On the latest episode of the Eater Upsell podcast, we talk to restaurateur, chef, and TV host Marcus Samuelsson, who we hosted live in our Eater Test Kitchen in Soho, New York. Samuelsson discusses his new show with PBS and Eater, No Passport Required, the legacy of Anthony Bourdain, how he balances a more personal restaurant like the Red Rooster with a collection of airport properties, and why he thinks restaurants should be (and always have been) a place for political discussion and protest.
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Listen to the interview in full in the audio player above. Below, we’ve provided a lightly edited complete transcript of our conversation.
Daniel Geneen: Marcus has a crazy story. He was born in Ethiopia. He, his sister and his mom all had tuberculosis. His mom walked them all the way to the city and didn’t make it, unfortunately. He was adopted at the age of three to Sweden, where he grew up. And I think you said your first love was soccer.
Marcus Samuelsson: Yes, definitely.
Daniel: And he got axed from the team for being too little.
Amanda Kludt: Aww.
Marcus: Or not good enough.
Daniel: And then took all his soccer passion and started cooking, and went on a crazy journey around the world, started in Sweden, went to Switzerland, to New York, worked on some cruise boats for a year. Eventually made it to France, where you thought that was the Mecca, where you thought that’s where I’m going to earn my stripes-
Daniel: And then came back to New York, worked at Aquavit, where you were the youngest chef ever to win three stars from the New York Times. Fast forward, can we fast forward?
Daniel: Yeah, more success, more restaurants, some ups and downs. Won Top Chef Masters, cooked the first ever meal at the White House for Barack Obama, first ever state dinner, I’m sorry. And then in 2010 opened the Red Rooster which is still to this day one of the most fun, vibrant, exciting restaurants in the city. I was there Monday, it was banging. I had never been there before and I texted Amanda -
Amanda: He went for research.
Daniel: I was on my own, with a backpack, I was like “I’m not drinking, I’ve got this interview Wednesday, I’m just here to check it out,” and I walked in and I was like “I get it, I get it.”
Amanda: It was also like live music night.
Daniel: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Marcus: No the Rooster does suck you in, I know, it’s fun, thank you.
Daniel: So now Eater and Vox and you have created a new show called No Passport Required where we go to different cities in America and explore the food of communities that I oftentimes haven’t - we haven’t seen on television. Do you want to tell us maybe how the project got started?
Marcus: Yeah, I mean it’s been an 18 months of work that Eater and PBS and myself, we’ve been on a journey. I remember the very first time that Chad emailed me and he came up to the Rooster and we kind of like, we started to talk and then about, a little bit over a year or so Sonia and a bunch of us went to D.C. and we had a meeting that we didn’t know went great or good. But you never know right after a meeting.
Daniel: With PBS?
Marcus: With PBS, and it felt great but you never know if people are just polite, or whatever, right? But we had some Ethiopian food and we talked some more and it was really the beginning I think of, okay we’re doing this, we’re gonna do this, it’s gonna happen. And then we had another lunch like 6 months, or a couple months later at the Wythe Hotel in Brooklyn where we started to talk about - like Sonia brought up what if we do something from the Sri Lanka community in Staten Island? And I was like I really loved that idea, because it’s like yes, that’s different and we were really starting to talk about communities that have not necessarily been shown that many times in media.
And I think what could be more American than telling diverse stories and not just talking about diversity as a brand, or as a name, but actually doing a deep dive? And with PBS’ incredible brand and know-how in terms of research, you know going for that sort of deep knowledge and with Eater’s super local understanding - all of that combined really came to No Passport Required.
Amanda: It’s been two years since you pitched ii, and I think the situation with immigration has changed in those two years. Has the meaning of the show changed for you?
Marcus: Yeah, you know it’s, what’s been amazing is that the idea that we started to talk about got louder, and louder, and louder. But I think as a group we stayed on this idea, like no, let’s tell diverse stories, let’s continue with the idea that food can be found not just in restaurant. And then this other voice, the election and all this other noise became just bigger and bigger. But for me when it really came together was when I’m in Chicago speaking to Ulises and we had just had an incredible meal at Diana’s Dávila’s Mi Tocaya with Ulises as the beverage director, this incredible restaurant, so vibrant, so good.
