Chef Marcus Samuelsson talks about art, ethnicity
At chef Marcus Samuelsson’s restaurant Red Rooster Harlem, diners can see art by the L.A. native Sanford Biggers. The men are friends and clearly feel an appreciation for each other’s art, which they discussed at the Hammer Museum in one of its series that pairs creative thinkers from various disciplines.
They became friends in the mid-1990s in New York, where they acknowledged they hit the party scene “pretty hard.” Samuelsson, born in Ethiopia and raised in Sweden, was chef at the Scandinavian restaurant Aquavit on the East Side of Manhattan.
Both men, Samuelsson said, share a love of art and of the craftsmanship involved in making it –- whether it's his food or Biggers’ sculptures. Samuelsson said he learned “pretty early on” that he had to leave Sweden to find the education he needed; he cooked in Japan, Switzerland and elsewhere in Europe as well as New York.
“To be an artist of any kind you have to be nimble, you have to be flexible,” said Biggers, whose work has been shown at the Tate in London, the Whitney in New York and many other places. His work includes installations, video and performance; he also is a professor at Columbia University.
The pair spoke to a full auditorium on Sunday, and afterward Samuelsson signed copies of his new memoir, “Yes, Chef.”
The men also talked about the effect of being young black men in worlds where many of their clients or customers are white. Samuelsson –- dressed in hip royal blue slacks rolled up to the shin and a pork pie hat -- joked that once his colleagues understood “I wasn’t dangerous, I wasn’t going to rob them,” his ethnicity wasn’t a factor. He was yelled at like any young cook in a high-end kitchen.
Biggers noted that artists of color have been prominent for some time. His work often involves African American themes. A huge lotus flower, for example, looks lacey and lovely from afar; up close, it’s clear that each petal is a diagram of a slave ship showing how people were packed into small spaces.
“In cooking, everyone knew black people cooked and served, they just didn’t have the title of chef,” Samuelsson observed. In many kitchens where he worked there were few women and no people of color as chefs.
“Black people had to work really hard to get out of the kitchen,” Samuelsson noted. “Now they have to work really hard to get back in.”
The staff at Rooster is diverse, including half female, and he said: “Most women are just better at cooking,” although the physical frenzy of line cooks “fits the young guys.”
Men and women approach cooking differently, he said. For men, it’s “I can get this tomato to look like a carrot and then like a sea urchin. When all you want on a Sunday was for a tomato to look like a tomato.”
Biggers praised Samuelsson’s influence on the Harlem neighborhood where Red Rooster opened, noting that he has helped to make the neighborhood more vital, more appealing for residents, workers and visitors.
Biggers and Samuelsson joked about their reaction to critics.
“I like to buy them a lot of drinks,” Biggers said.
“Oh. Same,” Samuelsson said.
-- Mary MacVean
Photo: Marcus Samuelsson Credit: Associated Press