Marcus Samuelsson on Food, Race, Women, & Opening a Narrative That Didn’t Exist

Text, Photos, & Video:
Francisco Collazo
**

Chef Marcus Samuelsson, author of "Yes, Chef," speaking at Tenement Museum on August 9, 2012.
Chef Marcus Samuelsson, author of “Yes, Chef,” speaking at Tenement Museum on August 9, 2012.

His career has been on an upward trajectory since 1995, when he became the youngest chef to win a coveted three stars from The New York Times, but as Marcus Samuelsson explains in his memoir,
Yes, Chef, which was published in late June, the success he enjoys today was never certain and by no means inevitable.

You may be familiar with part of Samuelsson’s story, as he has become known as much for his on-screen personality (he’s competed on “Top Chef Masters”) as his back-of-house cooking skills, but in case you’re not, here are the necessary highlights:

Samuelsson was born in Ethiopia in 1971; within a year, he, his mother, and his sister contracted tuberculosis; his mother died of the disease. In 1973, he and his sister were adopted by a Swedish couple and the siblings moved to Sweden, where they were raised. Samuelsson fell in love with cooking thanks to his grandmother, and by the late 80s and early 90s, he had entered culinary school and apprenticed at some of Europe’s finest restaurants.

In 1994, Samuelsson moved to the US to begin an apprenticeship with the upscale Swedish restaurant, Aquavit; he rose quickly, becoming executive chef, and was awarded those three stars just one year later… the youngest chef to ever receive the honor. After that, the awards kept coming, and Samuelsson opened a number of restaurants in New York City, including the now-closed Merkato 55. Most recently, Samuelsson opened Red Rooster and Ginny’s Supper Club in Harlem; he also has two restaurants in Sweden (Norda and Street Food).

Samuelsson is a popular figure in New York, and with the release of his memoir, he’s been making the rounds at bookstores and cultural institutions as part of a book tour. On August 9, he spoke at the Tenement Museum, a site that seemed especially appropriate given his dual immigrant status.

Samuelsson’s talk and the Q&A session that followed were remarkable for their honesty and their intensity. Samuelsson touched on a number of themes that resonated with my own experience. In the video clip below, he speaks on issues of race, the influence of women in American cooking and restaurants, and what it has been like for him to “open a narrative that didn’t exist.”

As the clip opens, Samuelsson is speaking of his adoptive father and how he prepared Samuelsson for the challenges he would face as a black chef–and a black man–in a white man’s world. Samuelsson talks about how he confronted that challenge, and how its very existence compelled him to think about how he would hire staff and run a restaurant in the future. Later in the clip, he talks about the process of writing his memoir and why it was important for him to include failures as much as his celebrated successes.

To learn more about Samuelsson, order his memoir, Yes, Chef. To see upcoming stops on his book tour, visit his website. To see more photos of his talk at the Tenement Museum, you can view my gallery on Flickr.

Coming Soon: Botanica

Text: Julie Schwietert Collazo
Photos: Francisco Collazo
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One of the (many) projects we’re working on is a photo essay about botanicas–those one-stop shops for all things mystical that are as common as bodegas (corner delis) in neighborhoods like El Barrio and the South Bronx.

Much more to come on this subject, but for now, a couple of photos that hint at some of the themes that we’ll be exploring:

Push: As I Remember It/Push: Como La Recuerdo

Text & Photos: Francisco Collazo
Translation: Julie Schwietert Collazo
[vease abajo para la version en espanol]
**

It was several years ago when I came across an interview with Sapphire, the author of the novel, Push, in A&U Magazine. It was an interview that touched me deeply for the thoughtfulness and candor with which the author spoke. At that time, I hadn’t read Push. I’m not even sure how I came across this magazine, but after reading the interview, I decided to keep a copy.

At the time, I had developed a reading strategy for myself: in the summer and fall, I read Spanish literature; in winter and spring, the European classics. Each year, I’d choose new themes or genres. This was the summer of another year, the summer of African American literature: Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and others. I wanted to know everything about them. But in Sapphire, I saw something distinct: her answers in the interview were raw, direct, honest, and profound, even possibly offensive for some readers. For me, Sapphire was like a boat that rescued me from the deep waters where Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Alex Haley had left me. Sapphire swept me up in the intellectual wave where all of the works I’d been reading were summed up in just one story, that of the individual and her role in the group.

