staying afloat,” he says. “It’s up to each family to decide what they can do. But to have a restaurant means to feed the community.”
And he’s been visiting these communities all across America, in the process of filming the show No Passport Required. Set to debut later this year, it’s a forthcoming collaboration between PBS and Eater. Samuelsson will be hosting. “We’ve touched on communities all over the United States,” he says. “Dearborn, Detroit. Food, farming and kids are all central questions here. People are still figuring out what re-engagement will look like in the middle of the country.”
Though those questions are still being answered, food media has made it easier to ask them. “Media has done a really good job of democratizing food,” he says. “It’s not just French guys with hats anymore. Cooking is really relatable.”
For his part, in addition to working with the YMCA, Samuelsson partners with organizations Careers through Culinary Arts Program (C-CAP), which preps high schoolers for college and restaurant careers. When he won first place on Chopped All-Stars, it’s where he donated his $50,000 prize.
The chef also co-founded Harlem EatUp!, an annual week-long food festival, now in its fourth year. While attracting national talent like Dominique Crenn, it also showcases the neighborhood’s worthy food scene—one that Samuelsson, a James Beard Award-winning “Best Chef NYC” and the youngest person ever to receive a three-star review from the New York Times—helped put on the map. The festival attracts 15,000 people a year.
“Harlem is America, and it’s a true reflection of America,” he says. “Some people have and others don’t, and the gap gets bigger.” Organizations like the YMCA, he believes, are helping to bridge that distance.