Table of Contents:
- WaitWhat’s Jai Punjabi on cooking 21 meals with his family in 7 days
- Marcus Samuelsson recounts his early travels
- Telling the stories of Scandinavian cuisine at NYC’s Aquavit
- Marcus moves to Harlem
- Thelma Golden on presenting diverse art at Harlem’s Studio Museum
- Why Marcus built a media company around food
- Why Marcus created a community kitchen during Covid
Start with a story, cook up success
WaitWhat’s Jai Punjabi on cooking 21 meals with his family in 7 days
JAI PUNJABI: One of the dishes that is so dear to me, it’s something that I loved growing up, is a dish called Sai Baji, a spinach and lentil stew that has 10 other vegetables that have been pureed and delicately weaved into the stew, so you get this complex amalgam of flavors.
REID HOFFMAN: That’s Jai Punjabi. He’s a co-founder and head of television at WaitWhat, the company that produces Masters of Scale. The dish he’s talking about sounds delicious, but for him, there’s a deeper meaning to it than simple comfort food.
PUNJABI: When my father was just eight years old, he was in a refugee camp in Bombay, after the partition of India and Pakistan. He would go out and seek this dish in the home of people in the refugee camp, because it became a thing that connected him to the home that he had left and the world that he was familiar with.
HOFFMAN: That was just one of the many personal stories Jai heard for the first time, thanks to an informal experiment he undertook when visiting family in India.
PUNJABI: I only get a chance to go once a year for about 10 days, and I was searching for a way to connect deeply with them while we’re there. So I came up with this adventure. I identified 21 of our favorite home-cooked meals growing up. Over the course of seven days, we cooked all 21 of them for breakfast, lunch and dinner. My parents, my entire family, my brother, everyone was in the kitchen together. It was complete anarchy and chaos. We started to share stories about our lives and I started to hear things about my family that I’d never heard before, and it connected me with them in a way in which I could never imagine. And that time ended up becoming sacred.
HOFFMAN: On returning home to New York, Jai couldn’t stop thinking about how sharing those 21 meals with his family had opened a wellspring of unexpected stories. Jai’s colleagues at WaitWhat were also enthralled. So, they decided to dedicate an episode of the WaitWhat podcast, Meditative Story, to Jai’s project. The episode, titled “21 Meals,” struck a chord with thousands of listeners.
PUNJABI: The response was unbelievable — countless people sharing how my experience resembled theirs and how the story had opened up a dialogue between them and their family. It was more than just a story. It felt like a movement. When you start to hear from other people about how they’re moved, you almost let go of your own ego and you kind of understand that storytelling and connecting with people, it’s kind of a service. As you bring your story to life and you share it, it’s really no longer your own. You are a spark and a catalyst for someone else to bring their own experience to life. Once you see its impact, you start to realize, it’s not about you. It’s about what you share and what that opens up for someone else and where they go and where they take it. And it continues to ripple out there into the world. We’re excited to see where we can take this next.
HOFFMAN: For Jai, uncovering the stories of his family opened an exciting new area of exploration — one that inspired others to delve in their own stories and share them. It’s a lesson every leader should bear in mind, because the best way to invite people into the story of your product is to give them a platform to share their own stories. That’s why I believe you need to amplify the unique stories of your community and your customers. Doing so will build a foundation of trust, loyalty, and enduring impact.
I wanted to speak with Marcus Samuelsson about this, because through his career as a multi-award winning chef and media personality, he has emphasized telling and amplifying the multitude of unique stories that he encounters. Marcus has founded acclaimed restaurants, including Red Rooster, Hav & Mar and Metropolis. He’s also founder of the Marcus Samuelsson Group, which produces media and events celebrating the fusion of food, art, music, and culture. Marcus’s own story begins in Ethiopia where he was born.
Marcus Samuelsson recounts his early travels
MARCUS SAMUELSSON: I was born in a hut in Ethiopia in a tiny village called Abrugandana. My sister, my mom and myself, we got tuberculosis. Our mother walked us into the capitol, which is a two hour drive, so it’s a very long walk. She found a Swedish hospital. She passed away, but my sister and I survived. Through lots of luck, but also some really good people there, we got adopted to Sweden.
HOFFMAN: For Marcus, this traumatic experience marked a huge shift in his life’s narrative, which even included changing his name.
