Marcus Samuelsson: Providing a Platform

This month, Marcus Samuelsson and his team at Red Rooster and celebrating Black History Month with a prix-fixe dinner menu highlighting the work of 5 accomplished black female chefs. It’s created and executed primarily by his chef de cuisine, Adrienne Cheatham. See the details here on the Village Voice. Here’s what he had to tell me about fostering diversity in the kitchen.

Marcus Samuelsson

Providing a Platform

“I ask myself constantly, “What can we do to improve so that there are more people of color and female chefs?” Rather than some abstract notion, to me the most powerful thing you can do is to hire. Red Rooster is about having a beacon in the community so people here don’t have to leave Harlem to work in a good restaurant. You develop true diversity in the kitchen by giving people of both genders support. We have four walls of support at Red Rooster.

“This Black History Month menu is a training ground for producing a certain number of covers and hearing responses from customers. For our chef de cuisine Adrienne Cheatham, that means growing both internally with staff–getting people to execute what she wants to do–and adapting for the platform of customers, which we’re lucky to have. In the future, she’ll be able to say, “I can do this” because she’s done it.

“One of the coolest things we have in the restaurant industry is our diversity: we have diversity of race, of gender, and of sexuality. The industry is beautifully diverse in regards to the workforce, but not in leadership. It’s related to the subconscious: look at how black men are very often portrayed in terms of the media, showing all of these false opportunities or the soft love stories we all love. We’re constantly, as a race, misrepresented by not enough outlets talking about who we really are. Not because of stuff that’s racist, but just because there are not enough outlets telling our stories. So rather than just talking about it being a problem, we do. Here, you can come eat the food and listen to the music and look at the art; things on par with anything else in the city or country. That in itself changes the nature of the diversity. We don’t have to put up a sign that says “DIVERSITY!” There are many ways to do black lives matter. Providing platforms is one of the most powerful ways.

“And that, for me, means not just focusing on who’s black or Jewish or Korean. It’s about people, and providing a safe, diverse space where you’re allowed to fail or succeed through food. Between the two restaurants, we have 200 very unique, layered, complex, creative individuals. Not everyone can lead… yet. You still have to learn something. But we do a job of leading them and allowing them to express themselves by showing us what they can do in both small and big roles.

“Rooster is a platform; what’s going to come out of it five or ten years right now is bigger than what’s going in now. We could see Adrienne’s restaurant or one of our bartenders with their own bar. The people who work here don’t come from families where they can borrow money; they have other origin stories. We might be the uncle that can give them a chance. Where would they learn unless they have a real platform to learn?

“What we do–as people, as a restaurant, as business owners–matters. Out of that, we find, “This person is excellent at that.” Adrienne has kept showing us. This menu is about pushing and rewarding her.”

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