And he’s there with his mother and she’s telling us the story about how she crossed the border, she tried seven times. She was eight months pregnant and then ICE and DACA does not become a number or newsflash anymore, it becomes very personal and real, and you know we just end up crying and bawling. I just still get very emotional about it. The fact that we can do a show that stays focused on that is amazing. Because we’re showing real America, we’re showing the beauty about America and America is such an incredible place because of its diversity. And you know, those other fools they have an expiration date, but Ulises’ mom don’t, really.
Amanda: Well and I think it’s interesting talking about how political or apolitical the show is. It’s on PBS, so it can’t be that political, but you’re telling these stories which are essentially somewhat political just by talking about immigration. Was there a lot of pushback, did you want it to be more on the nose about the politics or was telling the stories enough for you?
Marcus: I think one of the incredible moments in this with, in this sort of fucked up moment that we’re living in is that it forces you to be really creative. We all, everyone is dealing with their own creativity and how to articulate that. Whether it’s through food or through an article or through, you know. And I think it’s almost, it’s almost too simple that I’m gonna do something against somebody else, right? Like there has to be a higher, deeper meaning to that and I think just by telling these stories, you’re holding onto let’s make America delicious, you know what I mean? Let’s make it schmutzy and delicious and super good and guess what? Unless you’re Native, everyone is immigrant and we, what would we eat if we wouldn’t have immigrants?
Like this idea that you’re legal, you’re illegal, like you’re illegal if you do an illegal act, right? If you rob a bank, you’ve done something illegal now go sit on the bench for awhile. But other than that, every single person, whether it’s a grandparents, whatever, we know this, we know this stuff. So I think as a black person, as a black male or that’s the only narrative I can speak from, is that you’re pretty well prepared. My grad school was hatred, my college was like you’re raised around this, you’re raised around - you know we moved from niggers, we moved to immigrants, but it’s the same shit. So I’m like alright, you wanna hate, hate. It’s okay, I’ve been through this before.
And I think also being an immigrant on top of that, I know how patriotic immigrants are to this country and it’s not just about waving a flag. It’s about what you do and what are you doing in your communities.
Daniel: Would you ever really call out Trump or call out Pence and then feel like there was some kind of pushback from PBS?
Marcus: I mean I shouldn’t say from PBS, but we talk about this shit all the time. Like we don’t live outside the reality of the garbage, right? I remember my mom, when you’re like 8 or 9 or whatever and my mom’s like this tall white girl having all these black kids and all of the shit. She said, “When somebody calls you ‘nigger,’ you gotta call them ‘white cookie,’” and I’m like “It’s not quite the same, thank you mom.” And I was like holding onto that shit, it’s I think for me you wanna be on the right side. We did it through Civil Rights, we did it through Gay Rights, we doing it through this moment starting with Women’s Movement too, and there’s gonna be more movements after this.
So if you wanna be that last guy, male on that island, hating on immigrants, good luck to you. That island’s gonna be pretty deserted and guess what? You’re not gonna eat any good food or drink well. But you know what there’s a couple of guys from the current administration that might swim your way and you can have each other.
Amanda:What are some of the communities that you haven’t gotten to yet that you want to get to?
Marcus: Oh there’s many. You know I think that as No Passport becomes hopefully a celebration of America and who we are, like why not start with Native Americans who are the first Americans, right? Go there, or why not look at other marginalized communities and find this dialogue about also not just, like last night’s episode was great because it was such a positive, funny episode. Sometimes immigration -
Amanda: And this was Indo-Guyanese episode.
Marcus: It was just upbeat, DJ’s, it was very upbeat and fun and I think every conversation about immigration does not have to be super, super heavy, right? And as people who go through movements, like black people, we’re not angry all the time. We’re not, or Women’s Movements, like anger is important energy to drive and put people together. But it’s also a lot of celebration, and yesterday I thought what came through in the programming was that oh, this is really fun. People having a really good time and it was showing really the best of America.
Daniel: But we talked about it a little earlier. I was curious if you’d be interested in going into the heartland and going to some like some good ol’ boy barbecues and things like - and you said you do feel like there is a story to tell there and you do think that there is something that you can do that is good.
