A tale of two chefs: Marcus Samuelsson and Roblé Ali
In recent years a growing number black chefs like Roblé Ali and Marcus Samuelsson have entered the culinary industry.
February 28th, 2012
01:16 PM ET

A tale of two chefs: Marcus Samuelsson and Roblé Ali

By Alex Kellogg and Alyse Shorland, CNN

(CNN) - Marcus Samuelsson and Roblé Ali are two different chefs.

Samuelsson, 41, is an established name amongst foodies and the proprietor of Red Rooster, a renown Harlem restaurant.

Ali, 27, is an up and coming chef and animated reality-show star who works full time as an established caterer.

Samuelsson has made a name for himself embracing his identity as both a black chef and a Swedish immigrant to the United States, but younger chefs like Ali find themselves pushing back against being known simply as a “black chef.” Ali, who’s still building his brand, was frustrated when a blog author unexpectedly labeled him a “hip-hop chef.”

“Who takes you serious when you’re the hip hop chef?” said Ali. “And why am I the hip hop chef, because I’m black? I’m not break dancing.”

For decades, many African Americans were reluctant to enter a profession they associated with servitude and slavery. Cooking was reminiscent of second-class citizenship, and antiquated images of Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben dominated the nation’s associations of blacks and kitchens.

“George Washington had a slave chef, as did Thomas Jefferson. It ain’t nothing new,” said Jessica Harris, a culinary scholar and the author of books on the foods of the African Diaspora. “I think that has lifted in many families, but I don’t think that it has lifted in all African-American families.”

In recent years, African Americans have begun to trickle into the field in growing numbers.

Marcus Samuelsson: How I got here

Samuelsson is now one of the most recognizable chefs in the world, with several PBS and Food Network specials. He has opened six restaurants, written a slew of bestselling cookbooks and won several cooking awards, including the coveted James Beard Award, the Oscars of the food industry.

This June, he will publish a memoir, “Yes, Chef”.

“I’ve never discussed race in Harlem,” he joked. “Of course I can identify as a black man. Absolutely.”

Samuelsson was born in Ethiopia and raised in Sweden by his adoptive parents. He later came to the United States, settling in Harlem seven years ago. In 2010 he opened the Red Rooster, a hip, soul food-inspired restaurant that blends his European background with African-American traditional cuisines.

“It’s inspirational to young black chefs, to just anybody that’s a person of color in cooking, to see another person of color doing it like that,” said Ali, the star of Bravo’s “Chef Roblé & Co.”

Today, Ali is still working to define his brand. He hopes to establish a path by embracing his heritage as Samuelsson did – Ali is half African American and half Somali – and pushing beyond the traditional boundaries of race.

He sees his forthcoming Brooklyn restaurant not as a straightforward soul-food eatery, but as something much more. “It’s not going to be what you expect,” he said.

Yet while young chefs like Ali may look up to Samuelsson, some established African-American chefs question whether his success is too singular, and the representation of black chefs too narrow.

“There are plenty of African Americans who cook and cook well in this country, they just don’t necessarily get the notoriety that some people get,” said Joe Randall, a highly respected black chef who owns a Savannah, Georgia-based cooking school.

He said Samuelsson has an advantage given his European pedigree, and does not risk being pigeonholed into just cooking black food as many black Americans are.

“He came through Sweden to New York, and that’s acceptable in the mover and shakers’ eyes,” said Randall.

Some say they welcome Samuelsson’s unprecedented success, but add that it is not enough.

Nicole Taylor, who hosts a popular “food from the black perspective” podcast and radio show, agrees. She says there are far too many black chefs who people do not have a clue about.

“Everybody is happy for Marcus, but it’s like ‘hello media, he is not the only person!’” She and others said many in African American culinary circles crave for other stories to be told.

Samuelsson and Ali are pushing their careers forward with the help of social media and reality television. But before Twitter and “Top Chef,” in the 19th and 20th century trailblazing black chefs were few and far between and they rarely received the recognition they deserved.

Exceptions included Leah Chase, a New Orleans chef, TV personality and author; the late Edna Lewis, a chef and author best known for her books on traditional Southern cuisine; Sylvia Woods, whose Sylvia’s Restaurant is a Harlem landmark that draws millions in revenue; and the late Patrick Clark, one of the first celebrity chefs who led a generation of Americans to embrace a new style of French and later American cooking, set the stage for chefs like Ali and Samuelsson

Ali’s own grandfather worked as a chef and a caterer, which inspired him to pursue a culinary career.

In his catering work Ali prepares all kinds of food, and can move easily between cuisines. He’s not limited to soul food – he’s just as comfortable cooking Indian, Jewish or Southern cuisine. And as he expands his businesses, he’s keenly aware of being branded a black chef.