Julie, who’s now my wife, was a friend at that time and we often got together to share our mutual interests: mine, reading; hers, poetry and literature. I spoke with her about my impressions of Sapphire and I suppose she thought it would be important for me to read more of what Sapphire had written, so she gave me another magazine, Poets & Writers, the January/February 2000 issue. Sapphire appeared on the cover; inside was an interview that was extremely personal and intimate.

In that interview, Sapphire engaged the issue of the relationship between the individual and society and perceptions of sexuality. Her observations and analysis, which also touched upon other literary works, were so profound and, at the same time, almost violent, as in the case of this exchange with the interviewer:

[Interviewer]: When Hemingway’s protagonist in “To Have and Have Not” is asked by his giggling white spouse what it was like to have sex with a black woman, he says, ‘like nurse shark.’”

[Sapphire]: One of the effects of being perceived as an animal—a sexual animal, like nurse shark—is repression of your sexuality. So while African Americans are not going to become puritans, we may become something worse fending off this puritan projection of animalism by becoming its opposite. There is a very real danger of killing our selves, committing sexual suicide, because we are trying so hard to be nice….An animal, a distinctly sentient creature, represents sex, which is life—and of course the opposite of that is death.

But what stayed with me long after reading the interview was this exchange, which led me to read Push, a novel that explores the subject of abuse without fear and without apology:

[Interviewer]: Can you tell me why America hates her children?

[Sapphire]: “America Eats Its Young.” That’s the title George Clinton gave a Funkadelic album. The first thing that comes to mind is what a youth-oriented culture we are and at the same time how we despise actual youth and how disenfranchised youth really feel in this country. We have this aging country, obsessed with youth, at the plastic surgeon. So while we want what young people have, we don’t want them.

Reading the book was a special experience; the author was still alive, and she talked in a contemporary voice I could understand. But I knew it hadn’t been easy for her to take possession of this voice, as she’d said in the A&U interview, “[T]he world I was in didn’t have a voice.” It’s a theme that’s evident in her writing, where her protagonists are always in a struggle to find their own voices.

In Push, Sapphire spoke in a loud voice through her characters, who weren’t so distant from her own world. The author, like her characters, is elevated through her flaws. For me, Push is a story about violence from the outside in, of inequality and injustice. Nobody’s spared in this battle between the strong against the week. Society, class, sex, and race all play central roles in the novel, exerting a determining influence over destinies. The transformations that occur in the characters leave imprints on the reader; these may be invisible, but they’re lasting. In Push, nobody’s acting of his or her own volition. Victims and perpetrators, the good and the bad; both are who they are because of the other. This is not a story that makes us feel good, nor a rags to riches story with a happily ever after ending. What it is is a story that obliges you to pay attention, a story that robs your virginity with respect to an innocent view about who we are–or who we could become in just a fraction of a second if we find ourselves in similar difficult circumstances. The characters in Push live among us, right here in this civilized world.

Shortly after reading the book, Sapphire gave a lecture in New York; I attended and was determined to meet her. Our exchange was brief but friendly. I took some photos (which I can’t find at present) and she signed my copy of her book. To see an author and ask her questions directly is an unforgettable experience. It’s to know the person behind the book and to witness her humanity.

The film based on the book will be shown in theaters soon under the title “Precious,” the name of the protagonist in Push. It’s been making the film festival rounds, and is currently showing in the New York Film Festival. The reviews of the film have been positive and predictions are that it will be a box office hit. In fact, tickets for the shows at the Festival have sold out. There are three things I want: one is to see the film, the other is some to care for our precious Mariel Paloma,and the third is that neither will disappoint me!