Marcus: Absolutely. Traveling the country gives you another privileged point of view. Like living in the coast or living in big cities is obviously not only America, there’s many Americas. And I remember a couple of years ago when I was traveling on a book tour we stopped, one of the big stops was in a church in Kansas. I will never forget it, it was like big room, a lot of people and they could not have been kinder and nicer.
And I think that what breaking bread and food does has always been at the center of bringing people together. So I’m not upset with the people that hate me, or hate what we’re doing, it’s just they haven’t had access to really good food, you know what I mean? And they haven’t had access to really good, like boys kissing or whatever the fuck they’re afraid of, you know what I mean? Boys kiss all the time, look at the World Cup, it’s nothing to be afraid of, it’s gonna be okay.
Daniel: Yeah, you said the questions they were asking you were shockingly weird.
Marcus: No, they just never had access and travel and we laugh at this. But like Americans, only eight percent have a passport, right? So when I look at America it looks, when you compare America and Europe you kind of have to compare both at the same time and Kansas might be Romania, and you know Oklahoma might be Bulgaria. And if you go into the heartland of Bulgaria, no one has traveled there either and they haven’t met any Asian or Jewish or Black or whatever the marginalized - what might be. And just because we come from a rich country doesn’t mean that we’ve been exposed - a lot of people have been exposed to that.
So I think what Eater and PBS and what we’ve done together I think is a very important piece because it forces you to have these conversations. And what I can’t wait is to have these conversations not just New York or LA, like actually have them in Kansas and actually - you know. I remember one of the funniest David Chappelle skits, it’s with the black KKK blind guy, right? And I grew up in Sweden where there was a black Nazi and I’m like alright, so I’ve been around these weird situations before. So I was like, if only they had some Kimchi, you know?
Amanda: Do you think this is a role that food TV can continue to play? Like with this show and with what Tony Bourdain was doing before he died, having bigger conversations and bring people together in that way?
Marcus: I think Tony gave us so much, Tony gave us a lot not just to me as a friend and as a mentor. Like he gave me a lot, but he gave our communities a lot. And I think some of his best shows was when he didn’t leave the country and when he went to West Virginia, or when he went to other places because there’s gotta be a way to tell - to humanize the stories and food is a great way of doing that. So you know he was - this summer we lost two of the greatest - we lost Jonathan Gold and Tony Bourdain at the same time. It’s like fucking losing Michael and Prince at the same time, it’s too much, you know what I mean? It’s like pop, pop and it takes generations to build that way, you know. So our show is, you know, Tony inspired us a lot, we talked about Parts Unknown constantly and what to do and how can we find our own niche, you know?
And I think like for example, one of the things that Eater provided that was, that’s been amazing, is that map where we went. That map, so one of my friends wanted to get a reservation at Mi Tocaya and when we called up we couldn’t get a reservation ‘cause it’s booked out for the next two weeks. That’s amazing, and it’s not about just being commercial like that, no it’s amazing because it means a lot of people are going there that maybe would not have gone there. And when we go to La Barca, and all of these different places, so as we continue to do this work we can go to weirder and better place and more important, not more important, but other important places and be able to tell those stories that may not be on the traditional food map.
Amanda: Yeah and I think this show probably wouldn’t have been so successful without his show and then whatever the next generations are beyond that.
Marcus: Absolutely, just PBS gives you like boom, I remember my wife wanted to call our son Mandela. I was like no, we’re not doing that to a newborn. It’s too much to carry.
Amanda: Too much pressure.
Marcus: I’m like you walk into PBS like Chuck, it’s Julia and then you know like Tony’s show is great because it’s lightened it up a little bit and the legacy of taking you to exciting places I don’t think would’ve happened in the same way without Tony’s show. It’s a lot of tradition to hold up, yes.
Amanda: I’m pivoting away from the TV topic, still talking about what the celebrity chef is these days. What do you think the role of the celebrity chef is, thinking about Tony and thinking about even the changes that happened in our industry over the last year, where do you see your role?
