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Marcus Samuelsson on the Joy of Juneteenth Cooking

Last year, chef Marcus Samuelsson released his seventh book, The Rise. More than just a cookbook, it blended stories of Black creativity from a broad array of figures—both across the arts and activism—with recipes that wove a new story of how food has intersected historically with the cultural output of the African diaspora. In Samuelsson’s eyes, it was equally intended as a celebration of the friendships he’s been able to foster through cooking across generations, from his teenage years as an aspiring cook to his career as one of America’s (and perhaps more importantly for him, Harlem’s) most decorated chefs thanks to his beloved soul food restaurant, Red Rooster Harlem. 

“Mentorship doesn’t have an age,” says Samuelsson. “I always suggest to young people to get an older mentor, and if you’re mid-career, get a younger mentor, because there’s this constant back and forth. It all comes down to curiosity, and I’m more curious about my field today than I was even when I started.” 

But then, for Samuelsson, food has never just been about food. What marks Samuelsson out as a true individual within the U.S. food industry is his relentless drive to give back. ‘I just think it’s my duty,” he says. “When I was coming up, I was looking for a book like The Rise, or a restaurant like Red Rooster. I wanted to create a more democratic hospitality industry where people can have an opportunity to go after their own visions and dreams. I think that’s true for most creatives, whatever they do. You want to be part of that excitement, but also make it better for the next generation.” The dozens of chefs who were spotlighted in The Rise will surely concur.

This sense of everyone being welcome at Samuelsson’s table can be traced back to his multicultural upbringing. (In a previous interview, he’s noted that while he’s “been an immigrant six times, [he] always feels at home in the kitchen.”) Samuelsson was born in Ethiopia, where his mother passed away from tuberculosis when he was a year old. As a toddler, he and his sister were separated from their family at the beginning of the Ethiopian Civil War in 1974. Adopted by Swedish parents, he spent summers on the west coast of Sweden fishing with his adoptive father and pickling vegetables with his grandmother; after graduating with flying colors from the Culinary Institute in Gothenburg, he moved to New York, was promoted to executive chef at the Scandinavian restaurant Aquavit at just 24, won a James Beard Foundation Award, and became the youngest-ever chef to receive a three-star review from the New York Times. (Since then, he’s also launched a Harlem food festival, cooked for Obama at the White House, and written multiple cookbooks; one even featuring a foreword from Archbishop Desmond Tutu.)

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