A tale of two chefs: Marcus Samuelsson and Roblé Ali
(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.
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.”