Marcus: You can ask a mother rolling spring rolls if celebrity chef mattered, right. I say that because the word celebrity chef for me, I’ve never thought about it as, that I’m in that space because it’s just not a space that you’re a cook, you’re a chef, you’re going to be a chef. I’m going to be a chef, like I started cooking when Yo! MTV Raps was on TV. That’s a big, that’s before internet, you know what I mean. Cooking is going to be there when it’s, I was in it when it’s not trendy, the moment where it’s trendy to be in it and then I’m going to be in cooking when it’s not trendy again. These things that you put happy chefs, celebrity chef, pissed off chef, all of these things might change but what’s not going to change is your passion for food, right. If you are deeply in love with something like cooking you’re going to sit on different sides of this if you’re lucky enough to be around long enough. That’s the thing for me I love food. I’ve been lucky enough to work with food in all aspects all over the world.
If you are a person that has a platform, for me it’s like what do you fill that with, fill that with good. As a black chef, opening Red Rooster was part of that narrative and taking that responsibility. As an immigrant being fortunate enough to work on No Passport, it’s that’s work, you know what I mean? Then other things will come before and after that. We talk about this constantly if we’re lucky enough to do this, make sure that, like last night we had the Indo Guyanese community come to our restaurant and today we had 30 kids learning about between 11 and 14 learning about what is a restaurant. All their questions were amazing. That’s the work. I couldn’t do it without all this other work.
Daniel: I’m sure when you’re at fun cool chef hangouts and you’re with ...
Daniel: Friends who you don’t see doing those things that you don’t see them like highlighting communities or bringing kids in to teach them what a restaurant is, do you ever lean on them and say hey, you’ve got this platform right now you should really be doing at least something?
Marcus: Yeah, I think people arrive to it on completely different moment and just because you’re not from a super marginalized community does not mean that your journey wasn’t long or hard, right? I think people arrive at it at so many different times. I had great mentors that pushed me. I remember going to Charlie Trotter’s kitchen cooking and he did cooking classes, he taught young inner city kids about Buddha fruit in the 90s and fresh ingredients and I was like what the hell is he doing, this is unbelievable. I was there when that happened. He cooked, he had a young woman that was blind in the kitchen. He was not afraid of putting in people that have had other situations.
You stand next to that and you realize you’re the only one that’s stopping, you’re the only one that had a problem. I was lucky enough to be around people that constantly pushed you. Then I’m like if I’m not doing something I’m not, I’ll go back to and not to harp on Charlie Trotter but I remember when Patrick Clark died, Charlie Trotter just, he faxed and was like these are the dishes that your kitchen is doing recipe testing for because we’re sending his kids to school and we’re going to do a book. He didn’t ask chef, do you have time, it was you’re doing this. I’m helping you out so this is what you owe me. That level of clear like you owe debt here, I love that. That’s what leading is, it’s not comfortable, it’s not cool. It’s very uncomfortable but we did the book and the kids went to college.
I’m not saying it was only because of Chef Charlie Trotter but it was part of it. You can get a call and still when I struggle through these things, I call Daniel [Boulud]. When Tony died, I called Daniel. I called Jonathan Waxman, I called Leah. I call a lot of people. I have mentors that I still sort of, when I struggle with shit, I hope young chefs have mentors that can ...
Marcus: Yeah, I get a tribe of cute, like 30 texts a week from young chefs, that worked with me maybe at Aquavit and they’re not so young anymore but they’re amazing and they have questions. It’s your duty, part of being a chef it’s like your duty to get back to them. That’s the tax. That’s the good stuff too.
Amanda: There’s another element of the restaurant industry that you’ve talked about in your book a little bit about how hard it can be and how hard your training was and how I think we can call it even abusive the training was ...
Marcus: Yeah, very abusive, yes getting a plate in your face with hot fish, yeah that’s abusive.
Amanda: You said that the discipline is so important to you but do you look back on that especially given the way we’ve been talking about the industry this past year, do you think changes should be made? Has it effected how you run your restaurants?
Marcus: My God, that’s such a good question because a lot of this is generation of change, right. I realize when I go through my journey that, the whole generation I come up with, people ten years older and five years younger, let’s just call it what it is, we all got abused. We come from abusive situation, not from my parents but from the cheffing environment that we put ourselves into. It was the only way and it was the only way that presented to us. If you’re a black chef it was definitely the only way. I’m not saying it was right. When I worked in Switzerland I threw up every day.
