I'm Marcus Samuelsson, a Dad and a Chef: Here's How I Teach My Kid Culture Through Food

For Chef Marcus Samuelsson, it’s important for his two kids learn about their culture. Here are the famous chef’s tips for teaching children culture through food.

Celebrity Chef Marcus Samuelsson cooking at home with his son
Photo: Courtesy of Subject

The blessing about being first wave immigrants is feeling the joy of having our daughter, Grace (3 months old), and son, Zion (5 years old), being born in America. With the experiences of growing up as Americans, it also means my wife, Maya, and I want them to know where their roots are. For our family, our connection is with Sweden and Ethiopia. And through our love of food, I teach and share with my children the importance of culture.

For us, culture means family bonds and community building, oftentimes over a shared meal. Since many of our relatives are abroad, our connections are made through our local neighbors, volunteers, coworkers, artisans, and countless others who we have cherished relationships with.

These are some of my tips and advice for instilling in my kids the importance of culture through food.

Have Fun With It

I once coined the term "Swediopian," which represents our dual identities of having Swedish and Ethiopian heritages. For us, this is simply a fun way of engaging with our kids and showcasing our collective pride. Most important, it's a way of making them feel a part of the conversation, and this includes anything from reading cookbooks and pronouncing ingredients in our native languages to blasting tunes in the kitchen (Zion loves Ethiopian tribal dance) while making a meal together. This is all helping children build their own sense of identity—and their involvement in creating their own narrative (with parental support and guidance) is key.

Let Them See You in Action

I'm fortunate to have a job where I cook at the restaurant and can take my son there to see me in action with talented people who have beautifully diverse and different backgrounds. Also, I have the ability to "take my work home," so, regardless of the setting, my kids feel included. They not only see chef Marcus, but also see Dad. I think what's most important is creating an inclusive space wherever we are—and shaping it together.

Encourage Them To Use Their Hands

Ethiopian food is incredibly distinct, and many dishes require you to use your hands. For instance, injera (a spongy flatbread made of teff flour) has a sour flavor and is fantastic eaten with doro wot (a spicy chicken stew). I often have Zion play with his food because it engages all the senses, touch, taste, smell, sight, and sound.

With Swedish food, it can be a little harder to get in there because seafood is strong and intense on young palettes. But the key is to find pathways and work with what your kids are comfortable with. So, it's injera for Ethiopian cuisine. And for Swedish, we give him crisp flatbread—he loves it because of the crunch, both in taste and sound—and then working toward topping it with cured fish.

Be Patient With Picky Eaters

Zion has been a picky eater and I still consider him to be one, but I think longterm about his ongoing eating journey, not compromising on who we are, and also offering reasonable choices that work within this framework. I have other friends who struggle to get their little ones to eat their own ethnic food, anything from Korean kimchi to Indian dosa, but the most important thing is to try. It can be tough. It takes practice and patience. Try taking advantage of their natural curiosity and make use of positive exposure, such as modeling behavior at mealtimes and sharing memories about specific dishes and ingredients at the family table. I know it can be easy to give in to more sugary, floury, and fast food, but this is not the way.

If you get in there early on and persist, you can get them to expand their appreciation and enjoyment of food with unique flavor profiles such as bitter (spinach) and sour/tangy (yogurt). At a certain point, you'll stumble upon something your kid will enjoy and just expand the options from there. For instance, Zion loves texture—there's excitement there when he takes a bite—so Maya and I continue to engage his senses. We'll give him Swedish crisp bread in the morning with a side of fruit—vibrant colors from avocado, bananas, and blueberries. Eventually we'll start to incorporate coral colored smoked salmon, and also reference/talk about his grandparents' fishing village. It just takes practice (a lot of repetition), persistence, and compassion—bit by bit—and acclimatizing to foreign textures until they become familiar and enjoyable.

Get Creative

Many food cultures around the world are all about reducing waste and ours is no exception. If you roast a chicken on the first day, those who use the whole bird (bones and all for stock) know that the best meal is actually on the second day, where you can make fried rice and chicken soup. And that's not messing up; it's about being practical, smart, and also teaching your kids about being creative as well as reducing/eliminating food waste.

The real mistake here is if you think to yourself, "Oops, we didn't finish all the chicken" and throw it out. Try anything with it. Make noodles to pair with it, add it to a pot pie, sandwiches, wraps—the ideas are endless. While we are making these dishes, I reinforce important cultural values about who we visited to get our poultry from, the relationship we have with that person, supporting this culinary ecosystem, and so on. It all comes full circle and I want my children to understand the interconnectedness of relationships we make and why they are so important and cherished.

Build Bonds Through Food

I'm always talking to Zion about all the places that we're visiting while picking up groceries for our meals. For instance, the "aunties" and "uncles" we chat with who provide us with fresh ingredients, such as teff (which is the oldest grain in the world). As a result, he has a point of reference—and that it's not just the ingredient itself, but the relationship he's developed with those who sell these goods to us.

We are focused on building nourishing and loving relationships with these aunties and uncles that live close to us—and they are from all walks of life. As Zion gets older, we will open up the more delicate and tougher topics of conversation surrounding history, race, identity, equality, respect, and his place in it all. Right now, it's more about modeling positive behaviors through the relationships we build with. For example, our Jamaican auntie at the market who supplies Zion with his favorite, the superfood sea moss. Overall, he has names and faces he recognizes and associates as a part of his life. Additionally, we have them come to the house for a meal or we visit them. They are deeply a part of who we are. That's where we are right now, and we are happy with that.

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