The most prominent black chef in the U.S. talks race in the restaurant industry

Marcus Samuelsson, arguably the most prominent black chef in the culinary world today, weighed in on the topic. “We are still in a position where chefs of color have less opportunity,” he wrote in an email responding to questions from The Atlanta-Journal Constitution regarding obstacles facing black chefs. However, the Ethiopian-born, Scandinavian-raised Samuelsson noted that the problem of racial bias is not limited to the restaurant industry alone. “Kitchens are not separate from the race distinctions that have been going on for generations in all industries,” said the accomplished chef who owns 10 restaurants, has penned four cookbooks and two memoirs and has earned four James Beard Foundation awards. In addition, today, March 15, the Foundation announced Samuelsson as one of its 2016 Who’s Who of Food & Beverage in America inductees .

Yet Samuelsson remains optimistic that more black chefs will meet success. “We come from a tradition of great chefs like Leah Chase, and we are continuing to create inspirational figures in the culinary world.”

Samuelson cited areas where he is working to make inroads for African-Americans within the culinary community. “I'm involved with C-CAP (Careers through Culinary Arts Program), which works at getting inner city kids hired in the culinary world as a way to build up the next generation. Twenty-six years after its start, we now have great examples of successful small business owners, chefs and sommeliers that have come out of this inspiring system. This system really works.”

He also places importance on having located his restaurants in black communities. “Opening high-quality restaurants like Red Rooster and Streetbird in communities like Harlem allows us to hire locals. We have about 200 employees that work in our restaurants and offices located in Harlem. Most of these employees are based in the community.”

Finally, Samuelsson is trying to give his up-and-coming chefs as much broad exposure as possible. “Because I have restaurants all over the world, I am able to create an exchange program that exposes these aspiring chefs of color to Stockholm, London, Bermuda and Washington DC. Other chefs I know are doing this, maybe not internationally or nationally, but in their own black communities.”

When asked whether the media overlooked African-American chefs, Samuelsson replied that it was more important for black chefs to focus on the things within their control. “We can only work really hard and hope it is an even playing field. As a black person, it’s clear that the grid is not made for us, so we need to create our own opportunities. You can still be very relevant and create incredible things in your own community. It gets noticed,” he said.

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About the Author

Ligaya Figueras
Ligaya Figueras
Ligaya Figueras joined the AJC as its food and dining editor in 2015.