“As far as being a chef I have transcended race, but as far as being a celebrity chef, we’ll see,” said Ali. “I believe it’s possible but I believe I have to watch the decisions I make in order to do so.”

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Filed under: Black in America • Ethnicity • Race • Who we are
soundoff (59 Responses)
  1. RL

    I love what Marcus and Roblé are doing. The Red Rooster is great and its Harlem through and through. Great food, great vibe, and one of the hippest places to go in New York City, as is Harlem itself. Roblé has a great show, and I can say, I have a sense of pride that your're a black man running great business, that can go up against any other caterer that exists. Is there any doubt that Roblé and Co, could not? I don't think so. To Roblé, Its OK to embrace your blackness and to cook whatever that you want. Just keep on doing what you are doing and doing it well. You, you fellow Chef's and you front of house crew only show how professionals get it done. That fact that most of you are black and those that are not on your crew all clearly know who's running the show. and running it well, as do your clients. Cheers to both Chefs!

    March 5, 2012 at 3:16 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Lisa D

    do tell us... I'm sure you must have helped him 🙂

    March 3, 2012 at 6:16 pm | Report abuse |
  3. GwT

    I've known plenty of black chefs, I'm one of them, if only by the color of my skin. My race does not define me nor my value as a chef, my skill does.

    March 2, 2012 at 8:27 pm | Report abuse |
  4. MoonRidr

    "a renown Harlem restaurant." Honestly, does NO ONE know how to speak and write English anymore?!! The word is "RENOWNED"!!!!!

    March 2, 2012 at 5:38 am | Report abuse |
  5. twang

    Ever smell chitlins cooking? Just picture a really rank outhouse

    March 1, 2012 at 7:28 pm | Report abuse |
  6. west.l

    Just who started working in most of hotels and restaurant back in the good old days,

    March 1, 2012 at 6:34 pm | Report abuse |
  7. BG

    @Chacha – Race is only determined by skin color and is a social construct (meaning – it doesn't really exist anyway)
    @Craig – When you immigrate to a country and you are of African descent, you become an "African-American" by default whether you came by way of Sweden or The Czech Republic. and if Bill is right, then NONE of us are American and
    America doesn't exist because the Native people of this land surely didn't call it that...
    @Brian – I wholeheartedly concur.

    March 1, 2012 at 4:15 pm | Report abuse |
  8. glyder

    the chef may have trancended race but the media has not.

    February 29, 2012 at 4:21 pm | Report abuse |
  9. lue blacke

    I swear Ali Roble' looks like he is about 16yrs. old. I have watched his show-he is so-o-o creative w/the food that he prepares. I think he will go far w/his commitment & love of cooking!

    February 29, 2012 at 3:18 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Lynda

    That blogger was a typical snob, not worthy of blogging anything. Having said that, there are a zillion excellent cooks of color out there, and on TV. Its is a shame and a disservice if any of them think that by making that your profession, you are demeaning yourself. I've thought the same thing myself....everytime I see cooking shows, chefs on TV, in the newspaper, sharing recipes and doing demonstrations. Why in the world are the Black chefs, cooks, showcasing their natural skill. I WISH I could cook like these people cook. I drool eith envy everytime I see them. Props to Sunny Anderson, Big Daddy, the Neeley's and Roger Mooking...just to name a few.

    February 29, 2012 at 3:10 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Black American Man

    Hello and Good Afternoon, would someone please tell me why people with dark people from Africa are called African Americans and not the none dark ones. Also what in common do the two gentlemen in the article have with me other than the color of their skin. Do they have my culture, do they have my southern roots, what do they have that my great grand parents had other than the color of skin. I myself like the majority of Black Americans when I speak of Black America, I am not talking about the race but the culture of the people. These two gentlemen do not sure my culture because they have dark skin, so STOP talking about them and disrespecting my race and cultural group by writing and talking like we are all one and the same. And for those of you who disagree it is nice to know that you and a Hutus or Tutsis are one and the same.

    February 29, 2012 at 2:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • glyder

      i think it's because the media is into subtle racism.hell they pigeon hole anyone if convienient.to the media,all blacks think alike and should.same with anyone that's not white.that's what they teach.i'm white and my grandmother used to cook what is sometimes called soul food i think.black eyed peas,greens.we just called it country.

      February 29, 2012 at 4:30 pm | Report abuse |
  12. kikakiki

    When Italians cook italian or chinese cook chinese food nobody comments about race, and guys, Marcus and Ali if your skin is dark you will be judged black – that said, cook what you are comfortable with and best of luck oh and by the way a cook has not had the education a chef has had that is the different between being a cook and a chef education, my friend education

    February 29, 2012 at 2:09 pm | Report abuse |
  13. steve Yarborough

    I ate at Red Rooster one a business trip to NYC a couple of weeks ago. I had a hamburger and fries and my wife had the macaroni & Cheese and greens. We went for lunch and the food was quite good but we waited forever seriously over 30min for a burger and mac and greens. It wasn't even luch hour. He diefiinitely needs to do the tighten up on this place.

