Inside Marcus Samuelsson's Game-Changing US Foods Partnership
Any Google search or foodservice panel will tell you global trends are on the rise. Having the ability to menu authentic, ethnic cuisine is a tool any independent restaurateur would be wise to harness. Yet making sure that first note—authenticity—comes through, can be an intimidating prospect for many operators.
“Trust is everything,” Chef Marcus Samuelsson says.
US Foods’ seasonal Scoop product lineups have approached the same goal from different angles for years: What’s the most on-trend way to help the independent restaurateur survive?
This fall, the distribution giant decided to tackle the momentum of global cuisine. And like Chef Samuelsson suggested, it was imperative to put some serious weight behind it.
US Foods’ solution was to tap Chef Samuelsson himself. The chef and owner of Harlem’s renowned Red Rooster, as well as Streetbird Rotisserie, and Red Rooster Shoreditch in London, Chef Samuelsson is one of the most recognizable and respected faces in foodservice. He’s the youngest chef to ever receive a three-star review from The New York Times, is a winner of the James Beard Best Chef: New York City award, has a top-selling memoir, multiple cookbooks, produces a food and culture festival, and is a frequent TV personality. So again, back to the trust notion.
In addition to his mega-watt resume, Chef Samuelsson’s heritage is Ethiopian and Swedish. Bolstered by his Harlem roots, he’s no stranger to bold flavors, either.
When US Foods and Samuelsson linked up, the chef says he imagined what it would be like if he was on the other side of the client-customer equation, which, as a restaurant owner, he often is.
“As a small business owner myself, this is what I would do,” he says. “As a business owner you’re committing to a menu item that maybe you’ve never had in your life. You’re taking a leap of faith. So you need to know you’re getting a great product. There has to be trust there for customers.”
The idea being that independent restaurateurs, regardless of their culinary background, can menu this lineup understanding it was designed by one of the nation’s most prominent chef, and someone who has mastered global flavors. Not to mention it will come ready to fire and fly off the line right away, with minimal training.
There are six items:
Patuxent Farms Uptown Par-Fried Chicken Thigh: Inspired by Chef Samuelsson’s famous Yard Bird Chicken from Red Rooster Harlem, this dish is a cross between Grandma’s fried chicken and world cuisine. The item includes buttermilk, coconut milk, and a touch of Berbere seasoning along with the crunch of traditional southern breading.
Molly’s Kitchen Spicy Battered Cauliflower with Aleppo Pepper: Easily deep-fried or baked, Molly’s Kitchen Spicy Battered Cauliflower with Aleppo Pepper serves up a tender cauliflower floret in crispy batter, seasoned with a gentle, well-balanced Middle Eastern spice.
Monarch Addis Style Spice Blend: Inspired by the traditional Ethiopian Berbere spice blends, this version factors in cinnamon, cloves, cardamom and chile de árbol. This item can be used as a fiery rub for meat, poultry and fish, and seasoning for stews, soups, grains and vegetables.
Chef’s Line Cornbread Muffin: By adding big-city spice to down-home soul food, this collaboration has livened up traditional corn muffins with the warm red and gently sweet spice of Aleppo pepper.
Harbor Banks Smoked Norwegian Salmon: A staple in Sweden where Chef Samuelsson grew up, this Norwegian salmon is cold-smoked for 24 hours using Beechwood at a critical point in the process which contributes to higher quality and sensory attributes.
Harbor Banks Smoked Norwegian Trout: Sometimes known as Norwegian Atlantic steelhead trout, this delicious dish has a rich red color and firm texture.
Chef Samuelsson says US Foods hooked him for several reasons. The first was the company’s network of small business owners. For example, for the cornbread, Chef Samuelsson and US Foods went back and forth with a bakery until they got it right.
“That’s something we realized. US Foods is a collaborative company with small businesses,” he says. “Once you understand that then you realize they have the same questions and concerns as the big companies. That evens the playing field.”
Chef Samuelsson has never worked with a distributor for a product line like this before. While having the chance to activate and assist independents around the country was appealing, Chef Samuelsson was also intrigued by the value proposition moving forward.
“We can work on diversity, inclusion. We can hire staff. The product is the core and is the important piece of the puzzle for us to get together, but it’s also about how do we actually look at the workforce, and how do we actually figure out other challenging issues, like diversity and so on,” he says.
The “crown jewel” of the whole process, Chef Samuelsson says, has been the creation of US Foods Scholars, a program that awards financial support and professional development opportunities to students who plan to pursue an education in the culinary arts and enter the restaurant industry. It launched in Chicago and partnered with the Careers through Culinary Arts Program (C-CAP). C-CAP’s work impacts over 17,000 students each year and has awarded over $53 million in scholarships since its inception in 1990.
“That really takes an open mind from US Foods. They’re a big company,” he says. “For them to go back and tell their partners why we would do this, why it’s important. That takes risk taking from them. But if you’re going to create an open workplace society you need people to step up and say, ‘We’re going to do more. We can do more. What can we do as a bigger company here? How can we be a part of this?”