Back in the 1980s, when people still revered the art and skill of diplomacy, Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye coined the term “soft power.” Where “hard power” might refer to military might, soft power was about using various means–mainly through culture–to persuade others and fostering understanding between parties with differing interests or different cultures. The concept was applied to international relations but is just as applicable to personal or community relationships.
The so-called breaking of bread or sharing agricultural and cooking techniques is one of the oldest forms of exercising soft power. Perhaps the most basic symbol of this is the food basket that welcomes someone to the neighborhood. Or, throwing a dinner party to create an opportunity for furthering political agendas.
This might have been at the back of Chef Marcus Samuelsson’s mind about two years ago, which is when he says he came up with the concept for his new show, No Passport Required. Each week, No Passport Required will show viewers where to go to eat and soak in the culture in Detroit, New Orleans, Chicago, New York City, Miami and Washington, D.C. Within each city, Samuelsson goes to an eatery run by immigrants that serves food native to their home countries. In doing so, he takes viewers on a voyage of discovery, delving into the unique ways each immigrant community has made its mark.
Of course, this isn’t new territory. A hallmark of the late Anthony Bourdain’s illustrious career was his unofficial use of his position as a celebrity chef to break down cultural barriers. Samuelsson, with his new show, does the same on a local scale. All of his food destinations are within the United States, and his show is explicitly about immigrant food.
It seems to be the right program at a time when people should remember that immigrants have been and always will be a natural and essential part of any modern society. We should treat and respect them as such. “I think the best way to deal with all these important questions,” Samuelsson says, “Is to create exciting new ways to understand each other. Everybody was an immigrant at some point in this country unless you are Native American.”
With six cities to visit, there was a great deal of footage to go through when putting the show together, and Samuelsson argues that was the most technically challenging aspect of the show. He explains, “From a technical point of view, cutting and editing was most challenging because we had so many great stories of people wanting to contribute so much. It was really, what do you keep? What do you cut? That was hard because people were very passionate and wanted to share.” The “people” of which he speaks, are not just chefs or restaurant owners. No Passport Required gets up close and personal, showcasing musicians, poets, chefs, business owners, artists, community leaders and home cooks who have made vast and vital contributions the nation’s culture and cuisine.
The next biggest challenge was coming up with (or narrowing down) the list of locations to visit. Samuelsson says, “We wanted defining, iconic places. Cities that really spoke to us and hopefully to the viewer. So Detroit, Miami, Chicago’s Mexican community. We wanted to pick cities that really drew us in that I felt were exciting. And then communities that had contributed a lot and there was a story too, something to say. For example, in Chicago, where would we be without Mexican contribution to food in this country? Nowhere. And that became very clear when we went to Chicago.”
Samuelsson, who owns the well-known Harlem restaurant Red Rooster, was born in Ethiopia. However, along with his sister, he was adopted by a Swedish couple. His love for food and reverence for it as a cultural symbol grew as he cooked alongside his adopted grandmother. He recalls, “Growing up in Sweden, the best memories I have are of cooking with my grandmother, being close to her and eating.” He eventually went to study cooking in Switzerland and Austria. Wanting to connect to his Ethiopian culinary roots, he later went back to the East African nation. “When I was in my early twenties, my sister and I decided to go back to Ethiopia. So that’s something that came to me later, and I’m very appreciative of that. We learned about that culture because it is part of ours, and it’s something that has enriched my life. My wife also being born in Ethiopia, she has given me so much in terms of the culture.”
We discussed the nature of Ethiopian food as being a hybrid of native East African and Middle Eastern cuisine, due to the massive historical migration of Middle Easterners across Ethiopia’s borders. “Yes, there’s definitely a lot of similarities between Middle Eastern food and Ethiopian food. Absolutely. And culture, music, and all of those things. If you’re thinking about something like hummus, for example, you find a lot in Lebanon. We have a chickpea puree we call shiro in Ethiopia. The way we would do a flatbread in Jeddah is very similar to how we’d do a flatbread on the other side. I think food very often has some birthplace, of course, then depending on if you’re closer to the land, whether you’re closer to the water, closer to the mountains, it changes a little bit. But yes, there’s definitely a lot of similarities.”
New Orleans, where shows like Queen Sugar, Claws and Into The Badlands film, is already on the roster for No Passport Required. We asked Samuelsson what he thought about food culture in Atlanta, another growing hub of television and filmmaking which boasts production of shows such as Black Lightning, The Walking Dead and The Paynes. One of the year’s biggest films, Black Panther, was also mainly shot in Atlanta. “I mean Atlanta is definitely very exciting. You’re in the South, so that tends to translate really, really well in an elegant way in restaurants in Atlanta. At Eugene’s, for example, the chef always brings in farmers, and they have a conversation around where do the ingredients come from. You learn something, and I’m always excited about that. Or you go to Ponce Market, then you see Atlanta is just jumping!”
Samuelsson would like to do an episode in Los Angeles, the mecca for film and TV, during the second season of No Passport Required. As much as people believe they know about the food scene in Los Angeles, Samuelsson thinks there is much more to uncover. He enthuses, “You have some of the best Thai food and some of the best Korean food in LA. If you go a little bit outside LA, the San Gabriel Valley has some of the best Chinese food. You obviously have great Mexican culture, as well.”
The new six-part series, produced by Eater for PBS, began Tuesday, July 10 and will run through August 7, 9:00-10:00 p.m. ET, and Tuesday, August 14, 8:00-9:00 p.m. ET (check local listings) on PBS. The series can also be streamed at 9:00 p.m. ET on Tuesdays on the PBS Food No Passport Required site, PBS mobile and OTT apps and local PBS member station websites.
You can follow Marcus Samuelsson on Twitter and Instagram at @marcuscooks.