IN CONVERSATION WITH...MARCUS SAMUELSSON Restauranteur, Chef, Author, TV Host, Humanitarian
“What can be greener than having the young guy from the corner work for us?”
I am a chef, a restaurateur, an author, a television host and producer, a philanthropist, an entrepreneur, a Black man, an immigrant. I arrived in New York during the rough Giuliani years of the 90s. He and his administration did not make it easy for anyone that looked like me. What that did for me was shape me (by trial and pressure) and prepared me for this moment. It prepared me to be the kind of man and leader who dreams largely and works even harder in every area of my life.
Sustainability means different things to people depending on where you come from. In Sweden, where I was raised, it is about food and farm-to-table as we know it. In America the sustainability question for African Americans is about and should be about, hiring people from the community. What can be greener than having the young guy from the corner work for us? Nothing can be greener than that. That is the pivot of where I am.
Marcus Samuelsson Group is my company, I started it based on my own experiences; the blessing of being a black man and the blessings of being an immigrant to this country so my lens will always be in two parts. I always have an internal check and ask myself, “what are the obstacles that trained me for this day, for this life?” These questions fuel me. They are my fabric and so there is always a piece in every one of our restaurants that addresses, what I feel are the most pressing issues of the time and that country. In America, it is post-incarceration rehabilitation and employment. In Scandinavia, it is immigration and refugees. Both are humanity issues. We tackle those through gainful employment and training in various areas to those individuals seeking opportunity and better. Again, because I know their value and the plight of starting over.
On any given night, if you come to RED ROOSTER HARLEM then you know that I am the ‘ambassador’ so I have to stay current for our customers. You can’t fake the energy of Harlem or that of its people. That is a magic that is so much larger than me and our company. Everyone in Rooster together is magic; art, finance, fashion, politics, medicine you name it. We are all there together coming together, to create an unforgettable experience.
The MANTRA (Voice in My Head)
“You punch me now, I punch you back with content, and companies.”
There are two days that are always in my consciousness, top of mind; The day I decide to move to move to America with $300 in my pocket and the day I became an American Citizen. On the day I became a citizen -no longer a Green Card Holder- an instant fear stopped. No longer did I worry or panic that the movements of my life would result in me dropping or losing my green card and worrying what would happen with my travel and my safety. Americans take the freedom of movement that you are born with for granted and then you add blackness on top of that…(sigh). The laws of citizenship and entry can change at any moment. This used to be a constant fear but now we are living in those times so until you have that card and take that oath at Ellis Island—no matter your success or prominence—you live in uncertainty. For me, these are bigger than any cooking achievements. These are life achievements.
6:30AM My son Zion awakes around then, so we have that hour and a half before the nanny comes. Most nights I miss his bedtime, which is why our mornings are so important. Once the nanny arrives my wife, Maya and I will have a powwow on the day. I am often very excited at this time because it is my favorite part of the day; the reasons that I do everything I do are right in front of me.
7:30AM My first calls of the day happen around here. We (Marcus Samuelsson Group) operate in several countries so I do a leadership, strategy or inspirational call with each flagship – London (Shoreditch), England, Stockholm, Sweden, Helsinki Finland, Norway and Bermuda in addition to here in the US; Harlem, Newark and the airport outposts at JFK. I have great teams. My Stockholm team oversee our 20+ units in Scandinavia so there is always something new that needs to be planned or executed.
8:45AM If I am in town then I will have a coffee or something quick with my family and then I am out the door. I walk to work most of the time and consider the ability to do so a luxury. Depending on the day I will go into our corporate office or the restaurant.
We recently opened MARCUS B&P in Newark so that is a great focus. It has so many cultural similarities to Harlem, but then it is very different it’s Cuban American, Puerto Rican, Italian American with African American mixes. We are focused on representing them right and creating the nucleus that ties them all together, which always brings us back to two questions: what does farm to table mean to Newark and how do we give back and amplify the culture?
10:00AM Twice a week I do a call with my partners; there are 2 arms to my company: one is Media and one is Hospitality. When we discuss media, we are looking at our television projects like No Passport Required that we are doing on PBS with VOX Media and how it will lay up with broadcast. For me, I look to Jacques Pepin, and Julia Childs as the culinary experts who got it right. I ask myself, “how does that translate, what is my responsibility? Where would America be without immigrant food? We talk through the narrative of that and how it will live on line. Also, in the media space, a great focus is spent on our food festival HARLEM EAT UP!, now in its fourth year. Last year we were at 50,000 attendees. People from all the boroughs coming to Harlem to eat, drink and be social around the expansive selection of food; that is in Harlem. It takes a lot of conversation to change the narrative that Harlem had as a single style food location and make it grow. You can imagine the number of times I was asked, “what do you mean there is going to be a food festival in Harlem?” I am proud to say that we have changed that, so now how do we make it grow? That is always the overarching goal for me in everything – how do I make it grow, make it better?