Interview Excerpts from Poets & Writers, January/February 2000.
Quote from A&U, July 1997, Issue 33

Hace algunos años atrás que encontré en la revista A&U una entrevista que me marcó muy profundo por su contenido y franqueza con la autora de la novela Push, la cual yo no había leído todavía. No se exactamente donde ni como ésta llegó a mi, pero después de leerla, decido guardar una copia de ésta. Daba la casualidad que por aquel entonces yo había desarrollado una estrategia de lectura: verano y otoño, literatura española, invierno y primavera, clásicos europeos y así sucesivamente. Éste era el verano de otro año y me había dedicado a todo lo que tenia que ver con la literatura afroamericana: Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, y otros. Quería saberlo todo en cuanto a ellos. Pero en Zafiro, vi algo distinto: sus respuestas en la entrevista eran crudas, directas, honestas y profundas, quizás ofensivas para algunos. Para ese entonces ya Zafiro fue como un bote que me sacó de esos mares profundos donde me dejaron los Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, y Alex Haley, y me llevaba a la orilla intelectual donde se resumía toda esta literatura en una sola historia, la del individuo en medio del grupo y su papel dentro de el.

Julie, mi esposa actual, en aquel entonces solo nos reuníamos como amigos para compartir intereses profundos, yo por la lectura y ella por la poesía y la literatura. A ella le hable de mis impresiones sobre Zafiro y quizás sintió que sería para mi importante conseguir todo lo que ella había escrito y me regaló otra revista, Poets & Writers (Poetas & Escritores) en la cual aparece en su portada y lleva una entrevista muy personal e intima.

En aquella entrevista, Zafiro marcó la relación entre el individuo y la sociedad, la percepción del sexo, y el papel del individuo dentro de el. Sus observaciones e análisis—inclusive dentro de la literatura—eran tan profundas pero a la vez, casi violentas, como en el caso de este intercambio con la entrevistadora:

[Entrevistadora]: When Hemingway’s protagonist in “To Have and Have Not” is asked by his giggling white spouse what it was like to have sex with a black woman, he says, ‘like nurse shark.’”

[Zafiro]: One of the effects of being perceived as an animal—a sexual animal, like nurse shark—is repression of your sexuality. So while African Americans are not going to become puritans, we may become something worse fending off this puritan projection of animalism by becoming its opposite. There is a very real danger of killing our selves, committing sexual suicide, because we are trying so hard to be nice….An animal, a distinctly sentient creature, represents sex, which is life—and of course the opposite of that is death.”

Pero lo que quedó conmigo mucho después de leer la entrevista era este intercambio, la cual me llevo a leer Push, la novela que explora el tema de abuso sin miedo y sin apologías:

[Entrevistadora]: Can you tell me why America hates her children?

[Zafiro]: “America Eats Its Young.” That’s the title George Clinton gave a Funkadelic album. The first thing that comes to mind is what a youth-oriented culture we are and at the same time how we despise actual youth and how disenfranchised youth really feel in this country. We have this aging country, obsessed with youth, at the plastic surgeon. So while we want what young people have, we don’t want them.

El libro me marcó al leerlo porque la autora estaba viva, y hablaba el lenguaje contemporáneo que yo entendía. Pero yo supe que no era fácil para ella el logro de tomar posesión de este lenguaje, como había dicho “[T]he world I was in didn’t have a voice.” En su escritura, sus protagonistas siempre se encuentran en la lucha de encontrar su propia voz.

Hablaba en voz alta de personajes que de una manera u otra los veía y no estaban distantes de sus mundos. La autora se eleva en sus faltas, como también la protagonista en su libro. Push (Empujón en español) es para mi una historia sobre la violencia de afuera hacia adentro, de in-igualdad e injusticia. Nadie está a salvo de esta situación; es el fuerte contra el débil. Sociedad, clase, sexo, y raza juegan un papel central que lo envuelve y lo cambia todo. Este cambio y transformación dejan huellas internas, invisibles y duraderas. Nadie actuá por si solo. Víctimas y asaltadores, buenos y malos; ambos son lo que son debido al otro. No es una historia que nos hace sentir bien, ni aquella literatura de pordiosero a rico y de un final feliz para siempre; es, sin embargo, una historia que te obliga a mirar hacia afuera y te arranca la virginidad del quienes somos o de quienes nos podemos convertir en fracción de segundo en circunstancias difíciles. Los personajes viven aquí entre nosotros, en este mundo civilizado.

Poco después de haber leído el libro, Zafiro ofreció una lectura en Nueva York. Me di a la tarea de ir a verla frente a frente. La reunión fue breve, pero cordial. Tome algunas fotos (que ahora no encuentro) y me autografió su libro que ahora es mio. Ver al autor y hacerles preguntas directas sobre mis dudas es una experiencia imprescindible; es como dice un viejo refrán en español “verificar la lista con tu billete.” Es conocer la persona detrás del libro y su humanidad.

