Chef Marcus Samuelsson on guest-editing Bon Appétit’s holiday issue
Conde Nast’s Bon Appétit is closing out a difficult year for the restaurant industry with a special holiday issue guest-edited by Marcus Samuelsson.
While the Ethiopian-Swedish chef is best known to foodies for his celebrated Harlem restaurant Red Rooster (the flagship of a mini food empire), he’s become a household name to millions thanks to his frequent appearances as a judge on shows including “Top Chef” and “Iron Chef USA.” The author of several best-selling cookbooks—including, most recently, “The Rise: Black Cooks and the Soul of American Food”—he’s also an in-demand educator, with advisory and faculty positions at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City and the Umeå University School of Restaurant and Culinary Arts in Umeå, Sweden. He served as the guest chef for the first state dinner hosted by the Obama White House, and he’s collaborated with hospitality brands around the world, including Clarion Hotels and MGM, on launching restaurant concepts and rethinking menus.
Earlier this year, Condé Nast CEO Roger Lynch and Condé Nast Artistic Director Anna Wintour named him global brand advisor for Bon Appétit.
Ad Age spoke with Samuelsson on the eve of the release of BA’s holiday issue, which starts hitting subscribers’ mailboxes and newsstands today.
(This interview has been lightly edited for space and clarity.)
Why did you say yes to this? Guest-editing a magazine is such a huge undertaking. What made you decide, OK, I can squeeze this into my schedule?
Well, I never looked at work in terms of if I can squeeze it into my schedule. You know, creating “The Rise” took four years, or creating Red Rooster took six years of my life. And none of it was based on scheduling.
But with this you had a very hard deadline.
I just think that, you know, first of all, Bon App is a legacy brand in the food industry, right? And when Anna called me, she was very straightforward. And I appreciated that she called me. And it’s a huge honor to guest-edit a big American magazine, an iconic magazine. And not only Anna, but the entire Bon Appétit team was open to actually doing a transformative holiday issue.
Heading up the issue was also connected to your larger role in terms of transforming Bon Appétit as a brand, from what I understand?
My role grew in terms of being a part of hiring people, including chefs for Bon App’s video platform, to really work fundamentally deeper on making it a much more inclusive platform. So, you know, that was important to me: that it would not be just one thing, but the totality of this, right?
Meanwhile, Bon App was definitely making it clear that it was moving aggressively toward transforming the brand—and moving past the controversy from earlier this year. Over the summer, Condé brought on a whole new slate of talent and management: Agnes Chu, the former head of content for Disney+, now heading up Condé Nast Entertainment. And Sonia Chopra, from Eater, who joined Bon Appétit as executive editor. And, of course, Dawn Davis, from Simon & Schuster, who was formally named Bon App’s new editor-in-chief in August but didn’t formally start until November 2—which created the window for your guest-editing role for the holiday issue.
Agnes coming aboard, that was massive. Dawn and Sonia coming on board, that was amazing. The holiday issue could not have been done without Dawn and Sonia. And then you have an amazing team at Bon App, who know incredibly well the fundamentals of making the magazine. So, then it was just about: Who do we highlight in the holiday issue? What do we highlight? How do we have a tonality that both covers COVID, in the restaurant life, but also celebrates inclusion and holidays?
Just to clarify, when did your role at Condé Nast start?
I started this process in late June, early July. There were several things that we worked on, including the issue—the holiday issue—and then I supported Anna and Roger on, you know, finding Dawn and finding Sonia, as part of the interview process.
So what was your goal for the holiday issue overall? Talk about that balance of tonality, as you put it.
I think there’s a festive tone, right? It is the holidays. But at the same time, keeping a tone that is appropriate for 2020. This is the first holiday that we’re all learning to celebrate differently—the Zoom holiday, the FaceTime holiday.
Dawn was instrumental in getting Nikki Giovanni to do a poem for the issue. Anna was crucial in getting Janelle Monáe. It reminds me a lot of our restaurant work—like, there’s a front-of-the-house, there’s a back-of-the-house. It’s so much a matter of taste and vision.
I was really taken by the “Restaurants Restore Us” story in the issue, which addresses the COVID-induced crisis in the restaurant industry not only by talking to notable chefs but front-line workers. One line cook says, “I don’t have the luxury of being scared ... Fear is a rich man’s game.” A woman who works at a taco restaurant says, “Most customers wear masks, but some still think it’s a joke. I tell them, ‘I’m taking care of you, so I need you to take care of me.’ Then they put it on.” It’s just a very difficult time for a lot of people in the restaurant business.
This is the toughest season we are going into. This winter is going to be tougher than the spring we came out of, and the summer we came out of. We’re going into colder times without a stimulus—we don’t have a [financial rescue] package to land on. So, it’s a catastrophic, challenging time for my industry. And we are all feeling that. Then at the same time, there are also new ideas coming out of this—COVID entrepreneurs, a whole generation of incredible craftspeople that are able to navigate this time.
I want us at the magazine to be both informative to the reader and entertaining to the reader, but at the same time informative to the industry. How can we collectively guide each other out of this?
One interesting thing about this pandemic is that you have all this economic pressure on restaurants, but then also this kind of renaissance of people rediscovering their joy of cooking at home for their families, for the people in their bubbles. It’s about coming together over food in very difficult times.
Any time there’s an intersection between professional and passionate home cooks, we should be there, and we should keep inspiring, right? If you look at what happened out of the 2008 crisis, a lot of people left corporate America and started food craftsmanship—candy, chocolate, coffee companies and all of that stuff. So, the borderline between a professional chef and a passionate home cook is almost gone.
I know you’re planning the spring issues of Bon Appétit now, and the beautiful thing is that with talk of vaccine distribution starting potentially as soon as this month, well, there’s actual hope in the air as you’re working on those issues. And, actually, there’s a subtext of hope throughout the holiday issue as well—starting with Amirah Kassem’s “Life-of-the-Party Layer Cake” on the cover.
Amirah is such an upbeat, incredibly positive pastry chef and cake-maker, and to be able to put that on the cover—for me that signaled hope. It gives a little bit of a hope. And that’s what we want to do: We want to walk that line in terms of remembering the challenging year, but also looking at a future of hope.