It begins with a simple ritual: Every Saturday afternoon, a boy who loves to cook walks to his grandmother’s house and helps her prepare a roast chicken for dinner. The grandmother is Swedish, a retired domestic.
The boy is Ethiopian and adopted, and he will grow up to become the world-renowned chef Marcus Samuelsson. Chef Samuelsson’s newly published memoir, Yes, Chef is his love letter to food and family in all its manifestations.
In Yes, Chef I talk fondly about my Swedish grandmother, Helga, and how she taught me to cook. She was a maid for the “fine folk” as she called them, and it was there she learned how to make restaurant-worthy meals.
Helga was also thrifty and wasted nothing — if we had roast chicken on Wednesday we had chicken and dumplings on Thursday then chicken soup on Friday. She taught me how to use every part of an animal, vegetable or fruit when cooking, and I take that lesson into my kitchen at Red Rooster or my kitchen at home.
Did you know beet stems are as delicious as the actual beet? Cooking should be fun and experimental and it’s even better when you have the best (not necessarily the most expensive) ingredients available to you. That way you’ll want to use every part.
Don’t just use parsley as a garnish; use it instead of lettuce the next time you make a salad.
And if you don’t have an ingredient or spice available to you, think about ways to diversify your dish, like substituting farro for rice. Farro, a wheat grain eaten in Italian, Armenian, Swiss and German cultures, is nuttier, more nutritious and has a great bite to it. Changing up your ingredients also exposes your palate to different tastes and opens up a whole new world of cooking options.
I chronicle all the places I’ve cooked in Yes, Chef — Sweden, Switzerland, Austria, France — and I talk about the first time I learned about berbere, that incredible spice blend from Ethiopia that I now use frequently in my cooking, and the first time I tasted Japanese food.
I was trained to believe that the best food comes from France — but that isn’t the case. The best food comes from any culture that takes pride in what they’re cooking — I’ve had the most amazing tongue tacos from a hole-in-the-wall spot in Spanish Harlem, the lightest tempura from an 8-person restaurant in Tokyo, and the fluffiest couscous sitting in the home of my friend’s house in Morocco.
Teach your neighbors about your culture, your traditions, to give and gain exposure to new flavors. You might be Jamaican but only have access to Asian spices — use Korean red pepper paste to spice up your jerk sauce. Sure it might not be authentic, but you can learn to build new recipes and create a personal spin to a dish. Being flexible when you cook is also important to people who live in areas that have food chasms, a gulf in availability to nutritious food options, that exist in our urban and rural neighborhoods.
When buying baby kale or Meyer lemons for a dish isn’t an option, it doesn’t mean all hope is lost — it’s about knowing how to create the same flavor profiles with what’s available to you. In Harlem where I live, it’s easier to buy a can of soda than it is to buy fresh apples. Access to farmer’s markets and fresh fruits and vegetables is gaining ground but we’re not completely there yet.
Whole Foods Market® opened its newest New York location on 97th Street and that’s great.
I personally hope they continue moving north and that other likeminded retailers follow. One way to close the fresh food gap is for communities to collaborate on ideas and work with the small and large businesses to create urban gardens or teach children what foods are the most nutritious. Want to start the change at home? Invite your neighbors over for dinner and make them a dish from your culture using ingredients found within walking distance — you’ve just added another food option to their list and they in turn will do the same.
How can we close the gap in areas that have food chasms? I'd love to hear your ideas.