La película basada en este libro, saldrá a la pantalla muy pronto y llevará como título “Preciosa,” que es de hecho el nombre que le da el autor a la protagonista. Ésta forma parte de los filmes que serán presentados en el Festival de Cine de Nueva York. Las criticas han sido favorables y se espera que sea una película taquillera en su género. Hasta el momento ya ha vendido todas las taquillas para su presentación en el festival. Por mi parte tres cosas yo espero: una, es poder ir a verla, dos, es encontrar a alguien quien nos cuide a nuestra preciosa Mariel Paloma, y tres, que no me defraude ni el uno ni el otro!

Interview Excerpts from Poets & Writers, January/February 2000.
Quote from A&U, July 1997, Issue 33

Spanish Harlem: A Photographic Tour/El Barrio: Un Recorrido Fotografico

Text & Photos: Francisco Collazo
[vease abajo para la version en espanol]
*

Headed north of 96th Street on Manhattan’s East Side you enter the heart of Latin life in New York. Bordered on the east by a river of the same name and by Fifth Avenue on the west side, this neighborhood was originally a haven for Italians and other recently arrived European immigrants…that is until the arrival of Puerto Ricans around the 1940s.

Today, the community gardens, cafes, churches, and retail stores of all types play their music and imbue a distinct flavor in this little corner of the city. Salsa, bachata, reggae, calypso, and romantic Mexican melodies float through the air, setting the atmosphere.

Ten years ago, the signs of progress were easily visible. Finally, El Barrio, as Spanish Harlem is known to its residents, was taking off. There was construction of every type: small boutiques, trendy restaurants, bakeries, art galleries, and high cost beauty salons all announced their openings.

Yet this progress has slowed just as quickly. Today, money isn’t flowing as quickly, in the same quantity, or with the consistency that it did then. Today, signs announce the closure or rent of storefronts. It seems that everyone here is preoccupied with just maintaining the basics needed to live. El Barrio, like New York, has felt the free fall effects of unemployment and the declining economy. Few of those businesses of the past are still around.

It’s not the first time that El Barrio has gone through ups and downs. El Barrio is a microcosm of New York itself, with all its contrasts: happiness and sadness, hope and desperation. Here, it’s hard to believe wholly in defeat. Like the phoenix, El Barrio will rise from its ashes.

*

Pasando la calle 96 del lado este de Manhattan hacia el norte comienza el corazon de la vida latina de Nueva York. Bordeado por el este por el rio del mismo nombre y por la Avenida Quinta al oeste. Originalmente esta seccion de Nueva York fue la cuna de inmigrantes Italianos y Europeos recien llegados hasta la llegada de los primeros Puertorriquenos alrededor de los anos 40.


Hoy los jardines de la comunidad, cafes, iglesias, negocios de venta de todo tipo ponen su musica y su sabor distintivo de este pequeno rincon de la ciudad: salsa, bachata, reggae, calypso y las romanticas melodias mexicanas inundan el aire y contagia la atmosfera.

Diez anos atras se podia notar con claridad signos de progreso. Finalmente el barrio estaba despegando. Construcciones de todo tipo: pequenas boutiques, restaurantes de alta cocina, panaderias, galerias de arte, y salones de belleza–todo de alta costura– anunciaban su proxima apertura.

Sin embargo ese progreso se detuvo o mejor dicho este progreso ha perdido altitud y velocidad a raiz de su despegue. El dinero no esta fluyendo tan rapido o en la misma cantidad y consistencia que en el pasado. Ahora los carteles anuncian el cierre o la renta de los espacios. Parece ser que todo el mundo esta preocupado por mantener lo basico para vivir. El Barrio, como Nueva York, ha sentido los efectos del desempleo y la economia en caida vertical. Muy pocos negocios han permanecidos.

No es la primera vez que El Barrio ha pasado por periodos de altas y bajas. El Barrio es Nueva York con todos sus contrastes y escenarios de una ciudad Americana: alegria y tristeza, esperanza y desesperacion. En El Barrio es muy dificil creer en la derrota; como el fenix, este se levantara de sus cenizas.