SAMUELSSON: I went from being Casahun Sigaj to Marcus Samuelsson, left one of the warmest countries in the world to one of the coldest countries in the world. I traded chickpea puree for herring and potatoes and meatballs. So it was a lot of changes, but I was surrounded with lots of love, a very secure home with two strong parents and an older sister, grandparents. The Samuelsson tribe, we were diverse. We knew that we had each other.
HOFFMAN: One family member in particular was an influence on Marcus.
SAMUELSSON: Cooking found me through my grandmother, Helga. She was a master of that. I started to understand the essence of taste, just through my grandmother’s meatballs. We had school lunches and then we had the lunch and dinner I got at home by my parents. And then I got the lunch or dinner I got by my grandparents. The school lunch, you were lucky to find meat in the meatballs, but they were perfectly round, not that tasty. My mom, that was super busy, her meatballs could be one giant patty that we had to cut up ourselves as kids. And then our grandmother’s meatballs, they were not perfectly round in shape, but they were lovely, they were delicious. Very early, I understand that things can taste differently based on who makes them.
SAMUELSSON: Charlie Trotter’s first cookbook transformed my life. I was blown away that he wasn’t French, he was American, and it opened a door to me that America was possible. I remember reading Marco Pierre White’s first book, White Heat. The fact that he was young and had long hair and smoked… I thought, okay, if he can do all those things, there’s got to be room for a black chef.
HOFFMAN: Inspired by these stories, Marcus spent his late teens and early 20s working as an apprentice in restaurants across the world. Japan, in particular, left a deep impression.
SAMUELSSON: When I went to Japan the first time, and I learned about umami, for example, which is something that I didn’t know what it was, but to taste it, feel it, to be around it, I felt like, wow, this is a different world.
HOFFMAN: Marcus kept coming across new flavors, dishes, and approaches to creating food. So when he returned to Europe to work in France, he was struck by the narrow definition of fine dining that prevailed amongst influential chefs there.
SAMUELSSON: I grew up in a time where all the good food was French, and I’m like, that doesn’t make any sense. There’s tons of great food here in Japan, tons of great food in Singapore. How come that doesn’t get acknowledged? How come I can’t buy a cookbook about this? There’s another world out there and you have to discover it.
HOFFMAN: There was another reason Marcus found his return to Europe difficult.
SAMUELSSON: I was speaking to my chef and he says to me, “As a young Black chef, you can’t ever own a restaurant. No one’s going to support it.” And he gave me two examples. Do you know anyone that looks like you that have a restaurant in France? I was like, no, I don’t know a lot of places in France. And then he is like, do you know anyone in Europe? I was like, I haven’t been all over Europe. But that was his point, to say, this is not possible. And I said to him, well, I got to go. I can’t lower my dream. I can’t lower my ambition.
HOFFMAN: That chef’s ludicrously narrow-minded view was rooted in his inability to understand stories that differed from his own. For that chef, being white was a non-negotiable part of the story of any head chef. This is an extreme example of how being closed off to the diverse stories around you will lead you to overlook talent and opportunity. That head chef’s narrow view alienated and drove away Marcus, one of the most promising rising talents on his team. Fortunately, Marcus had faith in his own abilities. All he needed was to find a place that celebrated a diversity of stories.
Telling the stories of Scandinavian cuisine at NYC’s Aquavit
SAMUELSSON: New York City became the place that made sense for me. I just felt it was my time to start my own thing.
SAMUELSSON: First of all, I love New York, right away. I love the noise. I love the smell. I love the ******* from the subway, get out of my way. I have somewhere to stay, which was a massage bed, with my four roommates. And I was loaded, I had $300. Within a week, I got a job.
HOFFMAN: Despite all the distractions of New York, Marcus kept laser focused on his work.
SAMUELSSON: Once you love where you are, a new medium, which I’ve always loved my medium, it’s like a calling. You don’t think about how many hours you work, you don’t think about how much you give to it. So I could really give myself to food in this opportunity… fully.
HOFFMAN: However, shortly after Marcus joined the team at Aquavit, the head chef, Jan Sendel, passed away. Marcus’s work ethic and talent had already been noticed by the restaurant owners, so they offered him the role of head chef. He was just 23 years old.
SAMUELSSON: I had support within the ownership group, and they believed in me, and they supported me. And I also loved what I was doing, I loved the city. So it was, let’s go.
SAMUELSSON: So the three stars were great, but one of the best things about being 23 is that at my case, at least, I had no clue what it meant. I just knew that we went from kind of busy on the weekends, not so busy on Monday, Tuesday, to busy all the time. So now it’s just about working hard and having a mission.
