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Marcus Samuelsson's Lessons From the Kitchen
“You have to evolve as a leader. It’s important to stay curious,” said award-winning chef and restaurateur Marcus Samuelsson at Leadercast Live 2019. He would know—he received accolades for his skills in 1995 at a recording-breaking young age. Marcus was the first chef to receive a three-star rating from the New York Times at age 23. Since then, he has opened multiple restaurants, written several books and become a TV personality.
One leadership lesson Marcus has learned over the years is the importance of staying connected to his customers. “We need a pipeline to know what people are thinking,” he said. “I have to be in my community and of my community, and I need to be just as passionate as they are about my food.”
Marcus believes hard work and passion will take a leader far. “You must lead through your work ethic,” he says. “If you are committed to the craft and have the passion, there will always be a space for you and you can make a difference.”
He warns against letting one bad day cloud perspective. “When you have a bad day, you have to remember your why,” he says. “Separate a bad moment from why you got into the industry.”
Even so, Marcus reminds leaders that they have to face high-stress situations to grow.
Stephanie Davis Smith: So for all the foodies out there, this one's for you, because I'm having a moment. I'm so glad to . . . we actually met last week in New York. So it's good to be with you again. I wanted to start a couple of the questions about when you were younger because there are a lot of young leaders here and people leading young people. At age 23, you became the executive chef at Aquavit in Manhattan. And you were the first . . . youngest person to ever to get three stars by "The New York Times." Kind of remarkable. Why do you think people follow a young leader? Or what do you think about you as a young leader they followed?
Marcus: I think leadership is really it's something very personal, and then you got to project it out to your team, your tribe, and I think it's something that you have to work at and you have to evolve, right? And I look at it when I was 23, and took over a team, I didn't know management skill. I had zero management skill. But I could lead through my work effort and talent, right? I had a vision and had a young enough hardworking people that said, "Hey, we're going to follow you." And that led to that success.
But I think leadership for me was also taught in the home by my father, and mom, but just in a very different ways. My father grew up in a fishing village and he was a fisherman until he eventually was the first person in his village to go to college, university, and eventually get a PhD and started geologists business, right?
So when we went back to his village, he had to lead very, very differently. The fishing village, very different than he had to lead the office where they were building bridges and looking for minerals all over the world, right? But as a kid, I was fortunate enough to be able to go in this world. I was, you know, part of my dad's journey. Going to the office, but also getting my own room, moving to a bigger house, things that I could measure, right?
But every summer when schools were out, we went back to the fishing village. I had to be part of that. And it was very important for us to be a certain way in the village. And to be able to have the capacity to both be in the village and in the city was something that I saw early on in our own family.
And secondly, I think all of us we have different experiences to draw on. One of the two biggest blessing for me has been to be a black man and to be an immigrant, right?
Stephanie: You had said you've been an immigrant six times in your life.
Marcus: Yeah, I've been an immigrant bunch of times, and I've been black for a long time. But I do think that . . . I say those two things because there is really experiences there, right? As immigrant, I was 17 years old when I moved to Japan. Imagine, look at the person you sit next to, and you guys can finish and accomplish something at high excellence, and you take language out of it, and you take internet out of it. So I worked at one of the top fish restaurants in Japan at 17. And no one can speak the language, my language, right? They spoke their language, I didn't speak theirs. And it was only excellence was the only thing that was allowed. So being put at an early age in these experiences and then coming out of it and knowing that you can hang, that's a transformable experience, right?
Same thing then when I went to France and worked in a three-star Michelin, so having those . . . so I think it's whether you are immigrant or not everyone have been born a place, maybe gone to college in different place, moved to another place, maybe lost a job, maybe created a new career. Those are similar experiences.
And I think you have to have the compassion and emotional intelligence to understand how does my team feel not just up, but also down? How do I make this whatever product you create, for me it's been restaurants, there's really two teams and tribes to speak to—the guest and the staff. And you have to speak to both equally inspirational and aspirational. And you have to deliver on both on excellence.
