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The Fight For The Right To Hear, 'Yes, Chef'

As you walk in the doors of Red Rooster, you immediately see a key piece of design: a bar dominates the front room, nearly touching the street, as if to say to the people of Harlem, N.Y., "Come on in."

The story behind the restaurant's owner, celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson, is more about life than food.

Samuelsson was born in rural Ethiopia. He and his sister were adopted and raised in Sweden. Eventually, Samuelsson became world-famous. But he's never forgotten where his journey began. His new memoir, which shares these challenges and triumphs, is called, Yes, Chef.

Inside his kitchen at the Red Rooster, cooks are too busy to smile, and the yard bird is a signature dish. Samuelsson says it was very important to get it right.

"Coming to Harlem, I knew my fried chicken had to be better than yours," he says. "And you had to find authorship in the food."

Ethiopian spices, combined with different cooking temperatures and coconut milk gave Samuelsson his unique mark.

With his employees, Samuelsson speaks firmly. He is quick to say he's not asking anyone anything.

"In a kitchen ... you have to be very direct. Very direct. There needs to be one leader, and there needs to be a couple of sous chefs, and the cooks need to say, 'Yes, Chef,' " he says. "Why is being humble something wrong in our society? I was humble many times for a long, long time. And through that process of being yelled at in German, French and English and Swedish, I learned a lot."

Once, while building his career, he was told to cook for the owner's dog.

"Cooking for a dog could be demeaning, but it could also be the greatest gift if you know where you're going," he says. Samuelsson knew it was a test. "Is he gonna break? And how do I react? That's what they wanted to see. And also know, as a black chef, I have a very small window for errors."

Long before that process began, Samuelsson was a sick child in an Ethiopian village.

"I've never seen a picture of my mother, but I knew a couple of things. I knew my sister and I and my mom were sent out on a journey," he says.

They walked from their village, about a two-hour drive from the capital of Addis Ababa, to get to the city. He says they walked mostly at night to stay out of the sun. All three had tuberculosis.

"And [my mother] knew if she could just get us to the city, she could also then have somebody that could take us to a hospital," he says. "And we got to the Black Lion Hospital, but she sadly passed away, and me and my sister, Linda, survived."

He says he looks for a photo of his mother every trip to Ethiopia.

"When I get that picture, I want to put her [in] a nice place here in the restaurant. It shows dignity," he says. "It's thanks to her that I'm here. Thanks to her, my sister's here. She really offered her life in order for us to survive. So I owe her that."


Interview Highlights

On breaking a racial barrier in the kitchen

"It didn't exist, the concept of a black chef. There were black dishwashers, but there was not — ever, ever, ever — a black chef. So I had to not only open the door, but with the concept that it would be even possible. But it also made me stronger. I always feel, get me in a room, give me my pots and pans, give me the ingredients, and I'll be fine.

On hiding an unplanned daughter from co-workers to avoid stereotyping

"I think I was always aware that my resume did not just have to be great, it had to be fantastic, with zero way of my employer to say, 'Well, we're not going to hire him. There might be something.' And I was very young and just didn't know how to deal with the whole situation properly. And I always lived in this fear that maybe they're not going to hire me ... I felt like if I go out of the world and work, and go as far as I possibly can, then that's my way of taking care of her. I could deal with that at 20 years old. ...

"I didn't want to be another black man that was not responsible. In many ways, maybe I wasn't responsible, but I was lucky enough to have a structure with my Swedish mother to help me out."

On meeting his father in Ethiopia

"Meeting my father was one of the biggest things that has ever happened to me. But since we didn't speak the same language, I felt right away I had to speak about other things. The fact that we're about the same height, he walked a little bit crooked, I walked a little bit crooked. So I saw similarities there. ...

"In the beginning, obviously I had all of those questions [about why he let us go]. ... But once you start to see, in his mind, we were saved because we were in Europe. And in his mind, that was good. Good enough. These kids were OK. And that's an approach that's very hard maybe in the West to understand, but that's an approach that a lot of people from Africa would agree with. You know, 'They're educated in Sweden, what's their complaint?' "

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Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: When I saw the book in the hotel, I was like, oh, my God.

GREENE: And this is what it sounds like when you're standing next to one of the most popular people in Harlem.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I just love you. I love that show. I love you.

(LAUGHTER)

MARCUS SAMUELSSON: Enjoy Harlem.

GREENE: That is Marcus Samuelsson. He's a celebrity chef. We're outside Red Rooster - that's one of his restaurants. And as you walk in the doors, you immediately see a key piece of Samuelsson's design. A bar dominates the front room nearly touching the street as if to say to the people of Harlem, come on in. We walk past the dining tables to a kitchen that's packed with cooks too busy to smile. I want to stay with for a few minutes, but before - is there's something in the kitchen that you can kind of point to that says something about your journey that...

SAMUELSSON: Yeah, absolutely. Michael Scott, Michael Scott, how are you? I need to have one yard bird and one gravlax and one hash. You could fire that right now.

GREENE: Now, obviously, we're going to talk about food a bit, but the story you're about to hear is more about life than food. Samuelsson was born in rural Ethiopia. He and his sister were adopted and raised in Sweden. Eventually, Samuelsson would become world-famous but he has never forgotten where his journey began. I came to Harlem to talk about "Yes, Chef," Marcus Samuelsson's new memoir. We just walked out of your kitchen. You ordered something that sounds delicious, and you were very firm in kind of, you know, asking the cook...