HOFFMAN: For the next six years, Marcus grew Aquavit’s reputation as one of New York’s most exciting dining destinations. But then, on September 11th, 2001, everything changed for the city Marcus now called home.
SAMUELSSON: It’s still to this day, very challenging even to speak about, because I cooked at the World Trade Center the weekend before it happened. And so I knew a lot of the cooks and servers that passed away that morning. It was very difficult. I didn’t know what to do. Should I go back to Sweden?
HOFFMAN: We will hear what Marcus decided after the break.
HOFFMAN: We’re back with Marcus Samuelsson. To see exclusive clips from my interview with Marcus, head to the Masters of Scale YouTube channel.
Before the break, we heard how Marcus reached a turning point after the September 11 attacks on New York.
SAMUELSSON: It was very difficult. I didn’t know what to do. Should I go back to Sweden? But I can’t leave because of this, because I just felt like… you don’t do that. You can’t. No, I just couldn’t do that.
Marcus moves to Harlem
HOFFMAN: Marcus knew he was going to stay in New York, but he also knew he needed to change things up. A conversation with his mom gave him focus.
SAMUELSSON: So my mom said, “You need to change. Why is your experiences always high end expensive? Do something in your neighborhood that is more affordable.”
HOFFMAN: Aquavit was embracing a diversity of stories to inspire the food it served. But Marcus realized that this diversity was not reflected in the restaurant’s customers. This meant there were huge numbers of people who wouldn’t even consider stepping through the doors of Aquavit.
Marcus came to realize that he wanted to focus on building institutions that reflected the communities around them, institutions that celebrated and elevated a wide range of stories and lived experiences. So he took the decision to move to a different part of the city, somewhere that would put him in the midst of a thriving hum of vibrant stories.
SAMUELSSON: I moved from Midtown to Harlem, and those 50 blocks was like moving to a different country. And I think my love affair for Harlem really starts there.
HOFFMAN: The move opened Marcus up to thousands of new stories.
SAMUELSSON: I noticed right away that everything worked different uptown. The good food was not necessarily in a traditional restaurant. It could be Oyster Mike that pulled up right by the subway station. Or it could be a church lady that handed out cornbread or the Jamaican jerk guy that we had to figure out in which park it was in. And he was not online, but people were in the know because there’s a line once I got there, so I was clearly just new in the neighborhood. So it was this kind of more scratchy, but delicious, very community driven. And that journey and thirst I had to learn about what’s going on here.
HOFFMAN: Harlem was an invigorating new environment for Marcus, where individual stories fed into a communal narrative that stretched across generations and continents.
SAMUELSSON: I walked in a neighborhood that kind of wrote the story for me if I was just quiet and just observed enough, just as much as I learned brand new things when I came to Asia or when I came to France. And it was something exciting to be at that point, been working for 10, 12 years at a very high level, but then I have to like, none of that stuff matters. Throw that out. I was a student again, which I really loved.
Thelma Golden on presenting diverse art at Harlem’s Studio Museum
HOFFMAN: This is one of the most important reasons to make yourself a platform for sharing stories. It primes you to constantly learn new things and take on new perspectives. Someone who is at the nexus of the complex narratives that flow through Harlem is Thelma Golden. She’s the director and chief curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem, an institution that plays a pivotal role in the cultural and artistic life of Harlem and the broader art world. She’s also been a friend to Marcus since his days at Aquavit. Delmar recalls how Marcus’s passion for Harlem played a part in her decision to join the Studio Museum in 2000 as Deputy Director for Exhibitions.
THELMA GOLDEN: I did not live in Harlem, but my father was born in Harlem in 1926. And he held a love for Harlem in the deepest, most profound way. And Marcus was the exact, very same way. He was spending so much time thinking and looking and experiencing Harlem. That opened up ideas about Harlem for me that while I knew were in me quite literally, right, embedded in my DNA, had not activated. When I applied and was offered the job at the Studio Museum, Marcus is one of the first people I spoke to about was this the right moment, and he was enthusiastic in his sense of what this possibility could mean. I, of course, understood it from my curatorial perspective, my art career perspective. Just thinking about what the social scientists call placemaking.
HOFFMAN: Placemaking is a collaborative process of creating vibrant, inclusive environments that foster stronger community ties and enhance the overall quality of life. The Studio Museum has been at the heart of placemaking in Harlem since its founding in 1968.
