We all know and love Marcus Samuelsson, and it recently seems that this innovative chef has become the culinary world’s golden boy. Reinventing Harlem with his hot spot restaurant Red Rooster, Samuelsson continuously brings a narrative, culture and story to every dish he touches. His new spot, American Table (at Lincoln Center’s Tully Hall), hosts an eclectic Americana menu that Samuelsson approaches through a Swedish lens. Between his recent memoir, “Yes Chef,” his website Food Republic, tea brand and restaurants, it seems there isn’t anything this chef hasn’t delved into. We couldn’t wait any longer before getting his take on defining career moments, revitalizing Harlem and just how much stock he puts in reviews…
What would be your ideal food day?
I’d start with some fresh fruit after a run in Central Park, then some tacos from my favorite spot in East Harlem. It’s authentic and delicious and the whole menu is only written in Spanish. Then for dinner I’d love to have some amazing sushi at a place like Masa midtown.
You always say food has always been a part of your life; you talk about food not just in terms of cooking with your grandma Helga, but also about your biological Mother struggling to survive and get food for you in Ethiopia. Red Rooster is revitalizing Harlem; is food about more than just cooking? Does it have multiple definitions or multiple stories?
Food is about connecting and telling stories of where you’re from and where you’re going. Before I get to know someone, I ask what they like to eat. You can really find out a lot about people based on their food traditions.
Before you met your father from Ethiopia, had you always been curious about those roots in terms of cooking? Did you use them? Or was your style mainly Swedish before then?
I was giving a talk to some culinary students about Swedish, French and American cooking, and a student raised his hand and asked me what I knew about African cooking. I was embarrassed to admit I didn’t know anything about my roots. It wasn’t until my sister pushed us to look for my birth father that I began to learn about my roots – and now I love the foods from Ethiopia and incorporating African traditions into my menu at Red Rooster.
Would you call being made head chef at Aquavit the defining moment in your career?
It was definitely a very important moment in my career because it showed me that I was part of the chef tribe. It gave me the opportunity to represent the introduction of Swedish cooking to American palates and I obviously learned a lot in that kitchen.