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Chef Marcus Samuelsson Talks Race and Equity in Food at Design School Panel

The Graduate School of Design hosted chef Marcus Samuelsson for a virtual panel Thursday.
The Graduate School of Design hosted chef Marcus Samuelsson for a virtual panel Thursday. By Kai R. McNamee
By DayOnna T. Carson and James R. Jolin, Contributing Writers

Award-winning chef Marcus Samuelsson discussed race, class, and equity in food and art as part of a webinar series hosted by Harvard’s Graduate School of Design Thursday evening.

Samuelsson was joined by two other panelists: Harlem Studio Museum Director Thelma Golden and Mark Raymond, the incoming director of the Graduate School of Architecture at the University of Johannesburg. Design School professor Toni L. Griffin moderated the event, which comes as the latest installment of the Rouse Visiting Artist Lecture Series.

Each of the panelists discussed their experience with a different creative field: food, art, and architecture, respectively.

Before transitioning to a panel discussion, Samuelsson, who was born in Ethiopia, discussed being raised by his adoptive parent in Sweden. Samuelsson said he initially wanted to build a career in Europe but encountered difficulties due to his race. As a result, he said, he moved to Harlem, in New York City, and started a restaurant he hoped would develop deep ties to the neighborhood.

Samuelsson then discussed the challenge African chefs face entering the culinary world, which he argues is dominated by French cuisine. He also described the culinary contribution of the African diaspora and introduced his latest book, “The Rise: Black Cooks and the Soul of American Food,” which he said explores African cuisine and the impact of Black chefs on American food.

Ending his solo talk, Samuelsson said he appreciated conversations in which he can connect with students and discuss complex issues of race and equality.

“We constantly have to communicate with one another in forums like this but also encourage each other and push us into these spaces that, from the outside, might not look like they’re for us,” Samuelsson said.

Griffin then opened up the discussion to the other panelists, asking them to reflect on Samuelsson's book and its theme of Black creatives taking pride in artistic innovations across creative disciplines

“With ‘The Rise,’ what you see is not only a way in which Marcus is bringing together all the voices across the food spectrum with the sensibility and the wide range of Black food, Black cooks, Black chefs. What he's doing is creating a new sensibility around authorship and that sense of who defines our culinary tastes and our culinary ideals,” Golden said.

Raymond said Samuelsson’s ideas connected with recent conversations related to studying the legacy of colonialism in the field of architecture. He explained that he felt drawn to the University of Johannesburg because he wanted to go beyond what he described as the complex and often misrepresented history of Black people in architecture.

Samuelsson also argued that the contributions of Black people to society and culture are often completely erased from textbooks. He referenced the example of the recipe for Jack Daniel’s whiskey, which was first devised by the Black distiller Nathan “Nearest” Green. Samuelsson emphasized the importance of properly crediting the cultures and people that products derive from.

“We're so programmed to understand that great stuff cannot come from Africa, and that's also one of the biggest challenges that we have to redirect, because we know it's not true,” Samuelsson said.

Near the event’s conclusion, Samuelsson described how making his food accessible for those in his neighborhood has defined his purpose as a chef.

“Unless you’re cooking for your teachers and neighbors, what are you cooking for?” Samuelsson said.

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RaceGraduate School of DesignDesign SchoolUniversityFood