Stephanie: And in business that would be your consumer and then your employees. So very similar. And one thing you said I love is excellence was the language. What a great takeaway for anyone. When you don't speak the same language, excellence is what matters.
Marcus: Well, in the kitchen it's very clear and I don't suggest anyone should do this. But if you don't do it, you get a pan in your face.
Stephanie: Like that doesn't happen in magazines, but . . .
Marcus: It also doesn't happen in kitchen anymore. We had to evolve.
Stephanie: Speaking of millennials where that doesn't happen anymore. You said backstage that leading millennials is a little bit different, and what they bring to the table.
Marcus: Well, I think that at an early age, I had mentors, and they were always older than me. And now, the most important thing for me is to have young mentors. People who are 21, 22. I have a kid Jason that I work with in the office. He's amazing. He teaches me all kinds of things that I don't know anything about. And besides technology, he also taught to me emotional intelligence, how do you relate.
Because my staff are somewhere between 22 and 33. That's the sweet spot, right? So I have two choices. Should I complain every day and say I'm millennials don't get it. They don't want to work hard. Or can I actually divest my energy and be like, "Okay, what is it? How can we connect? How can we relate?" Right? And it's more . . . I just learned it's more effective to try to understand the opportunity and trying to understand the challenge and meet them halfway. So I love my staff, they have to be challenged and you have to challenge people very differently. But we're together on a journey, right?
Stephanie: That's a good one.
Marcus: Which started with me coming to New York, with $300, and now, we're in nine countries, and we have about 2,500 co-workers, and we have to deliver excellence in Stockholm, London, Bermuda, New York, Montreal in different languages, all at the same time. Otherwise, our guests will make it very, very clear, right?
And you know, working in hospitality is such an honest profession because it's not like if I'm upset with my iPhone, I have to find an iPhone store. I have to go online and fix it. But it's not equally emotionally [charged 00:07:19] as if I told you guys let's go for dinner. I order for you and it's going to be great. And then it's not great. That's a very emotionally charged situation. I kind of feel embarrassed, and I feel I let my team down.
But now, we can go online and bash the restaurant or there's so many different ways our customers are letting us know whether we do a good job and a bad job. And I think that's one of the best things that ever happened to the restaurant industry, because it keeps us much more honest and it helps us. We have a direct pipeline with our customer, which we didn't have before.
Stephanie: That's true. And you went from one kitchen to a global culinary empire. What is leading this team? It sounds like it's healthy coming from the top down. But what is leading a healthy team mean to you? And why is it important to you?
Marcus: Well, I think when I look at myself and my family, I can only be here because my wife is in on the journey.
Stephanie: Oh, that's great.
Marcus: And it's very hard to build a business, and have a family, and have this and do it at the same time at a certain level of excellence, right? So you have to have a family structure that is in on the journey, that's number one. Then you have to create, okay, what type of business are we going to build, right?
Number two, I think it's vision, mission, work ethic, right? I have to set up a vision for my team. That mission needs to be executed through enormous amount of craftsmanship. And then of course, I have to lead with my work ethic. And the leaders I put in place has to lead through their work ethic.
Restaurant, food, people, it's not a bus stop that you said, "Oh, you got three stars and now you're done. Right? That's a clear recipe for closing a restaurant. Having an opportunity to engage with people and do it in a successful way, is really in handshake. An opening is only in handshake.
When we opened Red Rooster in Harlem, people said, "You can't open a restaurant in Harlem. It's not going to work. People are not going to come." It took me a long time. It took me seven years, but I was committed to this because I knew that Harlem was different, but it was a place that had a lot of culture to it.
And in these seven years, I almost have to like x-out all the information that I've learned before. If I would have opened just downtown, I would have gone to another restaurant, seen how they do it. Hire the same stuff from their crew. In Harlem, the best food was . . . the best cornbread I've ever had was at the church program. The best . . .
Stephanie: We're from the South, so we know about that.
Marcus: The best ribs I've ever had is this Dominican lady's that sets up in the park. So when your value proposition changes, right, and you changing with it, there's a completely . . . then you have a chance to actually transform your business. And that's why it took me seven years. And when we opened people said, "Okay, you're opened now, that's great." But I was like, "No, this is it. Now, we have to listen." And people in Harlem are communicate in a very different way. They are very honest. They're going to be straight up.