12:00PM I am back in the restaurant talking through meals with our chefs, and our students about what seasonality is, the effects of global warming on how it impacts our menus and buying. I typically combine lunch with one of these meetings.
At the end of lunch, I make a point every day to have a one-on-one talk with at least one staff member to find out who they are, where they come from, why they choose Red Rooster. It is important to me to invest in them because I see their work with us as their investment in us. They are not just a bar-back, or a runner, or a server. I look to them as a family. At Red Rooster Harlem we are 165 employees, inclusive of corporate, and worldwide we are more than 700 so I have a large family.
3:00 – 5:00PM I have left the restaurant and am back at the office in meetings with my COO, CFO, and Director of Operations. They tell me what’s up; this is what we have, this is what is going on, etc... As a business, we are very fortunate to have incoming requests so they present all and make recommendations be it yes or no -what makes sense for the company, not just from a financial space but also from a spiritual and holistic one. Afterwards, I usually stop by HR and then start to fix my thoughts on whatever big event we have each night at Rooster.
4:30PM – 6:00PM This is sacred time. This is when I take a break and head home whether to take Zion to the park or work out. This is my time to recharge and recalibrate because I know that I must be ON from the moment I step through the doors during our dinner service.
I view the professional requirements of my life like those of being an athlete and an entertainer at the same time, both require you to be present. I need to be mentally fit and clear; game ready. This is my shut down to power up. I never want to let people down. I know that when they come to the restaurant they are looking not only for good food, and a good experience but they are looking to see me, and have the acknowledgment that I see them.
10:30PM I try to be home each night by this time so that Maya and I can catch up and just spend some time. On the rare evening that I leave the restaurant early or do not have speaking engagement, she and I will go out. We like being together and it is important for us to have some quality time.
The MEDITATION (when you think Legacy + Heritage)
Family, and what we pass down. My father showed me the world between blue collar and white collar. He was a fisherman who became a geologist. The memories I have of sitting in a fishing boat with him in dungarees and then a week later being in an office with him where he is in a suit and tie are so rich. I saw how his clothing changed, his mannerisms changed, but he never changed himself -who he was inside. I like to think that I am like him, I have that in me as well-the blue collar and the white collar. I carry that with me as a badge of honor and I want to pass that on to my son. The great thing about Zion being so young is that he can travel with me. I want him to have clear memories and experience it.
My most concentrated reading and listening are done over the course of the ten times per month on average that I am on a flight.; NY Times, BBC, BBC Africa, and some Swedish publications. Sound Explorer and podcasts Mogul, Another Round, and Monocle are conduits for allowing myself to live mentally in different spaces and have a rounded world view
Too many essentials to list so I will narrow it down to these:
Michael Jackson – perfection in all ways; production, dance, a show. The ultimate showman. He was layered yet perfectly presented. In my head, this is my approach with Rooster.
Prince, come on now! He is my every day. Makes me feel alive. All of the moods he can go through in a single album.
Tribe Called Quest – I know this New York they speak of. I came to it around the same time.
Don’t get me started on the jazz; Keb’ Mo’, James Booker and Miles Davis. My dad loved Miles. Walking into our house in Sweden you would have thought it was in the states. There was always Miles Davis, Fela Kuti, Bob Marley, and Miriam Makeba playing. My personal favorite, even to this day is James Booker. Born and raised in New Orleans, he set the tone for gospel piano.
5 Things I can’t live without
Great Mentors – I have been blessed to have Raymond J. McGuire, and Dick Parsons in my life. I can always pick up the phone and ask them something. It does not matter how busy they are or whether they can take the call in the moment or not, they always call back. I know that no matter what it is there is nothing going on in my life that they have not seen before and can share some insight on. That is very important to me. That is essential especially for someone like me. I no longer have my parents with me here on this life journey so when I have that ‘Unc’ question, I call them. They have become my uncles, my family …
In the same vein, it is why ICON MANN is so important because it provides a trusted list and relationship contacts of ‘family,’ peers of like-minded Black men to support one another. It’s like, I am coming to LA here are the five men of ICON MANN that I can connect with, let’s meet up talk about life, the experiences that only we share and maybe even build. You never know what can come out of such comradery and connection.
Clothing that represents Who I Am - Each day I make a point to wear something from Ethiopia, Harlem, and Sweden. These are the countries of my heritage.
Music – Overarching theme is that it is the story of survival and that is reflected in many of my favorite artists. It’s also why you hear it, feel it, experience it each restaurant.
Art – I am on the board of MOMA and a great supporter of Thelma Golden and The Studio Museum in Harlem. Artists Derrick Adams and Sanford Biggers are doing great things. Their influence us yet global. They are young and energetic. They are brilliant.
Family – I have been blessed. I am blessed. I work every day to make them proud.
Watch My Y Story with Marcus Samuelsson: