From Harlem to Miami: Chef Marcus Samuelsson falls for ‘the modern American city’

Marcus Samuelsson comes to us from the future, from a place where our stories never collide. Like the spice-route ingredients of his hearty, Harlem-meets-World dishes, they simmer into one another and create something fantastically new.

The celebrity chef and restaurateur is telling some of these stories as he explores the country’s lesser known cultural pockets for an upcoming PBS/Vox series called “No Passport Required.” Samuelsson travels beyond the more visible ethnic hubs to spotlight hidden-gem neighborhoods and dishes, spending time in Vietnamese New Orleans, Mexican Chicago, Russian Seattle, Arab Detroit and Ethiopian Washington DC. 

Last week, he brought the cameras to Miami’s Haitian community, where the cuisine of the motherland is rampant and revered daily. 

Miami is where Samuelsson also plans to open a restaurant in Overtown, a central neighborhood considered to be the historical heart of the city’s African American population. The chef who brought an inclusive, community-focused restaurant and speakeasy named Red Rooster to Harlem eight years ago is hoping to make an impact in the struggling neighborhood that’s located just south of Wynwood. 

“Everything doesn’t have to be on Main and Main. Everyone should have access to good food,” Samuelsson said by phone from New York recently, before heading to Miami last week. “I’ve gotten many, many requests to open a restaurant in Miami or on the Beach, but I’ve always waited for the right opportunity. I want to do in Overtown what we do in Harlem.” 

Samuelsson, who hosted a South Beach Wine & Food Festival brunch at Overtown’s historic Lyric Theater Saturday, says it was easy for him to gravitate toward Overtown. 

“I always try to look at projects that are part of an African-American narrative,” he said.  

His yet unnamed concept, which promises to hire from the immediate community, has already gained the backing of the local Community Redevelopment Agency. 

“We are super excited. With us, it’s always a collaboration,” says the chef. And that includes the food.

Samuelsson, who aims to reflect the area in his menu, says he’ll draw inspiration from Miami’s Caribbean and Southern soul foods. 

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“If you look at Miami, it’s set up as the modern American city. I’ve always been inspired by the community feel of the local restaurants. You feel like you’re home when you walk into a Haitian restaurant,” he said. “As I travel the country, I see what immigrants contribute. Where would we be without the mom-and-pop places?” 

Born in Ethiopia and raised by adoptive parents in Sweden, Samuelsson comes to America’s food world as a proud, through-and-through immigrant. 

“Being an immigrant, coming to America, I just wanted to give and work and be part of it,” he said. “It takes work and an open mind to evolve here.” 

Having an open mind has served him well on his travels, as he navigates the complex conversations of today’s America. 

“We’re living in a very diverse country and people from all corners, they want to be heard,” he said. “As a black man, as an immigrant, I just think, ‘How can I be more inclusive?’” 

In a divided nation, the food world often provides a bridge, he says. 

“To break bread with other cultures is a cornerstone of who we are as an industry. It is our opportunity to learn about each other,” said Samuelsson. “Besides, chefs have always been intrigued by other cultures. We are driven by flavors. Whatever culture has the flavor, we want to learn more about it.” 

Marcus Samuelsson on TV: 

  • The chef’s upcoming PBS/ Vox program, “No Passport Required” – a six-episode food and travel series – airs in July on local PBS stations.

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