I’d have to teach myself in seven minutes I can throw up, take off my apron, run to the bathroom, clean myself back up and then be back on the line and maybe only my chef would notice that I was gone, if it took nine the whole kitchen find out and then that was that, right. You learn how to figure this shit out, not a good idea, really bad, really, really bad stuff but there wasn’t another way. What did I decide after that? For me it was, okay, the two things I never saw in kitchen was people of color and women so when I had a chance to start hiring people I just decided not because it only makes sense, half of my kitchen is going to be people of color and women. That’s not like a big heroic idea, it’s just like it’s the right thing to do. It creates a better environment.
Now finding the balance between being disciplined and working hard versus being over privileged or your opinion always matters, actually in training sessions they don’t. When you’re leading the team or you’re beginning to lead the team and when you are included there are moments where those decisions matter. In the beginning of your journey it doesn’t because part of being a chef it’s also, it comes down to repetition. You have to do this just automatically for a long time, you just have to saute a vegetable for a certain time and then you can move onto fish and then you can move onto something else. We can’t sleep on repetition, you know. I do think the industry is a thousand times better today from that level that there’s different voices, different ways of communicating that. I don’t know if the food is gooder, I’m not sure but I do know it’s a better industry.
Daniel: What were you like when you were at the helm of Aquavit when you were like 24 and all you’d really experienced was these abusive chefs?
Marcus: I don’t think I’m ever a good manager, it’s just not my skill set. It’s not. You can ask Nina, it’s not ...
Speaker 1: Great manager.
Marcus: What I will bring, I’m excited and I’m going to be engaged and involved. People curse at me all the time and I curse at people back. It’s a fair pit fight, we’re in this together. We’re fighting. It’s okay to go back and forth.
Amanda: But you’re not throwing plates at people?
Marcus: No but also you want to motivate people to do the best result and one thing that we talk a lot about is like okay, what was his mood like what did you learn, how could we have done this differently. That I think is important as a chef but you want to work with people who are super engaged and are committed. If you can do that in one hour a day or 23 hour day it’s probably better somewhere in between. Finding that balance is very difficult. I am a food fanatic, I’ve always been with food, right. I don’t expect everybody else around me to have that level of intense relationship with it. I don’t. It’s a good thing if you don’t but still we’ve got to deliver at the highest level and I never have to figure it out, I can tell you that.
Daniel: You said, I think you said somewhere that when Sarah Huckabee Sanders who is the White House press correspondent was kicked out of a Red Hen, not obviously affiliated with Red Rooster, you said that you would probably not have kicked her out and you might have pulled up a chair.
Marcus: No, but I think that she’s very, I feel for her, I feel really bad for her, I really do. I do think her dad and her, they would probably benefit a lot to come to Red Rooster, it would be a good thing.
Amanda: Open invitation, Sarah.
Marcus: Yeah, no it would be because you know the highly, it’s misinformed about the world and you know like she knows what she’s saying is not the truth so she’s so far away from her own best version of herself which you know that she doesn’t believe in. Coming up to Rooster and eating food with a bunch of schmutz in New York that would be a good thing, that would be perfect and eating some fried chicken and the smells and the music and the guy with the braids and the lady that just going to go up and talk to her, that would be amazing because guess what, that is America. I don’t think you’re going to gain by just throwing someone out. I just think like, just sit in this, just sit and take it all in.
At least she would get a good doggy bag if she leave early. I feel bad for her, I really feel bad for her. It’s fascinating to me that they really miss so much of good life because they pick on all these people but yet they can’t help to go to these restaurants, order in, don’t go out. If you don’t like Mexicans don’t go to a Mexican restaurant. If you don’t like this, like so it’s clear that they like people on a servant level. That’s the conversation: you serve us and that’s what you do. That’s just not how the world works, you know. No, I think it would be good for her to come uptown.
Amanda: It is interesting that restaurants have become more of a stage for protests like that whether it’s coming from the owner or the servers or just people in the restaurants, what’s your take on all that happening?
