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Chef Marcus Samuelsson on Cultural Collaboration and His New Restaurant in the Bahamas

By Raven Briana McMillan

Aug 20, 2021

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Chef Marcus Samuelsson opened his latest restaurant at Baha Mar in the Bahamas in July 2021.

Courtesy of Baha Mar

Chef Marcus Samuelsson opened his latest restaurant at Baha Mar in the Bahamas in July 2021.

The award-winning chef, cookbook author, and TV personality shares the importance of empathy and intention behind opening in predominantly Black destinations.

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Since opening in 2017, Baha Mar has become a center of gastronomy in the Bahamian capital of Nassau. With over 40 restaurants and bars, the resort has lured some of the world’s leading chefs, including Katsuya Uechi and Daniel Boulud, to name a few. Now, six-time James Beard Award–winning chef Marcus Samuelsson joins the resort’s collection of culinarians with this summer’s debut of Marcus at Baha Mar Fish + Chop House

While developing the concept, Samuelsson spent nearly four years learning about Bahamian culture and meeting with local purveyors. The result? A deeply collaborative menu reflective of native ingredients with an innovative take on Caribbean comfort food. Think fried chicken with sour orange hot honey or tuna tartare with cassava chips. Yes, you’ll find his signature Marcus’s Cornbread on the table, but here it comes with a spice-infused rum-spiked butter. 

We spoke with Samuelsson to learn more about his new restaurant in the Bahamas and his hopes for creating a more inclusive industry through intention and empathy. 

Why the Bahamas? 

We get a lot of opportunities in front of us, and before we say yes, we have got to like [the location]. A great location for me means “What’s the path towards opportunity?” So, looking at farming, looking at fishing, looking at cooking school here, I said, “OK, this makes sense!” And with a place like Baha Mar, I wanted to make sure that we have something experiential—not just a great restaurant, it has to be an experience. 

With restaurants in Newark, Harlem, Overtown, Bermuda, and now the Bahamas, why is it important for you to open in predominantly Black destinations? 

It’s important to acknowledge your privilege, right? When I left Aquavit, I did a lot of soul searching about my role as a Black chef. I want to figure out how I can open up more doors, specifically in the African diaspora.

We’ve been very strategic with Harlem, with Overtown. We feel proud to work with the cultures and the history, but also to provide jobs locally. For a chef of any color, but specifically for chefs of color, you must figure out where in the industry you fit. Our restaurants have become the hub for that.

Named after his memoir, “Yes, Chef,” Marcus Samuelsson’s signature cocktail features vodka, pineapple gum syrup, and ginger.

Tell us about your process of learning about Bahamian culture.

When I say it takes four years [to open a restaurant], one year could just be researching. Islands are not monolithic. We have to be very respectful . . . and we have to learn the culture. We pay homage to that, and it shows up on the menu. We eat at restaurants. We go to markets, and we go with local people. Our goal is to make the menu relatable to locals and unique for visitors, too.

What are some of the Bahamian ingredients you’re loving right now?

Sour oranges! It might not be a big thing for locals, but it’s a big thing for me. So, we marinate in that. Then there is this incredible hydroponic farm [in Nassau] where we get fresh herbs and tomatoes. 

Locals take pride because they see themselves in the food. We have a hot sauce that we do with passion fruit that came from them. The pickles on our fish, that came from them. They say, “Oh, these pickles are my auntie’s pickles!” It’s been really fun.

How do you find balance in blending your cultural experience and culinary expertise with local cultures? 

Coming from two backgrounds allows me to have windows into Ethiopia, or Africa, or Scandinavian Sweden. When you’ve grown up through it, you don’t know that eventually that can become an asset—it’s about empathy. 

When we do the conch salad, I don’t touch a thing. I may present it with dry ice or something like that, but in terms of the flavor, I don’t dare go near it because [the locals] are the ones that know. I’m not coming with my menu set, and I don’t think I would have that sensitivity if I say, “I’m a Swedish chef. Here’s the Swedish food.” I’m an American now, and I’m from African culture. It’s about sensibilities and sensitivities. 

What do you hope it brings to the Bahamian community to have a celebrated Black chef open a restaurant here? 

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As a Black chef with a large platform, it’s about that intersection of “inspire” and “aspire.” Having the privileges and the opportunities that I have, it comes down to how I hire. Here, we started with a big open kitchen, because then it’s very clear who works in the kitchen. When you have someone like chef Garrette [Bowe]—she’s the chef, and she’s a local—it’s not a coincidence. 

Pastry chefs, servers, cooks, bartenders: These people don’t have to leave the island to have the best opportunities. Someone can learn sushi from chef Katsuya and the best French cooking from chef Daniel, and now you can come down here and work with us. 

Marcus at Baha Mar Fish + Chop House is now open for dinner at Baha Mar (1 Baha Mar Blvd., Nassau). Reservations are recommended and can be made online.

>> Next: The Bahamas Is Open for Travel, With Restrictions

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