Marcus Samuelsson Recalls Being Told to 'Lower [His] Ambition' When Working in All-White Kitchens

·3 min read

Marcus Samuelsson made it his mission to help improve diversity in kitchens after being told to "lower his ambition" when he first entered the industry.

The award-winning chef, 50, joined the PEOPLE Every Day podcast hosted by Janine Rubenstein to share some of his experiences as a Black man beginning his professional cooking career in France.

"One of the ... challenges when you're a Black chef coming into a space and you're very, very ambitious was finding role models," Samuelsson says. "I worked in all-white kitchens and the chefs very upfront said to me, 'You have to lower your ambition, because there is no Black chefs that owns restaurants like ours.' "

He rejected that "status quo" way of thinking. "Maybe [not] now, but I'm here to change that," the celebrity chef responded. And the goal hasn't changed since.

Marcus Samuelsson
Marcus Samuelsson

The No Kitchen Required host tells PEOPLE that he never met or knew of any other chefs that looked similar to him when his career first began. Now, his goal is to make all of the dreams from his younger days a reality at his restaurant Red Rooster in Harlem.

Samuelsson has also partnered with Ben's Original to launch the "My Original Recipe" chef stories, which aims to promote diversity and equity in the culinary industry.

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His personal goal is to change the way the restaurant industry looks, starting with his own restaurants. For example, "I didn't see a lot of women in the kitchen," he says. "I made a commitment to make sure that we have 50% women in our kitchen. Everything I did not see, I can now create."

He also wants to make that change visible to his patrons. "I feel a lot of my work opening Red Rooster in Harlem, having open kitchen so the guests can see clearly who's cooking, who's preparing the food, who are the incredible team that is doing this" is dedicated to raising awareness of how diverse a successful kitchen can look.

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Marcus Samuelsson
Marcus Samuelsson

Jerritt Clark/Getty

The "My Original Recipe" series aims to promote inclusivity via personal narratives that shine a light on "paths to possibility through food," according to a statement from the Ben's Original parent company, Mars. During each video, the spotlighted chef will create a special dish using Ben's Original products.

"American food is so broad and beautiful ... What makes a community so special when it comes to food? One thing is clear that we all cook together in America and there's room to share more stories," Samuelsson said, pointing out that in the pandemic, "41% of small businesses in the Black and brown community has closed."

That's why it's so vital for him to bring attention to the voices through the Ben's Original partnership. "The Black experience around food and American food is one," he said. "You can't talk about American food without the Black experience."

Samuelsson's latest cookbook The Rise: Black Cooks and the Soul of American Food is available now.

Check out more episodes of PEOPLE Every Day, airing on iHeartMedia, Apple podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Amazon Music or wherever you listen to your podcasts.

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