The Multifaceted Chef
As a chef, restaurateur, author, media personality, UNICEF ambassador and member of the State Department’s American Chef Corps, you could say Marcus Samuelsson is a busy guy. He’s behind Harlem’s acclaimed Red Rooster, its downstairs supper club Ginny’s and Lincoln Center’s American Table (among others). This past summer he released his best-selling memoir, Yes, Chef, in which he traces his life from Ethiopia to his Swedish grandmother’s kitchen and his fast-track culinary career in the United States. We talk with Marcus about Harlem’s allure, his new book and what he loves to cook at home.
AndrewZimmern.com: Who has been your biggest culinary influence?
Marcus Samuelsson: My grandmother Helga is one of my first and biggest culinary influences. She was constantly cooking, and there was always a job for me and my sisters whenever we were at my grandparent’s house. Throughout my life and career, I’ve come to admire many people in the culinary world, but she was the first.
AZ.com: You recently released your memoir, Yes, Chef. What was the biggest challenge of writing such an honest tale? What was it like to see the project come into fruition?
MS: I think anytime you are forced to hold up a mirror to yourself, it’s a challenge. I had to revisit and open up some memories of times when I know I could have done better, but I also know I did the best I could at the moment. Another challenge was how much to include. Each time I submitted a draft to my editor, I knew there was more of my story to tell. Seeing that first bound copy come into the office was definitely one of the highlights of my career – as a chef you’re expected to know how to cook, but you’re not expected to know how to write. That was a big accomplishment for me.
AZ.com: In Yes, Chef, you write about returning to your native Ethiopia to meet your birth father. How has reconnecting with your roots influenced your life and cooking?
MS: As an adult, I always felt some connection to Ethiopia, knowing that was where I’m from. But after meeting my family, I find myself incorporating Ethiopian and African ingredients and styles into my cooking. My wife Maya helps maintain the culture in our household.
AZ.com: Red Rooster is a hot ticket in NYC right now. What made you decide to open a restaurant in Harlem?
MS: Harlem is a very special place to me. It has such an amazing history that you can still see today, and there’s also a diversity there that makes it so welcoming. I’ve known for a long time that I wanted a restaurant that reflected those qualities, and I couldn’t think of a better place to open it.
AZ.com: How did you go about recreating a Harlem renaissance vibe at Ginny’s?
MS: The vibe comes through a couple of ways. The food is nod to the food of supper clubs from the renaissance era, which had a lot of French and Asian influences.
AZ.com: You’ve been on Chopped and Top Chef Masters (and won both). What do you think of the food TV trend?
MS: I think it’s fun and I also think it engages viewers in the food conversation, and encourages them to get in the kitchen and cook more.
AZ.com: What are your favorite things to cook for friends and family?
MS: I love when I get to help Maya make doro wat (Ethiopia chicken stew). It’s a day long process and you share a giant plate with everyone, and eat it with your hands. It’s truly an experience.
AZ.com: Favorite restaurants in Harlem?
MS: I love to go further uptown for fried chicken at Charles’ Pan-Fried. Another Harlem favorite of mine is a lot newer – Jin Ramen. I’ve always loved ramen, so it’s cool to be able to get a good place close to home.
AZ.com: What’s in your fridge?
MS: Not much. Maya and I travel too often to maintain a stocked fridge, so there’s a lot of sauces and things that I pick up on my trips and our freezer is full of spices that Maya brings back from Ethiopia.
Check out Marcus’ recipe for Meatball Sliders, a take on the classic Swedish meatballs made by his grandmother.
Chef Marcus Samuelsson is an internationally acclaimed chef who has thrilled the food scene with a blend of culture and artistic excellence. Marcus caught the attention of the culinary world at Aquavit. During his tenure as executive chef, he received an impressive three-star rating from the New York Times, the youngest person ever to receive such an accolade.
In addition to being a successful cookbook author, Marcus released his New York Times Bestseller Yes, Chef in 2012 to rave reviews. He has been featured on a number of media platforms including Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, the Martha Stewart Show, Today Show, Regis and Kelly and Charlie Rose.
Marcus was the winner on Bravo’s Top Chef Masters Season Two and serves as a recurring judge for Chopped, one of Food Network’s highest rated series with a following of over 20 million viewers a month. Marcus was also named the winner of the second season of Chopped All-Stars.
In 2009, Marcus was honored as a guest chef at the White House under the Obama Administration, where he planned and executed the administration’s first state dinner for the first family, Prime Minister Singh of India and 400 of their guests. He has been a UNICEF ambassador since 2000, focusing his advocacy on water and sanitation issues, specifically the Tap Project. Marcus also had the honor of speaking at the 2011 Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland and TEDxHarlem in 2012.
In the fall of 2012, Marcus was also named to the US State Department’s The American Chef Corps, a group of chefs committed to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s message of “smart power” diplomacy, which embraces the use of a full range of diplomatic tools, by utilizing food, hospitality and the dining experience as ways to enhance how formal diplomacy is conducted, cultivating cultural understanding and strengthening bilateral relationships through the shared experience of food.
His iconic Red Rooster Harlem celebrates the roots of American cuisine in one of New York City’s liveliest and culturally rich neighborhoods. It has earned two-stars from the New York Times and countless accolades for its food, style and connection to the community. Named the Best Neighborhood Joint by Time Out New York, Red Rooster continues to amaze Harlem with the opening of its downstairs supper club Ginny’s.
Marcus is also a co-founder of FoodRepublic.com – a website for men who want to eat and drink well, and to live smart.
Photo by Kwaku Alston.