Marcus: I always looked at restaurant as a, what are the same besides, what’s on the plate but who are serving it, right. I think we looked at, again I go back to Leah Chase when she was starting serving in the 40s she took a risk every night because integrated restaurants weren’t allowed. That’s taking a risk, that’s like being thrown in jail because serving this room female, black in the 40s, I look at those are risk takers, this nonsense, it’s nonsense, it’s beneath us. It’s nothing. You have to have some vanity, get away from it. You know what I mean, it’s nothing. I think that you know when Alice Waters started really link and have conversations between the farmers and the cooks and all of that, that is setting upside down on this sort of hierarchy of what French, what our cooking should have been to that point. That’s taking a risk. I think that again women have been at forefront and taken risks, real risks many, many, many times in our industry. Our industry is much better for it. When I started Red Rooster I thought about that constantly, it was a stake, it was really thought through. I looked at a map of New York and you looked at 20,000 restaurants and where was black restaurants lacking, uptown. It’s like there are political messaging through restaurants constantly. No one is going to remember this. It’s a moment, it’s nothing.
Amanda: Can you talk about Red Rooster and your decision to open up in Harlem?
Marcus: Yeah, it’s the best decision I ever done.
Amanda: Were you living there first or did you choose a neighborhood first and move there?
Marcus: I lived there for seven years before we opened Red Rooster. I really wanted to study and learn the community and understand that as a black person first of all you’re constantly inspired by what African Americans has done and created voices for us as black people even if you don’t live in America. We owe the civil rights movement and African Americans the diaspora so much, if you’re black and in Germany, if you’re black in Tokyo this is what you’re looking at. Harlem becomes that mecca, what inspires you, where you want to go with your intellect that one day, right?
If you looked at restaurants from the 40s and the 50s there were tons of restaurants in Harlem. It’s not like we open in Harlem right now, this moment, we’re just slowly getting the map back to what it looked like 50 years ago. That might be progress from the crack epidemic but it’s definitely not progress versus circa 1942. It’s like understanding that there’s a different world, there are different options out there and what was my role in that and working on that.
I’m also learning a lot, where a place like Harlem the whole way commerce and restaurants are done are very different, right? The best food might be in the park, my fish guy might be by the subway station. There were food trucks before there were blogs and food trucks, there were secret restaurants way before there were secret restaurants. They were doing all this work without sort of getting the microphone for it. For me what Rooster sort of, what I tried to understand so much was okay, I’ve got to gather this stuff, figure out how I’d put it in the traditional sense of a four walls restaurant so my customer will understand it and then get the fuck out of the way so people can have a Harlem experience where music is part of it, spirituality is part of it, delicious food is part of it. And it’s a piece. It’s not a restaurant. It’s a theatrical piece that we happen to serve food. You know what I mean? That’s how I think about it. It’s constant moving work. Right now, we’re focusing on how do we become green in our way. So, the greenest way for us, was to hire from the community.
Daniel: When it opened, you got some punching up from people trying to take shots at you for being up there. Maybe it wasn’t the place that ... it wasn’t your place or ... Is that done? Are we fine with that, or do you still catch it from people?
Marcus: You know, I think it’s ... One of the coolest things, like if you and I would walk home from the restaurant, people are floored with ... I get comments every single day. It’s like, “How come the chicken is this?” and “Can my daughter get a job?” And you know what, it’s constant like, “Why did you change the artwork?” and “The show was amazing.” For my wife, when we walk, she still thinks like, “What the hell is going on?” I was like, “Get used to it.” I said, “The worst sound would be if it would just be dead quiet.” Because it means that nobody would engage.
We’re in a public space, 125th Street, on a very public, loud, corner, avenue. I think people are commenting on our stuff, as a sign of love. I had a lot of cousins, and if we weren’t fighting, it wasn’t a good family reunion. So, if like somebody from an outside community comes and tells us and me what I should be, it’s laughable. I’m like, “You have zero clue. Your opinion matters, but this is laughable.” It would be like I would have an opinion about ... just because I have an iPhone, about technology. I know nothing about technology. But if it would be LaVerne coming from church, I would listen, I would stop. I have to stop and listen. So it’s that back and forth.
Amanda: And eventually, like last year we were in London at your Red Rooster there. How did you decide to take a concept that was so rooted in this one neighborhood and built around this neighborhood and expand it, and build it again for a different neighborhood?
