Why you should care

Diversity is the crucial ingredient in American cuisine.

“Guess what? The world is changing and it’s going to be more diverse.” So says celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson at OZY Fest 2018 in New York’s Central Park. In his discussion, provocatively titled “The Future of Food,” with fitness guru Jillian Michaels, Samuelsson challenged the crowd to recall, in an age of heightened anxiety over borders, that the strength of a country’s cuisine comes from the diversity of its immigrants.

Samuelsson, the chef/owner of Red Rooster and the author of six cookbooks and a memoir, is no stranger to crossing borders. Born in Ethiopia and adopted by Swedish parents, he has developed a cooking style that is both a reflection and synthesis of his experiences — and a personal philosophy. Samuelsson likes to talk about “eating with a spiritual compass,” by which he means consuming food with a mindfulness toward environmental and personal impact. “We throw away 35 percent of the food we buy,” Samuelsson tells the crowd, the first of several times he will repeat the startling statistic. “If everyone knew how to cook, they’d reduce the food they threw away to at least 20, 15 percent.” But using a spiritual compass in the kitchen is about more than just trying to eliminate food waste. There is also enormous inequality in food access, Samuelsson says, especially in urban environments like New York City. “It’s not a coincidence that farmers markets stop at 96th Street,” he adds. “I call it food apartheid.”

There’s no separation between food, immigrant and America.

Marcus Samuelsson

How to resolve this inequality? Samuelsson didn’t provide ready answers, but he urges us to be vigilant and critical of the roles we play in systems of access and sustainability. It’s no accident that he opened Red Rooster in the heart of Harlem, on Lenox Avenue well north of 96th Street. “Come join us uptown,” he smiles, “and think about: How do you buy food, how does it come to you, who do you give the food to?”

How food reaches our tables is a question Samuelsson ponders often, and one, he fiercely believes, that will shape the future of what we eat. In discussing the development of “American cuisine,” he says, “there are very few grains from America — they all came from other places.” This means that the United States is inherently dependent on other cultures and countries for the most pleasurable of pastimes: eating. “There’s no separation between food, immigrant and America,” he says, “but as immigrants, we feel attacked.” And yet, despite the troubling climate, he notes that food, more than anything else, has the ability to cross borders, religions and political viewpoints. Food as unifier.

In the midst of divisive disagreements over refugees and border walls, it might seem naive to embrace food as a means to an end on the immigration debate. But Samuelsson remains optimistic. When asked if Vice President Mike Pence’s message to Central Americans — “If you can’t come legally, don’t come at all” — will have negative consequences on the growing diversity of cuisine, Samuelsson smiled before responding: “I’m glad he’s getting to travel.”

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