Why did the producers of Top Chef Masters paint Marcus Samuelsson as the villain in Episode Two, It's My Party? Just because he chose to focus on his own cooking and not prep for the MIA Carmen Gonzales, who spaced out and forgot her main course at the studio, doesn't make him a bad guy, or an "ego chef" as CultureMap Houston called him. It makes him a serious competitor who wants to win a chunk of cash for his charity. As an advocate myself who has devoted much of my own time to charitable causes, I'd have done exactly the same.
Marcus Samuelsson takes his charity work seriously, and when I met him at last year's International Chef's Congress, we sat down and talked about why he's so actively involved in advocacy.
Samuelsson is UNICEF's first and only Chef Ambassador, appointed in 2000. He's traveled to Africa on behalf of UNICEF, and is a strong supporter of both the TAP project, which works to bring clean drinking water to communities throughout the world, and the Believe in Zero campaign, which aims for zero child deaths from preventable causes like malnutrition and malaria. He's also active with Chefs for Humanity and C-CAP, Careers through Culinary Arts Program, which helps inner city high school kids pursue careers in the culinary industry through training, scholarships and job placement.
When I asked Samuelsson what motivates him to devote so much time to charitable work he replied, "When you come from where I come from, you have to do something."
Unlike the Samuelsson presented on Top Chef Masters, the Marcus I conversed with was a soft-spoken man who has managed to maintain humility in the face of his huge success. Hardly an "ego chef," Samuelsson was genuinely down-to-Earth.
An Ethiopian who lost his parents to Tuberculosis as an infant and was adopted by a Swedish couple, Marcus Samuelsson remains true to his roots. I asked him why he doesn't try to run from his background as many with humble beginnings do. He said "Being connected to poverty is one of the richest things I have in life."
About UNICEF's TAP project—his designated charity for Top Chef Masters—Samuelsson hit on a truth we rarely want to think about, that people in rich countries like America take clean tap water for granted, we buy tons of bottled water just because it tastes better. "But in most parts of the world," explained Samuelsson, "clean tap water doesn't exist, and people die every day because they don't have something we take for granted—clean, safe drinking water."
Samuelsson also talked about "the connection between food in America and internal conflicts and refugees in places like Africa and Asia," about how our Agribusiness and government subsidies of crops like corn can literally topple communities and even governments. "Everyone needs to understand the global consequences of food production, so I try to maintain a dialogue with the public about these things."
Anyone who understands the politics of food or has seen the documentary Food, Inc. will know what Samuelsson is talking about. (If you haven't seen Food, Inc. yet, watch it!)
I don't know Marcus Samuelsson on a personal level, but I do know his record working with charities, and that's enough for me to root for him on Top Chef Masters. It's just unfortunate that Samuelsson's devotion to winning $100,000 for a charity he's so strongly supported was edited to make him seem uncharitable.
Marcus Samuelsson is no villain, and he certainly didn't seem like an ego chef to me. He seems like a driven, talented chef whose appearance on Top Chef Masters is more about helping his charity than it is about helping his career. Samuelsson's illustrious reputation is already secure, but, as he said about TAP, "We need to secure clean, safe drinking water for everyone."
UNICEF Believe in Zero campaign
UNICEF Chef Ambassador Marcus Samuelsson
Chefs for Humanity