GOLDEN: The Studio Museum was founded in the cauldron of the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Power Movement. And at that time, there was a sort of clarion call for the ways in which arts and culture played into an understanding of the liberation of black people. And so the founders of the Studio Museum were an incredibly diverse group that came together, all with the distinct idea that Harlem deserved an institution devoted to the presentation of visual art by black people. But they also wanted, in creating a museum, at that point in the late sixties, to project into a future. So it was a very bold task. It was one that was, on the one hand, holding to legacy, but it also was incredibly radical in its sense of future making. Exhibitions such as the museum’s Harlem Renaissance exhibition defined an art history. And of course, all through that moment, the museum mounted exhibitions of African-American artists of significance, artists such as Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden, Faith Ringgold, Elizabeth Catlett, Betye Saar, Alma Thomas, and so, so many more.
HOFFMAN: Sharing such a diverse range of stories is at the heart of placemaking and helps build and sustain momentum for positive change.
GOLDEN: I think that art spaces can be catalysts for change, through the ability to find a space to understand the diversity of perspectives and ideas. Through the engagement with art, we are constantly being offered an opportunity to understand the complexity of the world in our own lives, through the stories and the narratives. Presenting a broad range of diverse art allows for a community to see itself reflected.
HOFFMAN: Following his move to Harlem, Marcus established a new restaurant, serving food with a Japanese influence named Riingo, and then another focused on cuisine from across Africa named Merkado 55. He also published a number of cookbooks and hosted a show on the Discovery Channel. However, Marcus found himself getting more and more immersed in the diverse food, stories, and cultures of Harlem. So in 2010, he opened a new restaurant, Red Rooster. Through it, Marcus wanted to celebrate the neighborhood’s rich heritage through not only food, but by programming, inclusive events and entertainment.
SAMUELSSON: This programming idea really stemmed out of the bedrock of the creative community. The churches in Harlem, the music, whether it was gospel, also jazz, why don’t we go from gospel brunch on Sunday to jazz night on Sunday. On the weekends, it’s this kind of block parties environment and everybody cooks and helps out.
Why Marcus built a media company around food
HOFFMAN: Marcus was excited about the possibilities of combining all these unique stories, but he foresaw a challenge.
SAMUELSSON: One of the things, as a Black person, very often, our art gets miscommunicated or misunderstood, because there’s not a lot of people of color that are in the writing or in the editor process. If we were to talk about something that comes, food out of the migration and then even more twist of Africa on that, hey, there’s not a lot of journalists left at that point, that 2008, 2009, that would actually understand.
HOFFMAN: So Marcus came up with a bold way to overcome this.
SAMUELSSON: I said, “We got to be both a hospitality company and a media company. And we have to drive the media out, drive content, drive narrative. We can do cookbooks, we can do blogs. You have to be in media, and you have to have something to say.”
HOFFMAN: Marcus knew that he had to take charge of the narrative around Red Rooster in order to amplify the stories of the community. In doing so, Red Rooster and his media group would become conduits for sharing a multitude of stories. Marcus created cookbooks such as The Rise: Black Cooks and the Soul of American Food. He showcased the rich stories of immigrant food in his TV show, No Passport Required. And he leaned into the unique perspectives that surrounded him in Harlem with a Harlem Meet Up Food Festival. Here’s Marcus describing how that festival incorporates and celebrates many different stories.
SAMUELSSON: There’s about 15,000 people come to Harlem to spend money at local restaurants. It’s also is a TV show that runs on ABC as a charitable component to it. So a nine-year-old can take part of kids’ cooking classes. The parents can participate in the dinner series. The sponsors can obviously take part in the dinner series, but also in the TV show in terms of advertisement, right? So you create content that is, just doesn’t operate on one level
HOFFMAN: For Marcus, there’s one constant when it comes to sharing these stories.
SAMUELSSON: What I’ve learned in the media game is you constantly have to innovate. Whether that’s in a restaurant, book, audio or TV, it’s about building something, creating an audience, and you got to make it sticky, otherwise, that audience doesn’t come back.
HOFFMAN: The way to make it sticky is by telling compelling, surprising, new stories. That can be as grand as a multi-part TV series, or as simple as finding new twists on established meals, something Marcus was challenged with when President Barack Obama asked him to create a state dinner at the White House for a visit by the Indian Prime Minister.
