As someone who was fortunate enough to be born in this country there are times when I have been guilty of taking being a United States citizen for granted. My family members emigrated during the late 19th and early 20th centuries and set down roots. My culture and way of life are shared by the majority of the people here so I've never felt uncomfortable or like an outsider.
But what if your family came here after a crisis in your native country? What if because of how you dress, or how you speak, or how you look, you are viewed with skepticism, fear, and in many cases, outright hostility? What must that experience be like? How do you begin to become an "American" while still maintaining your love for where you came from?
James Beard Award winning chef Marcus Samuelsson is exploring that experience in his new six-part television series No Passport Required (Tuesdays at 9/8c on PBS or streaming on the PBS app). I've seen the first two episodes and here's what I think.
If you're not familiar with Chef Samuelsson or his story you really should be. Born in Ethiopia, he and his sister were adopted by a Swedish family after his mother died during a tuberculosis epidemic (his story is told in great detail on an episode of Anthony Bourdain's Parts Unknown). He attended culinary school in Sweden, and came to the U.S. in 1994 to apprentice at the New York Swedish inspired Restaurant Aquavit. He became executive chef and at 24 became the youngest chef to ever receive a three-star restaurant review from the New York Times. He now lives in Harlem very close to his iconic restaurant Red Rooster. He has won Top Chef:Masters, and is frequently a judge on Food Network shows like Chopped.
But he also an immigrant not once, but twice. He's had to adapt to three very different cultures -- four if you think New York is a culture all its own. He understands what the people he meets and eats with on each episode are going through. How do maintain the delicate balance of being of two countries? The answer more often than not is through their food.
Episode 1: Detroit.
The first episode looks at the Arab and Arab-American community in Detroit and Dearborn, Michigan. I don't believe this was a random choice. We are living in a time where our President and his supporters are actively hostile towards Arabs and Muslims specifically. To be an Arabic Muslim living in America is to be constantly scrutinized and in far too many cases, harassed. Chef Samuelsson shows the members of the community to be hard working, family oriented, funny, intelligent people. You know, just like a lot of other Americans. What becomes very clear very quickly in the show is that all of the people he meets are fiercely proud of who they are, where they come from, and what they have to contribute to their communities. From the Iraqi baker who recently arrived to America, to the Lebanese restaurant owner who has been here since the late 60's and said he feels "more American than Lebanese", each person has such an interesting story to tell. One of the more poignant moments for me is when Chef Samuelsson goes to the home of a family of Syrian refugees who came to America after fleeing the violence in their country. They prepare a huge, amazing looking dinner for Chef Samuelsson and during the meal the camera pans over to the newest member of the family, born in America, and as much a citizen as I am.
The food in the episode looks fantastic. From the falafel stuffed into freshly baked Iraqi bread and the gorgeous fattoush salad, to the Lebanese dessert kanafeh made by Chef Lena Sareini with goat cheese and topped with shredded phyllo dough, there were several places I made notes to visit the next time I'm in the area.
Episode 2: New Orleans
Episode 2 finds Chef Samuelsson exploring the New Orleans Vietnamese community. After the fall of Saigon in 1975 thousands of Vietnamese refugees made their way to New Orleans and settled in the eastern part of the city. Because of the language barrier many faced as well as some hostility from the folks who were already in the neighborhoods, the first generation Vietnamese immigrants stayed very insular and kept to themselves. They started businesses like gas stations, and bakeries, and lots of them got into fishing and shrimping. They sent their kids to school and those kids grew up as Vietnamese-Americans living in New Orleans so of course many of them were going to gravitate towards the food industry.
In addition to restaurants that serve traditional Vietnamese dishes like pho, there has been an amazing "creole" cuisine that has sprung up that fuses Vietnamese and New Orleans ingredients and dishes into a whole new, over the top hybrid.
One of the restaurants he visits is T2, the brainchild of Chef Tung Nguyen, located in the rebuilt St. Roch Market. Chef Nguyen has adapted street food from around the world with ingredients found in and around New Orleans. So you'll find Chinese Bao with pulled pork and a creole mustard aioli and spicy ponzu, and a Vietnamese Banh Mi sandwich made with pastrami.
Other stops include the Manchu food store where a line of people out the door are waiting for their famous Vietnamese spiced chicken wings, Banh Mi Boys where they have combined the traditional banh mi sandwich with the iconic New Orleans po boy to create a whole new sandwich, and the famous Dooky Chase Restaurant where the Queen of Creole cooking herself Leah Chase talks about the influx of new and exciting ingredients from Latin America and Asia, using lemongrass and wanting to combine Vietnamese and Southern American greens. "I'll creole anything!" she says to Chef Samuelsson.
One theme that keeps coming up over and over in both episodes is the idea that as immigrants to The United States it can be a difficult balance of being "American" as well as being Iraqi, Syrian, Lebanese, or Vietnamese. Your roots aren't going away, but America is still looked at as a place where if you work hard you can build a business and build a legacy for you and your family.
I believe one of the greatest, if not THE greatest thing about America is that we are a nation of immigrants. The United States is a beacon of hope to people from all over the world. With No Passport Required Chef Marcus Samuelsson is doing a great job showing that immigrants are really the backbone of who we are and what we can achieve.
Future episodes will chronicle Chef Samuelsson as he goes to Chicago to explore the cuisine and heritage of the Mexican community; Queens, New York for Indo-Guyanese food, Washington, D.C. for traditional Ethiopian fare; and Miami where the Haitian community has put down roots for decades. I cannot wait to watch them all.