Marcus: Well I mean I was intimidated and scared because I didn’t ... you know, I want there to be more Red Roosters, I’m just very slow about it. And it’s not ... I want it to be in communities that speaks to me. So Shoreditch, being in East London really, really speaks to my creative juices and being in London always something that’s been exciting, but we always been invited to do restaurant in West London. And I wasn’t interested in that. I was like, “No, it’s got to be easy.” It feels much more us, storytelling, and to each their own. And it’s been amazing to be in London, especially East, and it took a long time, it took four years. And we’ll open more Rooster at some point in other cities here, but it’s got to be in cities that I feel like African-Americans or black people have really contributed something and that voice can be told both through the light that honors the past, then also adding something new to that story. And hopefully inspire people for the future.
Amanda: And you’ve had a lot of offers.
Marcus: Yeah, of course. But that’s not really the key, the key is to ... you know, the staff’s got to grow, and we got to do it well and there are challenges with all of this stuff. And I like those creative challenges. I’m not worried about us not getting enough shots, that’s absolutely not what I’m worried about. I’m worried about us delivering for the locals, delivering for something like Shoreditch where I didn’t grow up, where I didn’t have the same conversation. That’s a big uphill battle, but exciting also, because it keeps you like ... you know, I like that.
Daniel: So what is your approach then when you open a restaurant in an airport?
Marcus: Well I think for me its like my company’s going to be very mixed. And we work, sometimes we do something with great brands. And sometimes we do something with airports, or sometimes ... what does that all lead to? It leads to having a mixed portfolio. So I couldn’t afford to have cooking classes with kids, I couldn’t afford to have 170 staff at the Red Rooster. We probably should have 75. You know what I mean? But we keep this to...
Amanda: To bring in the revenue?
Marcus: To bring in the revenue. And it’s like it’s that simple. People are like, “What’s the strategy?” There is no strategy. That you do for this, this you do for that, this you do ... and of course you want to do stuff with things that make sense for you. But so when we did our restaurant in, if we do it in a airport, okay we felt that we needed with a real restaurant that people can sit down, let’s not make the food too complicated. That’s so people can have a real experience. But to say that everything is as authentic as Red Rooster, I don’t think you have to because I think that for me, I found that the common goal is to work towards making a more diverse, delicious industry. You know, Passport is a part of that, being in C-CAP is part of that, Red Rooster is definitely part of that. And then there’s the stuff that you have to do to pay for all that. It’s hard, but it’s harder not to do it.
Amanda: So we’re about to open it up to questions, but first, I want to talk about the clothes. Anyone who’s seen Passport has commented to me about how amazing a dresser you are. Are there rules? Do you have mixing and matching rules, is there any strategy going in?
Marcus: No, my mom and my sisters, I always had passed down clothes, so the only thing that my grandmother and my mom could get me was sneakers. So I will always have a love for sneakers. And clothing is another thing you can have fun. Like it’s not super serious and of course it breaks down as you go into completely different place where you never met the person and the guy’s like staring at you. And I’m like, “That’s alright,” and let’s get talking.
Amanda: Let’s talk about my shirt.
Marcus: I promise you, the pattern’s not going to bite you. Well, they might.
Daniel: You said you try to do something African, something Swedish.
Marcus: Yeah, always something Swedish, something African. And also I think I am the slowest Ethiopian runner, but probably the best Ethiopian ice skater, and if you’re in Harlem, like I’m an average dresser. I’ll tell you, if you walk, come sit at Red Rooster on a Sunday afternoon post-church. And you’re going to see, it’s like Derby Night. The women have hats that are like Wimbledon, or Kentucky Derby, like just because it’s Sunday and it’s two, the men are like ... I mean, patterned. We have a guy called Superfly. That’s his name. Like I have nothing on Apollo and Superfly. Nothing. So it’s like, you know, so that idea about being a good Ethiopian skater. It holds in Harlem.
Amanda: Do people send you hats now?
Marcus: I pick my own ... it’s fun too. Some of it has to be ugly, too. I like wearing something really ugly too. I like that.
Amanda: That’s a good tip.
Daniel: So last thing, in the book you write a lot about writing letters when you were trying to get into different kitchens, you’d send out infinite letters you wrote to Oprah, the Letterman, to bring you here. Do you still write letters? Have you sent out any letters recently?