SAMUELSSON: Well, I'm not asking him. I'm not asking anything. I'm very clear in the delivery in what expectations are. In a kitchen, there is like you have to be very direct, very direct. It needs to be one leader and it needs to be couple of sous chefs and the cooks need to say, yes, chef. But being humble - why is being humble being something wrong in society? I was humbled many, many times for a long, long time. And in through that process of being yelled at in German, French, in English and Swedish, I learned a lot.

GREENE: I wonder if you could take me back to the very beginning of your journey. You wrote about not having a photograph of your mother, not being able to remember your mother. But tell me about those last hours and few days of her life.

SAMUELSSON: Well, you know, I never seen a picture of my mother. But I knew a couple of things. I knew my sister and I and my mom were set out on a journey from walking from the village of Agru Gradana(ph), which is two-hour to Addis Ababa, the capital. And we had to walk. We walked mostly at night. That's when it wasn't too hot.

GREENE: And you're a tiny, sick child at this point we should say.

SAMUELSSON: I'm a sick child with TB...

GREENE: Tuberculosis.

SAMUELSSON: ...tuberculosis, and she knew that if she could just get us to the city, she can also then have somebody that could take us to a hospital. And we got to the Black Lion Hospital where she sadly passed away and me and my sister Linda survived.

GREENE: Wow. There are plates that are being put on the table here. What is this, Marcus?

SAMUELSSON: So, right now you have the yard bird. This is a dish that was so important for me to get right. I knew coming to Harlem, I knew my fried chicken had to be better than yours, right.

GREENE: You don't make good fried chicken in Harlem, you're out.

SAMUELSSON: Yeah, you're out. And you have to find authorship in the food.

GREENE: Making it yours.

SAMUELSSON: Um-huh. And with these Ethiopian spice plan, cooking it on high heat, frying it on low heat, curing it in buttermilk and coconut milk made it ours.

GREENE: I was amazed in the book learning about how demanding the kitchen can be, I mean, how mean it can be. I mean, you screamed at for, you know, the smallest mistakes. One of the things that stuck in my mind is you had to cook for the owner's dog at one point. I mean, that sounds almost demeaning in a way.

SAMUELSSON: Well, cooking for a dog could be demeaning but it can also be the greatest gift if you know where you're going. For me, that opportunity to cook for (unintelligible) dog was a place of can I take the abuse? Is he going to break? And how do I rate. That's what they wanted to say. And also know as a black chef, you know, I have very small window for errors.

GREENE: But why do you feel like your room for error was so much smaller?

SAMUELSSON: Well, first of all, it didn't exist, the concept of a black chef. There were black dishwashers but there was not ever, ever, ever a black chef. So, I had to not only open the door but he concept over that it could be even possible...

GREENE: How much of a...

SAMUELSSON: ...but also make me stronger. I always feel: get me in the room, get my pots and pans, get me the ingredients and I'll be fine.

GREENE: I wonder if you can talk about - I don't want to make you talk while you're chewing. But...

SAMUELSSON: Do it.

GREENE: You have a daughter and - an unplanned daughter. You were working in Austria at the time. And you were very sensitive about not falling into a stereotype. You hid her from sort of people you were walking with in kitchens for a long time. What did you mean by that? What was your fear?

SAMUELSSON: Well, I think I was always aware of my resume did not just have to be great, it had to be fantastic with zero way of my employer to say that's why, you know, we're not going to hire you. There might be something. And I was, you know, very young and didn't know how to deal with the whole situation properly. And I was always living in this fear that, well, maybe they're not going to hire me or maybe - I felt like if I go out in the world and work and go as far as I possibly can, then that's my way of taking care of her. I can deal with that at 20 years old.

GREENE: What stereotype did you fear?

SAMUELSSON: I didn't want to be another black man that was not responsible. In many ways, maybe I wasn't responsible but I was lucky enough to have a structure with my Swedish mother to help me out.

GREENE: You returned to Ethiopia much later and actually found your biological father, which sounds just extraordinary. I mean, what was the emotion that you took kind of meeting this man who you know had essentially given up on you and sent your mother, you know, along with you and your sister.

SAMUELSSON: Meeting my father was one of the biggest things to have ever happened to me. But since we didn't speak the same language, I felt right away had to pick up other things - the fact that we were about the same height; he walked a little bit crooked, I walked a little bit crooked. So, I saw things, similarities there.

GREENE: You mentioned in the book that you struggled with whether to ever confront him and say why don't you let us go, why didn't you, you know, take care of my sister and I when we were sick? Have you asked him?

SAMUELSSON: No. In the beginning, obviously, I have all those questions as questions for me. But once you start to see in his mind we were safe because we were in Europe. And in his mind, that was good, good enough. These kids were OK. And that's an approach that very hard maybe in the West to understand. That's an approach that a lot of people in Africa would agree with, you know. They're educated in Sweden. What's their complaint?

GREENE: You still searching for your mom's photo? Is that something you continue doing for...

SAMUELSSON: Every trip. Every trip. When I get that picture, I want to put her in a nice place here in the restaurant that shows dignity, that thanks to her that I'm here. Thanks to her my sister's here. She really offered her life in order for us to survive. So, I owe her that.

GREENE: That's celebrity chef and author Marcus Samuelsson. His new memoir, "Yes, Chef," is available this week. Now, we might not be able to give you the recipe for Marcus Samuelsson's yard bird but fear not, food fans, next week, MORNING EDITION is exploring humanity's evolving relationship with meat over millions of years. There's even a time traveler's cookbook at npr.org. Hope you're hungry. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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