Our “brief” at Zub Alert is to write about all things “zub”: cool, masterly, paradigmatic works, no matter the field or subject. The common thread is that we like them and want to make sure you know about them too. So today, that means I am writing about what might loosely be called a “cooking show.”
I was turned on to this PBS show by my friend Fitz, who is a great barometer for all things cool. Marcus Samulesson is an award winning chef with a famous restaurant, Red Rooster, in New York City. He also has an amazing story of his own. Born in Ethiopia, his mother died of tuberculosis when he was three. He and his sister were then adopted by a family in Sweden. On the show, he recounts being told when he started his career that a black man could not be a chef in Europe; so he left for the United States, as so many do, to achieve his dreams.
So, the conceit of No Passport Required involves Marcus travelling all over the US and connecting with immigrant enclaves. There is no need to leave the US to learn about the world, and I found this an interesting and inventive show. The show is a PBS production in concert with the foodie website Eater, so Marcus often visits some of the hotspots showcasing the young gun chefs in each city.
There are two seasons of six episodes each, and of course you cannot think of a food-as-culture show without the long, lanky shadow of the late Anthony Bourdain looming. Marcus himself was featured on Anthony’s show, putting him firmly on the star chef map. Marcus is a very good looking man with a beautiful smile, and he is very enthusiastic about learning the various cultures and their food. He seems to have an insatiable curiosity and that works well in the show. He is not as good when the conversations turn to unpleasant things about the immigrant experience, but that is a minor quibble.
I myself am an immigrant, having come to the US from Scotland in the 1960’s. As a white man with no accent, I never had the issues many immigrants do, but I understand what it means to leave a life behind and to try to make a new one. Both of my parents came from some of the worst slum tenements in Glasgow, and they were determined to give their kids a better life. This is one of the reasons I enjoy the show so much, there’s always the question: where is your home? Where are you from?
Season one features the Arab communities in Detroit and Dearborn, the strong Vietnamese settlements around New Orleans, and in the third episode, a heartfelt look at the Mexican community in Chicago. To see these people, some of the hardest working in America, being shut out via xenophobia, ‘the wall,’ repudiation of DACA, etc. is heartbreaking. They are strong, good people who only want a chance to work, and who work hard in all kinds of restaurants. I wish all Americans could see and learn from this show.
Samuelsson spends time in Queens, NY with a healthy Indo-Guyanese community along Liberty Avenue. This was a culture I knew nothing about, and their food is a great amalgam of Indian, Chinese, Caribbean, and African with Indeginous elements. In Miami, you’d expect he would be with the Cuban community, but the show concentrates on the Haiitan people in the city, their proud heritage, the hardships they have endured, and their very interesting cuisine. The last show of season one features the Washington D.C. area and the Ethiopian community, where Marcus is right at home. His Ethiopian model wife is featured in this one as they learn about traditional dances and the importance of Ethiopian coffee. It’s a great episode.
Season two features the Fillipino community in Seattle, and the Armenian people in Los Angeles. The Armenian genocide is discussed and you realize what tough, successful, hard working people these are. The show visits Houston and its Nigerian community, the world’s biggest outside Nigeria, showing a varied and delicious cuisine. The Philadelphia episode features, of course, Italian food, with visits to the downtown market and to some of the oldest restaurants in America. Las Vegas is all about the Chinese influence, beginning with the railroad workers in the 1800’s. Finally, season two closes with a great Boston episode. I lived in greater Boston for some time, and I knew the Portuguese influence was great, but Samuelsson also looks at the immigrants from The Azores and Cape Verde and their influences.
American culture really, truly is made by immigrants and outsiders. Seems like we have forgotten that. This wonderful show will deeply connect you with culture, history, and people that you may have previously known nothing about. It’s a great watch, Marcus is a super host, and the food is stunning! Anthony Bourdain would be proud, I am sure.