Stories / Impact

Another Immigrant Story, This One a Celebration

Mitchell Davis

March 22, 2019


Marcus Samuelsson at the Beard House photo by Ken Goodman
2019 Vilcek Price recipient Marcus Samuelsson (Photo: Ken Goodman Photography)

As the topic of immigration cleaves our political discourse, it’s hard to deny the contribution that immigrants have made to American society, no matter the lens through which you scrutinize them. From the immigrant farm worker who picks the produce that enters the global supply chain, to the immigrant restaurateur who flavors a city’s dining scene, to the immigrant microbiologist who creates a new strain of yeast, these sorts of contributions make us richer, both culturally and economically.

I was honored to sit on the jury of a special annual prize designed to recognize the outstanding contribution of an immigrant to the field of the culinary arts. The Vilcek Prize was created in 2006 by the Vilcek Foundation, a philanthropic organization established in 2000 by Jan and Marica Vilcek, both immigrants to the U.S. from the former Czechoslovakia. Jan Vilcek has had a very successful career as a biomedical scientist on the faculty of New York University’s medical school. His wife, Marica Vilcek, is an art historian. Together they have directed their philanthropy to support others pursuing passions in the arts and sciences.

While the prize for biomedical sciences is constant year to year, the cultural art form that is celebrated rotates. Previous recipients have come from the fields of music, film, architecture, literature, dance, design, and more. Prizewinners receive $100,000 to support their work. Seven years ago, the last time the prize was given to an immigrant in the field of the culinary arts, the awardee was multiple JBF Award–winning chef José Andrés, who used his prize money to help start the World Central Kitchen. The World Central Kitchen has gone on to help with many global humanitarian aid crises—providing solar cook stoves and training to Haitians after the earthquake in 2010 and feeding Puerto Ricans after hurricane Maria. WCK has just arrived on the Venezuelan–Colombian border to feed starving refugees fleeing the Maduro regime.

This year the Vilcek Prize is being given to Marcus Samuelsson, whose story is well known in the culinary world. Orphaned in Ethiopia and adopted by Swedish parents, the James Beard Award–winning chef has had a successful culinary career in America, worked with underserved communities, supported global sustainability efforts, and, like Andrés, shown the real promise of the Beard Foundation’s Good Food for Good™ motto. (Read more about the Vilcek Foundation, the Vilcek Prizes, and Samuelsson.) Samuelsson will be celebrated at a special ceremony in New York City on April 4, 2019.

In 2009 the Vilcek Foundation created a second award, the Vilcek Prizes for Creative Promise, which go to younger immigrants in the same fields who are already on track to make a significant contribution. This year these $50,000 awards are being given to three people from the culinary world: JBF Award–winning journalist Tejal Rao, the California restaurant critic of the New York Times who was born in London to Ugandan and Indian parents and who grew up around the world; JBF Award nominated chef/restaurateur Fabian Von Hauske Valtierra of Wildair, Contra, and Una Pizza Napolitana, who immigrated from Mexico; and JBF Award semifinalist chef/restaurateur Nite Yun, of Hyum Bai, whose family fled to the U.S. after the Cambodian genocide. Read more about each of these winners, who will also be celebrated on April 4.

The eminent immigration historian Hasia Diner reminds us that the act of uprooting oneself and establishing a life in a new country and a new culture is easy for no one. For everyone who leaves, even in times of mass migration, such as the Irish Potato Famine or the build up to the First and Second World Wars, most choose to stay. Diner also notes that neither the poorest nor the most disenfranchised have the option of immigration, which is almost always relatively expensive and perhaps requires a particular pluck that others do not have. Could these be the reasons it seems immigrants to the United States have made outsized contributions to our society? Whatever the reason, we are grateful they have and hope the gates to the U.S. remain open wide.


Mitchell Davis is chief strategy officer at the James Beard Foundation. Find him on Twitter and Instagram.