And when I walked five minutes, I live five minutes away from the restaurant. My wife and I walk home at night. You know, there's these words and buzz that's constantly in front of us. Somebody might say, "Hey, why is that chicken $28? Can my uncle get a job? When is so and so coming? Last night, the music wasn't good." People are straight up coming to us like this, pa, pa, pa. And my wife was like, "Whoa, this is intimidating." I said, "You know what, you know what sound is worse than this? There's only one sound that's worse than this, quiet."
Stephanie: Nobody coming.
Marcus: Nobody cares. All of this means that people are engaged and we need to match their passion and emotional level to what Red Rooster means. So we have to transform that. So now, after the second part of Red Rooster, we opened up food festival. We started a food festival called Harlem EatUp.
Stephanie: Harlem EatUp.
Marcus: And we are on our fifth year from going for a place. Next week, Harlem EatUp starts in Harlem where 14,000 people coming to urban America, coming to Harlem to eat, spend their money. We have the number one chef in the world, Mossimo Boturra is going to come and cook with the lady from the gospel choir, right? You have chef Daniel Boulud working with Mike the oyster guy, right? That chucks his oyster outside the subway station, right? But that is transforming, that is I think it's good for Mossimo. I think it's good for Daniel, right?
And if you want to build something transformable, you have to actually be willing to do transformable things to do that. In my case, moving has being part of that, being an immigrant has been part of that. Moving within the city. When I left, I lived at Time Warner Center in New York, right? When I wanted to transform my business, I had to move to Harlem. That's like moving to another country. But that was the only way for me to be committed to say, if I'm going to do this, I have to be in my community, and of my community. I cannot do that, I can't just dial this in and say, "Hey, I'm going to take this on my back."
But actually, I live in Tribeca. There's nothing wrong with Tribeca, I love Tribeca, but I had to be part of it. And those seven years was for me like being an immigrant, but it was also transformative and that was our recipe that we needed to match not only the staffing process, but the guests' expectation, but also the expectations and be authentic in my community.
Stephanie: So I hope you are thinking about booking flights to New York to see Daniel Boulud . . .
Stephanie: . . . work with Mike the oyster guy.
Stephanie: Because that's going to be on my radar. You talked a lot about your wife, I heard a couple of things. And backstage, you were talking about women and how women have actually changed the industry in special ways. And you gave a couple examples. I'd love for you to share those.
Marcus: I mean, food is such a broad thing, right? And when you think about chefs, it has been in many cases, if you look at from one point of view, it's been a male dominated field. But I'm not looking at it from that point of view. I think the most important people in the industry is always been women. You think globally, who really sets up taste standards and starts with the home? It's predominantly women.
You think about in America think about two women. Julia Child is really the person why we have chefs on TV. I think about a lady from New Orleans. Who's from New Orleans? Is anyone from New Orleans here? Yes, yes, yes. So you guys know what I'm talking about. I'm talking about Ms. Leah Chase. She's 95 years old, right? Yes, yes, 95 years old started a business. It's a black lady, in the '40s where every night she served in her business, she broke the law.
Marcus: Every night she served, she broke the law. How?
Marcus: Because she was committed to serving a room like this. People from different backgrounds, blacks and whites and Asian, as long as they are . . . whatever it was as long as they liked her food.
So sometimes you have to break something really, really strongly because you believe in it and it's the right thing to do, right? So when I think about Leah and I think about Julia and then you move fast forward, right? Why do we have farmers market in every city today? It's really one person that started that and it is Ms. Alice Waters, right? When you think about how did pop culture and food really come together? And it goes two different waves, right? Martha Stewart, Rachael Ray. So [chefing 00:15:15] from one level is this one line. But food, I think women, specifically American women has transformed our industry and given us a platform. I wouldn't be here without any of those ladies.
