The auditorium at Montclair Kimberley Academy’s Upper School was packed with a different demographic on the evening of Thursday, Oct. 27 – the audience was there to hear about how food and storytelling could help build community.

Usually filled with students, the auditorium held participants in the Montclair Film Festival, who reveled in a conversation between Audible founder Don Katz and chef Marcus Samuelsson that was part of the festival’s Storyteller Series. 

The two discussed their specialties as ways to uplift people and, in particular, to assist residents of Newark.

Katz moved to Montclair in 1989 after disclosing to a colleague that he wanted to leave the city but didn’t want to move to a place like Connecticut or Long Island. It was then that Montclair was suggested to him. 

Since then he has raised his children and continued his business ventures in Montclair. On the third floor of his home on Russell Terrace, he spent his days writing books like “Home Fires: An Intimate Portrait of One Middle Class Family in Postwar America.” 

He mingled with others in Montclair through book clubs, allowing the “intellectual life of the town” to come to him, he said. And in addition to working as an author and starting Audible, Katz coached and played hockey with the Montclair Fossils Hockey Team.  

That same third floor on Russell Terrace became the first home for Audible. Eventually, he opened an office on North Fullerton before moving to Willowbrook Mall and finally settling the headquarters in Newark.

Now, Katz is back in the place where it all started with his friend and business partner, Samuelsson. They met when Katz visited a restaurant in New York City where Samuelsson, a young immigrant from Ethiopia, was the executive chef.

“Marcus became one of these ‘youngest evers,’” Katz said, to which Samuelsson jokingly responded, “Not anymore.”

At the age of 24, Samuelsson became the youngest person ever to receive a three-star review from The New York Times for his work at the restaurant, Aquavit. In 2003, he was awarded “Best Chef in New York City.” In 2010, he won “Top Chef Masters.” Later, Samuelsson wrote critically acclaimed cookbooks and opened his own restaurants, most famously Red Rooster.

After those successes, he is now partnering with Katz and Audible to dive deeper into the cultural history surrounding food. In his audiobook “Our Harlem: Seven Days of Cooking, Music, and Soul at the Red Rooster,” Samuelsson speaks about the significance of food in the African American community. 

He interviews journalists like Jelani Cobb and Isabel Wilkerson to discuss such topics as the Great Migration and former President Barack Obama. Over these conversations, Samuelsson ties in the topic he’s an expert at: food.

“The kitchen definitely has sounds,” Samuelsson said before going on to demonstrate the sizzling sound of a sear or the crackling pop of peanut oil ready to provide the perfect crunch to whatever contents are dropped into the pan. 

Throughout the evening, Samuelsson and Katz spoke about the work they’re doing to amplify minority voices in their communities, particularly in Newark.

During the pandemic, the two put their teams together to create Newark Working Kitchens. The organization was started in April 2020 and worked to support not only residents in Newark but also the locally owned restaurants. Newark Working Kitchens provided money for the restaurants to continue to pay their employees while also providing meals for the community. As of this month, Newark Working Kitchens has provided 1.5 million meals. 

Samuelsson and Katz wanted to remind the audience in Montclair why it’s important to uplift those communities.

“It is all worth knowing that we live in, by most measures, the most unequal state in the country,” Katz said. He then went on to  list statistics from the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice stating that white citizens in New Jersey have household assets of about $322,000 while Black families average $18,000 and Latino families average $26,000. 

Though Katz said he can appreciate efforts of people finding other ways to pour money into minority communities, he says the truth of the matter is that without funds the inequalities related to civil rights, health and educational opportunities won’t be solved. He saw the disparity in the way that restaurants in Newark weren’t granted loans from the Paycheck Protection Program compared to
higher-end restaurants in New York. 

Despite that, Katz and Samuelsson encouraged people in the audience and especially people of color to become entrepreneurs and start their own businesses.

Samuelsson said: “Everyone has an uncle or auntie that makes the best potato salad or something, right? And something that ends up in the store, started somewhere.”