The award-winning chef and recurring Chopped judge gives his take on trends and industry challenges.

Marcus Samuelsson has learned that honest conversation and working together are key strategies to success in the restaurant business. He’s taken these strategies and put them in action with US Foods for their annual touring forum called Talk Shop Live! Samuelsson has visited Denver, Colorado; Detroit, Michigan; Austin, Texas; and Durham, North Carolina, since the tour’s 2018 kick-off in September. During his last stop at the American Tobacco Campus in Durham, he met with FSR to share some of his take on trends, hot-button issues, and what the industry is talking about right now.

When do you think Scandinavian food is going to be a trend in the U.S.?
Well I think it’s gone in waves, right? Definitely when Aquavit came it sort of put the flag down. And I definitely think with Noma with the New Nordic movement it became a talking point, especially in urban areas and big cities. But we’re not a big part of the world, [Scandinavia] is not a big place where either tourists go or big massive populations go. Normally food travels through either tourists or big massive populations, or massive trading, and we don’t really quite do that yet in Scandinavia. So, I think there are a couple of more things that need to happen. But I think if you look at it in percentages we’ve done really well, we’re up. There are so many things that we’re doing that are Scandinavian that we might not think about it. Rye bread comes from that part of the world. Gravlax, the way we cure fish, comes from that part of the world. I look at it like, wow there are things here that weren’t here 20 years ago and are part of the cooking vocabulary—smoking foods, and all those kinds of things.

What’s the biggest menu trend you’re seeing right now?
I don’t know if it’s a trend but I do think sustainability. How do we as chefs start thinking about our responsibility? And how do we then create menu items? We either start with, how do I take care of my waste—does it end up as a special, does it end up as a stock, do those broccoli stems come back in a pasta? The totality of that is where does my food come from and how did it land on my plate so what is the carbon footprint? The totality of the green platform is very different for each location for each chef. That’s not going to go away, there’s going to be more.

Have you heard that from audiences at these events so far—is that something they’re asking about and thinking about?
If you think about the restaurant industry, I think what US Foods has done so well with these things is that they’re really tapped into the immediate things, like labor is a huge issue. We have fewer immigrants coming but we also have other industries coming up and the labor pool is going to those industries. We have to do something about that. What are we going to do as a community? Thinking about sustainability as a platform, and traffic … still it’s about putting butts in the seats. So, I love that we traveled all over the country and met some amazing people and connected people who can share after this tour, too.

What hot button issues are folks at these forums bringing up again and again?
People have a huge need for meeting and sharing stories. There’s not a small story and there’s not a big story. That shows really how our industry operates, we share, we’re givers. That I’ve seen throughout. And then I think like any industry that goes through changes there is a healthy fear out there about, OK how much is my business is going to be online? Change in any industry is hard. Especially when so much of our industry is based on touch points, on service. We’re going through a huge demographic change right now. Maybe for lunch you don’t want service but for dinner you do. There’s a whole tribe of customers coming up who are not used to this customer services, so what do we do with that? But that’s also what keeps it exciting and keeps us on our toes.

Are you worried about online ordering and delivery impacting your businesses?
No. I don’t operate based on that. Most of the time my control is, Can we do better? Yes. Every day is yes. And then, How do we go about that.? Why do we do things will then lead into the how we do things and that will then drive the what we make. It starts with these three, three creeks that have to feed into one big river. And it’s not something I talk about, this is actually something we live. It looks different in Stockholm than it does in New York City and it will look diff in another location. The core of that is our desire to improve our establishment. The minute I don’t have the desire to improve my establishment, I shouldn’t do it. There is another person who will do an awesome job much better than me at it. If I don’t wake up excited, hungry, angry, all of these emotions you have to have—then I shouldn’t be doing it and I’ll do something else.

What do you see as the future of full-service restaurants?
Future is a big open-ended question. I do think that there’s a blend between a tech savviness for how customers find us but then once you’re in the restaurant—our restaurant is an example of a restaurant where I decided quickly I don’t want our wine list to be on an iPad. We’re not the right establishment for that. There are other establishments that are. Our art is more vintage. We want to slow down the moment. If you come into my restaurant, you’re going to be on your phone twice—when you check in and when the food comes out. If you’re on your phone six or seven times, longer than three or four minutes, I’ve lost you. Our job is to make sure something is popping and its exciting constantly so it doesn’t become the phone that takes over the moment. We’re here to create a memory for you.

Expert Takes, Feature