Marcus: With the show, I was just with Stephen Colbert, and the producer said that they would bring that up, and I’m going, “Fuck.” But then he thought it was much more fun to mess up my spring roll instead. So I was like, “Good, good, you’re messing it up, keep messing it up.” But I think it speaks a little bit to aspirations and holding onto your dream, and dream big, whatever that is. And I remember being there like, “Who do I know in America? Well, I like David Letterman and I know Oprah.” So I’m like waiting for the end of the program, like Worldwide Pants Production, and writing it down. It took me months to get the address of David Letterman’s company. Oprah’s got Harpo Productions in Chicago, and like sending it off, and being really genuine, like I can add value. But guess what? The third letter I sent, he hired me. So it’s not a bad percentage, it’s not.
So if I wouldn’t have had that super ambition ... I think hold onto it and dream big, and I loved that time. And that I’m hopefully still the same, like that’s still what drives me. I came here with 300 bucks, big dream, okay let’s push.
Amanda: Alright, any audience questions? Yes, Maisy?
Maisy: What is your process for choosing-
Amanda: Oh wait, I’m going to repeat it for the audio. How do you, what’s your process for choosing where you’ll film after you choose the community?
Marcus: Well, certain things would be pitched collectively, and what we did was very differently. And there was some great moments where all of a sudden we knew that we had to do Haiti. We just knew. So that was great. And I think something like Chicago and the Mexican community, we all ... that was very important because of the conversation we have right now. And also the false conversations around Arab-American communities. So I think Detroit and Chicago was really something that we all were like, “Check.” Everybody was in on that right away. And we go back and forth, back and forth, and at some point we were supposed to shoot in Seattle, but then these amazing comments about Haiti came up, and then we couldn’t go to Seattle anymore.
So sometimes opportunities like that present themselves, and then we got to go. I just love the idea that we were able to ... I don’t know when Haiti and food, like that, it’s an hour documentary, when it can fully be flushed out like that. And yes we talk a little bit about earthquake, but it’s not the center of the problem. It’s joyous stuff about food. And last night’s episode about the Indo-Guyanese community, what I knew about Guyana before was pretty much ... I knew my friend Raymond, I knew about Jim Jones, and I knew about music. But spent a hour to learn about very layered, complex about dual migration. Fantastic. So that one, I had nothing to do with picking that, and I think that’s what’s beautiful about this process, it’s very much a discussion, and then eventually we go.
Sonia: One thing working on the show that was so interesting and so important to me is that, it’s so easy to be like, “Oh, food is the way to get to a culture, like food is the thing and once you know the food you know the culture,” which is obviously bullshit. It’s important, sure, but it’s not the only thing. And one thing working on this is so impressive that you kept doing was going back to the music, the sports, and all of the other things that are important to a culture, and I was just wondering if you could talk about that a little bit more.
Marcus: Yeah, I will never be picked up by a cricket team, it’s not going to happen. Sorry. No, but it was so fun ... like one of the things that was obvious is that if I’m going to do this, I’m going to look so silly all the time, and enjoy that, right? Like not trying to hold up like, “I’m a chef from New York,” like that’s not going to work. Like alright, so I messed up the spring rolls, great, but now I can do really good bad spring rolls. Or like playing cricket, or constantly being pushed into other social or cultural activities, but obviously getting in that way. I mean, being in the temple. Like I’m so glad that that seemed so short with me, because I was constantly lost in translation. But I loved being there.
And so it’s great to add ... when the show grows ... I think a lot is when we are in the temple and we start explaining that there’s vegetarian food in the basement, and getting to the complexity of migration, and dual migration in this case. And that was amazing that the show took us there. And it’s a lot of push. And that’s like what I love about this, it’s so similar to a restaurant to me. We’re always in each other’s face and it’s constantly like arguing and bitching about shit, it’s amazing. You know what I mean? Constant be livid, pissed off, or my story didn’t get in, or ... you know, like doing a restaurant, doing a menu with your team, is like ... sous chef constantly pissed off because his thing is not getting on the menu. Like so good. I love that! And it’s weird when you do it with people that you don’t know that well, but you see like, “Oh shit,” I’m like, alright. It’s good.
Amanda: Awesome, well thank you all for joining us. Thank you Marcus.