On Sunday evening, chef Marcus Samuelsson, of the Harlem restaurant Red Rooster (plus several others), multiple television shows and appearances, and award-winning books, watched while Afro-pop violinist Demola practiced before a pop-up dinner at Cafeza. Dressed in a colorfully patterned button-down, bronze-hued pants, and a fedora, Samuelsson bounced as he recorded a video of the performance on his smartphone.
Samuelsson is in Houston to shoot a season two episode of his PBS and Eater series No Passport Required, which focuses on a specific immigrant subculture in an American city. For the Houston episode, which is set to air in the fall, Samuelsson (who hosts and produces) is diving deep into the local West African experience. Coming here was a no-brainer.
"With Houston, I still don't think, outside America, people know what kind of gift it is to have this kind of diversity," Samuelsson told Houstonia. "When we set up No Passport it was no doubt [we were coming here]."
At Cafeza, he was joined by Demola, plus Ope Amosu of Chop n' Blok, a West African pop-up that debuted in 2018. On Sunday, Amosu cooked a multi-course meal of traditional Nigerian and Ghanaian food. Former NFL player and Houston native Fendi Onobun was also present at the taping.
Samuelsson is excited about the pop-up culture exposing Houstonians to West African cuisine. Chop n' Blok, specifically, aims to open minds to the spicier, heartier tones present in dishes such as Nigeria's fragrant jollof rice and Ghanaian waakye (rice and beans), which were both served at Sunday's dinner.
But that's just one of the ways Samuelsson, who was born in Ethiopia and raised in Sweden, is highlighting the city's West African culture on No Passport Required. Earlier on Sunday he participated in an Afrobeats dance class led by performer Peter Uwalaka, then had traditional Nigerian brunch with Dr. Crystal Obih of Nigerian foodie blog Kegos Kitchen. Samuelsson also visited the popular Safari Restaurant and Suya Hut, and plans to dine at the homes of local West Africans. He hopes no stone is left unturned.
"If you're from Houston, we want Houstonians to be proud about how we did their city, that's number one," Samuelsson said. "If you're coming, we want you to go off the beaten path and find a [Suya] Hut or do something different, whether that's in LA and Armenian or Filipino in Seattle."
Samuelsson is making time to visit old friends while in Houston. He plans on checking in with Chris Shepherd and maybe having a bite at one of his restaurants (he's thinking Georgia James).
On Saturday night Samuelsson dined at The Pass & Provisions, and with good reason: co-owner Seth Siegel-Gardner worked with Samuelsson at Restaurant Aquavit in New York, and later at his Chicago chophouse C-House, while co-owner Terrence Gallivan worked at New York's August, of which Samuelsson is a partner.
"I think they're doing amazing. The bar scene is amazing," Samuelsson said. "I know Seth and Terrence [Gallivan] well; they're never gonna sit down and be satisfied. They're gonna keep pushing, keep evolving."