Sustainability, Hospitality, and Community: A Discussion with Chef Marcus Samuelsson

In this issue of Griots Republic, we had the privilege of sitting with celebrity Chef Marcus Samuelsson to discuss his stance on environmental issues. But what happens when you have a conversation with a world-renowned chef about food and the environment? You get a candid view on the responsibility of restaurateurs in the communities they serve. Samuelsson’s views on sustainability, food waste, and on community inclusion ultimately offer you a peek at a side of the Chef that is uniquely global, yet firmly local and altogether refreshing.

Local, but not Sustainable

Depending on whom you talk to, the term sustainability takes on a different tenor and has even become a catchphrase to some, but Chef Samuelsson understands it is a local question to which the answer varies depending on where you are standing. It is clear he has spent some time thinking about this very subject, as he states: “When you can buy something that is locally sourced and in season, that for me, is one of the core foundations – one of the pillars of sustainability. I’ll tell you that it’s something we do try to work on constantly. The other part of it is that we also try to stay up on things that are not outsourced or difficult to get to us.” Samuelsson believes that in looking at sustainability wholly, you have to investigate how the product is delivered as well. “I’ll give you an example of where I grew up in a fishing village, and the mackerel is local and fresh. The shrimp was picked up in the same ocean, but then sent to China to be peeled and then sent back to the same place. That’s an example of local but not sustainable.”

The Samuelsson Team has applied no small amount of effort in driving sustainability. Before opening Marcus in National Harbor, fish were caught in Bermuda then sent to the U.S. where they were frozen then sent back to Bermuda. The team changed that by buying fresh fish from the local fisherman, right off their boats daily. For Samuelsson, “that changes everything because that encourages the local fisherman because they know they sell everything they catch right away. Also, they feel a certain connectivity to the restaurant they sell to. When you think about it from that point of view, they understand they are an integral part of the whole process.”

A world traveler himself, Marcus takes his local and sustainable approach to food everywhere he goes. “In Sweden, for example, we became self-sufficient regarding vegetables. It took us three years to get there, but we have our very own garden. We don’t buy any vegetables; we farm it ourselves,” he says. He also applied this approach in New York City. “When we opened Red Rooster Harlem, there were not too many farmer’s markets. Now there are six farmer’s markets in Harlem, and we’ve been part of activating that dynamic by doing cooking classes there, which encourages different payment systems, putting us at the core of that conversation and making sure that the farmer’s market is vibrant.”

Food Waste and Buying Power

Part of the reason Marcus is adamant about local and sustainable foods is that he understands how food and food production affects the entire community. His views on food waste and buying power give us a glimpse into how deeply he has thought about this issue.

Food waste, which is prevalent in the restaurant industry, is even worse in the United States. According to Food Forward, a nonprofit in California that rescues fresh produce and deliveries it to hunger relief agencies, studies suggest that nearly 30% – 40% of the food we produce in the United States ends up in the trash. First, food is just too plentiful for most and that surplus drives waste. It also has been suggested that American food producers are fanatical about providing only the best looking food. Therefore, misshapen and blemished produce never makes it to the grocery store. Finally, portion sizes in the U.S. are so large that waste is inevitable.

When discussing food waste, Chef Marcus believes waste is “something we all need to work on collectively.” He continues, “The sustainability question is one of these things that the family, the block, the community, the city, the state, and the country can work on together. It’s a very powerful thing.” Samuelsson delves deeper into the issue by linking food waste to a community’s buying power. He suggests that decreasing waste on the family level decreases the money families spend. “If you, as a family, cook and know how to cook with leftovers, then already we all have purchasing power, right? For example then – right now in America we waste about 37% of our food that we buy. If you learned to cook maybe you lower that to 20%. That’s a 17% decrease.” He believes that if each family can decrease their waste, the increase in their residual income will essentially affect the community’s buying power as a whole, and will allow them to pull their monies together to wield substantial power in their local governments. In turn, a change at the family level “affects your community and then that affects your local government first, before [affecting] system-wide government.”

Marcus Samuelsson’s bottom-up approach to food, community, and power is most notable in his Harlem restaurant, Red Rooster, which has become symbolic of Harlem’s current revitalization efforts. Chef Samuelsson is very modest about his role in the new Harlem Renaissance but takes a moment to pay homage to his predecessors by stating: “The restaurant community in Harlem was vibrant way before I started. I look at way back in history; you have a lady called Pig Foot Mary. She started the first pig foot food truck in the ‘30s. You have icons like Lenox Lounge and Sylvia Woods. I wouldn’t be here without them laying the groundwork. What has happened after we opened is that I think we got a lot of eyeballs on us and it encouraged other entrepreneurs and chefs to feel that they could open a restaurant in Harlem. Red Rooster opened that up as a possibility. Harlem EatUp, our food festival, is an example of what is possible when the food community here in Harlem is vibrant and rich. So, I share the spotlight with many chefs like Melba, like JJ, like Sky. I’ve enjoyed seeing how the Harlem restaurant industry has grown. It is one of the most incredible things that I’ve watched because with that comes empowerment and ambition.”

Community Inclusion

As seen, community inclusion in business and food processes are ultimately how Chef Samuelsson tackles issues of sustainability. “I love when the community gets involved,” he smiles. However, he also understands that as an outsider joining a new community and setting up a business, he has to do some legwork first. “I lived here eight years before I opened the restaurant. I took that as my earning my Ph.D. in community relations. I had to learn to listen to what is the community telling me,” he says regarding setting up Red Rooster.

As part of that learning process, Chef also did a lot of pop-ups before he opened the restaurant. “In that journey, I learned a lot about what mattered to people of this community. I could actually serve the community that I operate in.”  He continues, “I had to earn the community’s respect. You have to earn that. It’s hard. People are going to tell you right away what you’re doing right and what you’re doing wrong. They’re engaged in every step of what we’re doing, whether it’s their nephew working in the restaurant or their cousin is our handyman.” In earning the community’s respect, he feels that it taught him that hospitality and community go hand in hand.

“I put a lot of pride in the fact that the community is with us on this journey and we’re doing this together,” he says, but these are not just words. Putting his words in action, Samuelsson frequently offers another NYC restaurant, Ginny Supper Club, as a meeting place for community boards and for churches to engage in dialog about their concerns with issues like gentrification. It’s his method of “respecting the people that were there long before him.”

Inevitably, there are few things that a conversation with Chef Marcus Samuelsson won’t touch on. However, the notions that one cannot serve the community without genuinely serving the public and that it is not just about good food are two that you are sure to walk away remembering. Make no mistake about it; Chef Marcus Samuelsson has it down to a science, maybe even a recipe.



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