    I've been to his other rest in NYC Smorgas Chef, Aquavit etc and they have never failed to please. Bottom line is the guy can cook..

    February 29, 2012 at 2:08 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Bill Lassiter

    The only reason one is seeing Sean is...............................?????????????????? he's treated wasterwater nuggets

    February 29, 2012 at 1:30 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Dawn

    When I read this I expected something different. Not that blacks don't want to be chefs because slaves cooked. So did a bunch of white people. Working in a kitchen is hard work no matter what your color is so if you don't want to be defined solely on how you look, present yourself as a whole person. Others have to deal basis too.

    February 29, 2012 at 1:27 pm | Report abuse |
  16. Guester

    There is not such thing as an African American. You are an American or you aren't. Race shouldn't matter in the 21st century.

    February 29, 2012 at 1:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • GRACE

      Your right, it shouldn't but it does.

      February 29, 2012 at 2:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • Justin

      That's an interesting approach. I agree with it to an extent but only if you apply it to all groups. If Americans of Italian, German, or Irish descent can celebrate their culture through food, flags and holidays, why shouldn't Americans of African descent be able to do the same? My belief is that we are one but that doesn't mean we have to be the same.

      February 29, 2012 at 3:26 pm | Report abuse |
      • Ryan

        Which month is Western European American History Month?

        February 29, 2012 at 4:36 pm | Report abuse |
      • Dr Obvious

        Every month

        February 29, 2012 at 5:15 pm | Report abuse |
  17. rharri

    race and color matters......don't fool youself.

    February 29, 2012 at 12:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • Guester

      No, it really doesn't.

      February 29, 2012 at 1:24 pm | Report abuse |
  18. Douglas

    It does not hurt to be black in America. They have a better chance in getting loans, because the banks have to make sure they have enough of every race on the books. Everybody is afraid, so they try and make everything equal even though most people do not desevre a loan.

    February 29, 2012 at 12:11 pm | Report abuse |
  19. BNakka

    My point is there are plenty more who would be better than these 2 but weren't lucky enough to get there. Not because they were black or some other race. It takes 50% luck to become famous and 50% talent to stick around.

    February 29, 2012 at 11:08 am | Report abuse |
  20. BNakka

    Seriously this is BS. Boo hoo blacks had it very bad and in 2012 it is a shame that we talk about how tough it was for these 2? Really?

    February 29, 2012 at 11:06 am | Report abuse |

    when will america stop being fixated and obsessed with race and color...

    February 29, 2012 at 10:53 am | Report abuse |
    • ToughGuy11

      I agree – CNN is notorious for these frivolous 'Black in America' non-articles. Its tough to be black, we know, really we do ....

      February 29, 2012 at 1:42 pm | Report abuse |
  22. Sharon

    Sylvia's in NY is very ordinary at best.

    February 29, 2012 at 10:34 am | Report abuse |
  23. topchef

    Still waiting to read the RELEVANT part of this story. Can't seem to find it. I, for one, have never thought of either chef as anything but talented chefs. Is the point of this useless article to plant some silly and outdated racial seeds in our heads? Surely not.

    February 29, 2012 at 9:09 am | Report abuse |
  24. Beth

    Oh... ABOUT IN AMERICA must equal American... hmmmm they work in America and their heritage is from other worlds... that is what the confusion myst be.

    February 29, 2012 at 8:29 am | Report abuse |
    • EWT

      My background is from East Africa, we have been conolized by Italian, French and English. I am bulingual and I am can cook and bake. Compare here in U.S???? We don't eat cold cuts /or punut butter and jelly. Cooking is easy for us

      February 29, 2012 at 9:14 am | Report abuse |
      • niya

        And your point is? Not every american eat peanut butter and jelly. My mother cooked both breakfast and dinner everyday. I didn't grow up eatting peanut butter all the time. Same as alot of other Americans.

        February 29, 2012 at 11:22 am | Report abuse |
      • Lisa D

        @Dduke, that's funny... I grew up in suburban America, ALL of my white friends and associates did drugs. I may have had a few glasses of alcohol underage but drugs, no thanks.... Funny they all still do drugs now and have never suffered the consequences. Just saying, who hasn't done something wrong but some get off easier than others, well all know this. I had a white teacher once say, "Being old and a white woman, I have always gotten out of my speeding tickets."

        March 3, 2012 at 6:13 pm | Report abuse |
  25. Beth

    And further more... they have been on TV but they were established CHEFS first. Not sure why this is an offensive article at all?

    February 29, 2012 at 8:27 am | Report abuse |
    • Sean

      A chef is just a cook with a fancy hat. Get over it.