SAMUELSSON: Well, cooking for President Obama was a huge, huge honor. Four courses in 44 minutes, 400 people. I started to look at state dinners and they were all French, and I’m like, that makes sense if there’s a French delegation coming, but if it’s Indian, we really got to show the best of American, the best of India, and really how do we present this? I thought about all these politicians, about delegates from India. They probably don’t know each other. I was like, let’s break bread. And bread baskets was big, with cornbread and chapattis and both Indian and American ties to it.
HOFFMAN: With that meal, Marcus helped tell a story with a fresh perspective, merging the experiences and cultures of different parts of America and India. Following that dinner, Marcus continued to scale the reach of his media company and his restaurants, opening locations across the world that became pillars in his mission to elevate diverse narratives.
Why Marcus created a community kitchen during Covid
But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, he immediately began hearing harrowing stories from across the planet.
SAMUELSSON: We had restaurants in Canada and Montreal and Bahamas, Sweden and London. Every call that we got was worse than the other, and we didn’t know what to do, so it was scary. Wow. It took 20 years to build and 10 days to break down.
HOFFMAN: Marcus didn’t speak just to his own restaurants, he got on calls with other chefs. The calls quickly became about more than mutual commiseration.
SAMUELSSON: The chef community is very strong. Calls from Dan Meyer, Tom Colicchio, Jose Andres. So eventually we started Independent Restaurant Coalition. That was a place where we can jump on calls and talk and how did you solve that? And this is what’s happening in California. This is what’s happening upstate. It became a thing with hundreds of people on the call.
HOFFMAN: Out of the sharing of so many different stories, came hope. So when the pandemic began to tail off, talk turned to recovery. For Marcus and his fellow chefs, that meant helping people who were having trouble getting food.
SAMUELSSON: And then Jose said, we know how to serve safe food. We have masks, we have gloves. You got to gather people. We’re going to put this together. I said, I can do that.
HOFFMAN: This was the beginning of the Red Rooster Community Kitchen, an initiative to help feed people struggling with the isolation and lost income thrust upon them by the pandemic.
SAMUELSSON: He’s like, Marcus, do you think if we serve food, do you think people will come? I say, absolutely. We served 200 people the first day, 300 people the next day, 800 people and eventually 1500 people. And after a couple of weeks in, I realized, after all the success we had with Red Rooster, the most important work came at the toughest time.
HOFFMAN: The community kitchen reflected the ethos of the Red Rooster as a community space that celebrates the rich cultural heritage of Harlem and where everyone feels empowered to share their own stories.
SAMUELSSON: We have new guests and they could be food insecure, but they were guests, and they have opinions just as much as Harlemites or downtowners.
HOFFMAN: Marcus listened to those stories from his guests with an open mind.
SAMUELSSON: They’re like, Hey, we love the chicken better yesterday. Okay, how come we don’t get dessert today or with all these type of questions, there was just like a dialogue. In the beginning, it was just local to home insecure and food insecure people. And the word got out. People came in buses. And then towards the end, people came in the cars. Now it was my neighbors. It was not just, people came from shelters and so on. It did transform us, transform myself.
HOFFMAN: The pandemic also gave Marcus time to think about a new project.
SAMUELSSON: The country was really going through a lot of different things. We went through the tragic George Floyd incident as well, so that semi pause as a creative, which you never really get, what you’re supposed to get, was massive. I’m like, if I ever get a chance to do this again, I know that the things that are not working in our industry, it’s like, okay, if I’m going to open up a restaurant, I want to do it with people of color in center and women of color in leadership, and we created our new restaurant Hav & Mar. It is the restaurant where all leadership positions are held by women of color.
HOFFMAN: At the core of Hav & Mar is that continual drive to highlight diverse stories that fuels all of Marcus’s work.
SAMUELSSON: When it comes to black food, for me, it was very important for people to understand that it’s not a monolithic conversation. A Jamaican and a Haitian person both love food, but one does griot and great black rice, and one does jerk chicken, and they’re both black food, but they’re very, very different experiences and they should be celebrated. Part of being a leadership position is I cannot sit on the sidelines. For me, it’s like, rather than complain, ask what can you do about it? And create and shape a better future.
HOFFMAN: As a leader, your role as a storyteller transcends the boundaries of your personal journey. By giving voice to the varied experiences of your team, your customers, and the broader community, you can help weave a narrative that’s rich in diversity and depth. This not only built a resilient and lasting organization, but also cultivates an environment where every story is valued.
I’m Reid Hoffman. Thanks for listening.