Chef and restaurateur Marcus Samuelsson built his career on chasing flavors. Samuelsson and his sister were adopted and raised in Sweden after being separated from their family during the Ethiopian Civil War in the 1970s. Influenced by the cooking of his Swedish grandmother, he attended the Culinary Institute in Gothenburg, Sweden, and apprenticed in Europe before moving to the United States, where he built a thriving business based on culinary diversity. From his restaurants in Harlem to the White House, where he prepared President Barack Obama's first state dinner, Samuelsson combines cultural influences and celebrates the legacy of Black food in America.
Speaking to PMI during the Virtual Experience Series (VES), Samuelsson discussed the impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the restaurant world, how it has given him the time to consider new approaches to enable positive change, and the moonshot idea he would like to make reality in this exclusive interview for PM Network®.
PMI: What is the most challenging project you are managing right now?
Samuelsson: The most challenging project right now is to think through how we come back post-pandemic. We really thought that we were coming out of the pandemic, but it’s stop and start. It’s extremely challenging as a leader, to speak to my team about how we approach the next phase. I need to view it from sort of a 10,000 feet level, because when you don't know what the next 24 or 36 months look like, how do you plan and have the greatest impact?
PMI: What is the most significant project you've ever worked on?
Samuelsson: I think that the most significant project is ahead of us. It's going to take collective thinking and working globally across borders to address climate change. The fact is that it's right in front of us and it's happening. And as chefs, what are our roles? We have a large platform to impact three sets of communities: our staff, our purveyors, and we have a huge impact on customer behavior. Especially working in New York City, there is a great opportunity to broadcast my intent and what we're doing. It's something I think about a lot and how, obviously, it is linked to other issues, like condemning racism, because they're all interrelated. Very often we think, as long as we solve something in the west, we can kind of forget about countries that don't have as much money. But I think that's completely wrong. We really need to flip it and actually start with how we solve it for poor countries and then how did that impact the west?
PMI: What is a key lesson learned from working on social impact projects?
Samuelsson: One of the great things about being a chef is watching how our industry is changing. Chefs come from an almost self-taught place and then work with great mentors who guide us, eventually becoming mentors ourselves to start bringing along the next generation. For me, it's really about making sure you have a diverse team and skill set, especially in terms of energy level and backgrounds. It's going to provide the highest chance of being successful. When I was coming up, the only thing you said to the chef was, “Yes, chef.” But now, people are coming up saying, “No, chef,” and asking, “Why are we doing that?” I think that question is even more important because it forces us to create a conversation in which people with shared experiences are able to solve problems and manage the situation much better. Over the last year and a half, things have changed, and you need to ask, “What have you personally discovered about yourself that you didn't know before?” I've learned that spending time with family is something that I missed a lot and being able to watch my son swim and bike on all these days off, without this 18-month break, I wouldn't have experienced it. So, I actually want to continue trying to figure out that balance.
PMI: What is one piece of advice to help our community manage projects better?
Samuelsson: I'll go back to the idea of a diverse skill set and diverse background of experiences. Mentorship should not just start in the traditional way with the most senior person mentoring everybody who is younger. I would suggest that the most senior person also should have younger mentors to guide them in their projects, because obviously, someone in their twenties can bring a completely different skill set from someone in their fifties. And somebody in their thirties or forties with other experiences might be the customer base that you're trying to reach, depending on the project. Whatever team you build, you have to look at each person's skill set and ideas, almost from a more equal value proposition. Obviously, someone has to lead, but you want to set up a structure where everyone feels like they can contribute.
PMI: What is your moonshot idea that you would love to assemble a team around and make reality?
Samuelsson: Working with food, you have to uproot all the systems that were put in place to create change. I find it fascinating, but it will take time. If we do it right, thinking about how technology meets food will eventually make prices go down and can democratize food in a completely different way. More people will have access to affordable food, with better choices—that’s the long-term view for me. But there are so many different entities working against change because they profit from keeping the food system the way it is. So, my moonshot idea is to break this up and create a more even playing field.
Watch Marcus Samuelsson discuss social responsibility in the culinary field and other inspiring sessions from PMI's Virtual Experience Series with on-demand access through 31 January 2022
Make Reality: Questions With Marcus Samuelsson (2021).