      February 29, 2012 at 11:50 am | Report abuse |
      • Bill Lassiter

        You could not be more mistaken. Probably don't have a trade that you've honed for years other than a cubicle manipulation trip, eat your 'hat' , tool.

        February 29, 2012 at 1:22 pm | Report abuse |
      • Dduke

        Chef Leroyrrdeee

        February 29, 2012 at 1:50 pm | Report abuse |
  26. Beth

    And Craig... I am not sure what your point is about Ali is either. The article never said these guys were American 100%. Or grew up in the Hood. Or.... wait? what is your point? Seems that you missed that the article is about two black men who have established themselves in the culinary world.

    February 29, 2012 at 8:26 am | Report abuse |
  27. Beth

    Uhm. Craig. Did you read this part of the article. "Samuelsson was born in Ethiopia and raised in Sweden by his adoptive parents. He later came to the United States, settling in Harlem seven years ago. In 2010 he opened the Red Rooster, a hip, soul food-inspired restaurant that blends his European background with African-American traditional cuisines."

    And Dduke... gotta love you for trying to provoke a racial fight.

    February 29, 2012 at 8:21 am | Report abuse |
  28. Beautiful

    can we all try to stop and smell the roses and for the article the were expressing two up and rooted chefs ana what path led them to where there at! IT LL BE ALRIGHT

    February 29, 2012 at 3:20 am | Report abuse |
    • Sean

      When every race, nationality and ethnic back ground gets its own ‘history’ month….then it will be alright.

      February 29, 2012 at 11:53 am | Report abuse |
  29. enkephalin07

    There are a lot of black chefs who don't have credibility problems, but they're not "media personalities" like these guys - odd that the writer confuses that with a 'profession'.

    February 29, 2012 at 12:34 am | Report abuse |
  30. mcox

    @Craig: Dude, calm down. It's just an article about chefs–they're not attacking your mother or anything.

    February 28, 2012 at 11:32 pm | Report abuse |
  31. VRage13

    These guys might be good at making overpriced food for those that can afford it but being raised in the south, let me tell you that we can make great meals for dirt cheap. And blacks from the south have some of the best dishes around. Black-eyed peas with ham hock, greens, rice, sweet corn bread, chitlins, Sunday fried chicken, fresh garden salad with vinegar & oil, big thick fluffy buttermilk buscuits with bacon grease gravy, grits, deep fried hush puppies and the list goes on and on. I'd rather have a serving of good ole southern cookin from a mom &pop shop that cost $5 than a pretendious portion that cost $75.

    And I agree with the assessment that we need to drop all the color race adjectives. "I have a dream that one day my children will not be judged by the color of thier skin but by the content of thier character." MLK....People should not be throwing, using their color race as a catapult or excuse but live thier lives so that the content of thier character is beyond reproach. An example of all regardless of color.

    February 28, 2012 at 10:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • hilo, hawaii

      Best post here.
      -but now I'm hungry!

      February 29, 2012 at 2:19 pm | Report abuse |
  32. Craig

    This article is a TOTAL LIE!! Marcus Samuelsson is a Swede! He is NOT American (or "African-American" for that matter). I lived in Sweden for years, he has been a TV chef in Stockholm for years, speaking Native swedish, dude is 41 years old and moved here at 35yrs old. (Sweden isn't exactly "the hood" either)... And how is one "Half 'African-american' and Somali." This Ali guys is Half African, Half American, at most (Somalia is IN AFRICA!!). As Bill Cosby said, You are either American or not. This article is a stretch, (In other words, a lie) and offensive to me as an American whose parents and grandparents fought for this country.

    February 28, 2012 at 8:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • MySay500

      Agree with Bill Cosby's assessment about what is an American 100%.

      February 29, 2012 at 1:31 pm | Report abuse |
  33. ChaCha

    Isn't Samuelsson Etiopian and Ali of Spanish decent. Skin color doesn't define one's race.

    February 28, 2012 at 8:07 pm | Report abuse |
  34. T Lee

    Great article!!!

    February 28, 2012 at 6:41 pm | Report abuse |
  35. Elisha

    I think it is awesome that these two men are able to add to what African-Americans do....I do agree though with Ali...why not just a chef...what do we have to use the adjective black?

    February 28, 2012 at 4:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • Sean

      They only reason you are seeing this article is because they are black.

      February 29, 2012 at 11:55 am | Report abuse |
    • Dduke

      What they do? You mean crime?

      February 29, 2012 at 1:55 pm | Report abuse |
      • Lisa D

        @Dduke, at least you realize that AIDS does not discriminate, funny, no disease and/or affliction maintains itself in just one population of people. Wish you must success in your bigotry 🙂

        March 3, 2012 at 6:19 pm | Report abuse |