Chef Marcus Samuelsson reveals the moment that fueled his … – USA TODAY

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Sitting in Hav & Mar, his newest New York City restaurant, celebrity chef and TV personality Marcus Samuelsson recalls a “game-changing” career moment.

“You’re talking to someone that was actually told by a three-star Michelin chef that I could work in a restaurant, but I could never own a restaurant because of the color of my skin,” Samuelsson, 51, tells USA TODAY. “That really does two things to you: You either quit or you get stubborn and go deeper on (your goal).”

Safe to say that with a portfolio of 13 restaurants and eight James Beard awards including Best Chef: New York City and Rising Star Chef of the Year, he went deeper.

More from Marcus: Samuelsson’s meatball recipes that melds flavors, cultures

“That’s why I came to America, because my parents believed in the diversity that is here,” he says. 

His journey from Ethiopia to America was anything but conventional. Samuelsson was born in the African country during a tuberculosis outbreak. When he was 2 years old his mother traveled with him and his sister, by foot, for 75 miles to the nearest hospital, he says. She died at the hospital, and the nurse took Samuelsson and his sibling in before putting them up for adoption. The children were adopted by a family in Sweden, where he would go on to study at a culinary institute.

“I can’t fathom (the experience). I look back and think, ‘How did we survive that?’” he says. “There are a couple of ingredients in my recipe that I would never want to take away: Luck and the loving acts of others.” 

Now, his loving acts include a desire to end food inequality. In 2020, Samuelsson partnered with Chef José Andrés’ World Central Kitchen to turn his flagship restaurant, Harlem’s Red Rooster, into a community kitchen and served over 200,000 free meals to those in need during the pandemic. At times, the kitchen would feed 1,500 people a day. According to Samuelsson, that’s about double of what Red Rooster typically does between lunch and dinner.

“I was lost during that time,” Samuelsson said of the pandemic’s early days. “A friend of mine in the industry passed away very early. So we knew that in hospitality, we’re on the front lines.”

Good food, good deeds: José Andrés ‘cannot try to fix every problem,’ but he can try to feed every person who needs hope

Now Samuelsson is focusing on his latest Manhattan restaurant, Hav and Mar. With it comes a new societal mission for the chef: elevating talented, diverse people.

“I never saw women of color in leadership positions when I was coming up as a young chef,” he says. 

So, he built the restaurant’s core leadership team with women of color. Black artists are showcased throughout the space. And the menu calls back to Samuelsson’s Ethiopian and Swedish roots through seafood-centric dishes – “Hav” means ocean in Swedish and “Mar” is honey in Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia.

“As customers, the food has to be delicious, the hospitality has to be great,” he notes. “But then in the middle of all that it’s like, ‘Hmm, here’s a place where women lead.’ The ‘why’ matters.

“As a person of a color and as a person coming from privilege, it’s a privilege to open a gorgeous restaurant in Chelsea. With that privilege comes responsibility. How can you make the industry more diverse?”

Samuelsson is attempting to answer that question. And based on his past actions, he’ll get stubborn and go deeper to make it happen long before he’s done.

This story is for the sixth episode in the series “States of America.” The full episode of “States of America” will premiere at 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. EST on Jan. 13 on USA TODAY NETWORK’s streaming channel. For a full list of platforms offering our FREE streaming channel, follow the link here and catch our full series on YouTube here.