Stephanie: Wow. Love hearing that. That gets a round of applause. So that's kind of the good side of the business and things like that. But many of us know from reading "Kitchen Confidential" or watching TV shows that the kitchen can sometimes be an unhealthy place. It can be a lot of screaming and anger. So what advice do you have for those people who are in a season of bad bosses or unhealthy leadership and dealing with it right now?
Marcus: I think you kind of have to hold on to the why you are in it and that is beyond your boss, right?
Stephanie: That's important.
Marcus: I had the luxury to have many, many bad bosses, but those were not the reasons screaming Hines in Switzerland was not the reason why I got into food. This is a moment, this is not why I'm here, right? So my passion for food that my grandmother was the one who taught me and my commitment to my family and driving myself to a certain level of excellence was not bounded by these four walls and having like, angry Johan in my face.
So you have to kind of be able to have the capability to look beyond this moment, right? And I think the people that I worked for they were amazing at their craft, amazing technicians, but they were not great bosses. And that's like, as long as I . . . so we have to flip it. As long as this highly emotional charged person I'm learning something. He might or she might be a very loud expressing that. You can't let that bother you, because that's not the main reason why you're in that. So you have to put yourself in an environment where there are high emotional charged situations as long as you learn.
Stephanie: As long as you're learning.
Marcus: As long as you learn. So you cannot look at it from, oh, I had a high charge meeting this morning. Guess what? Food is super highly charged. Cooking, you have a point of view. No one goes to a restaurant because I generally think that that chef sometimes can cook. If you come on Fridays, it's really good food, maybe. That doesn't happen. People show up to a restaurant because they want a specific point of view on something.
So to drive the narrative to [specificity 00:17:48], a chef is essentially a mix between three things, right? An artist, a craftsman, right? And then in the end, he or she learned to drive a business. It doesn't start with a business. It starts with, you have something to say and that inner ambition of want to communicate that. It starts with artistry. It starts with the craftsmanship. The business, you have some amazing chefs that maybe not ever get to the businesses, right? That does not mean that the restaurants are not good. That might actually mean that the best restaurants are more delicious, right? So what do you do then? You have to then surround yourself with people that can do that other side.
Stephanie: Who do you credit with showing you how to do the business side because you started with passion?
Marcus: It's the team that I've been able to work with around me and I have to evolve. I had to, you know, at an early age, I had to like if I'm going to build a business, I have to hire the people that are much better than me at these things, right? And I have an amazing team. It took me a long time to get there, but I'm enjoying the ride and enjoying the fact that people . . . I started cooking way before it was cool, and I'm going to be cooking when it might not be cool again, right?
My point is that if you are deeply passionate about something and you're committed to your craft, there will always be a space for you. Business is going to go up and down, but my passion for food, I'm actually more curious today, right? It's really important to stay curious even more important when you succeeded. And you see it in sports. You see it in music, right? Why is Roger Federer still playing tennis? Not because he needs the cash, because he's highly passionate about racket and ball.
Stephanie: He does, right.
Marcus: It is. So I think we see that in sports, we see it in leadership in terms of organization, we see it in music. And if you're committed to evolving and you're passionate about something, you can make a difference. And I'm very grateful that I have an audience on both ends, right? Both on the guests and the consumer side and on the staffing side. Because if I wouldn't have two audiences, I wouldn't be able to do it. You know, the 2,500 people that work with us worldwide, and the 20,000 people that come and eat with us on a daily and nightly basis, I owe it to them to be passionate.
Stephanie: And you are and we really appreciate that passion and what is put out into the world. Thank you so much for doing this today.
Marcus: Thank you very much.
Stephanie: Thank you, everyone.
Marcus: I see you in New York, or in London . . .
Stephanie: Or London or in Bermuda.
Marcus: Or Stockholm, wherever you want.
Stephanie: Thank you, guys.
Marcus: Thank you. Enjoy the day.
Stephanie: Thank you.
Marcus is the acclaimed chef behind many restaurants worldwide including Red Rooster Harlem, Red Rooster Shoreditch and Marcus B&P. He was the youngest person to ever receive a three-star review from The New York Times, and has wo...
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