Born in Ethiopia and raised in Sweden, celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson is the owner-chef of Red Rooster Harlem, Marcus National Harbor, and an upcoming new eatery planned for the Overtown district of Miami. A TV star and best-selling author, his life story has truths and insights for anyone who eats and cooks in today’s world—which is, after all, all of us. Here are six of those truths:
- It’s a big world and a small planet.
Samuelsson grew up in Africa in a time of plague. His birth name is Kassahun Tsegie. When he was a baby he and his sister contracted tuberculosis. So did his mother, who carried him on her back for miles from their village in the highlands to the capital city of Addis Ababa. Marcus and his sister received treatment at a hospital and survived. His mother did not.
Decades later, after he had become a celebrated chef and television personality, he went back to Ethiopia to rediscover a piece of himself that had been left behind. One way he did this was to walk for hours around the Merkato, the open air market of Addis Ababa, the biggest in Africa, happening upon all sorts of new tastes and spices including a kind of chili powder blend called “berbere.” Returning home, berbere became a favored ingredient of his cooking, not just for what it does to the food but as an expression of his identity, who he is and was.
- Love and kindness matter, in life and cooking.
With Ethiopia beset by civil war and families and children dying from TB and malnutrition, a nurse at the hospital that had saved their lives arranged for Kassahun and Fantaye to be placed with a Swedish adoption agency. This she did with the support and blessing of their dying mother. At the time a Swedish couple, Lennart and Anne Marie Samuelsson of Goteborg, were looking to adopt a boy. When they heard about Kassahun they jumped at the chance to make him part of their family. Since they already had a daughter, they were seeking only a son. But when told the boy had a sister who also needed a home, they took them both. The boy became Marcus, his sister Linda.
Lennart and Anne Marie weren’t much into cooking; Marcus’s early inspiration came from his grandmother Helga, who grew up in Skane, the gourmet capital of Sweden. Her home, as he recalled in his memoir, was “a little food factory.” In it she brought in large cuts of meat and game animals and butchered them. She baked bread. In her basement cellar she made apple and pear jams, pickles, preserved gooseberries and raspberries, pickled onions, cucumbers, beets, and the staple of Swedish cuisine, the herring. Best of all, she invited the little boy into her factory and her kitchen and showed him how to use the tools and how to cook.
- Family is at the core of personal identity—and cooking.
Helga’s signature dish was roast chicken, and every time Samuelsson makes it he thinks of her. “The roast chicken I make today is an homage to her. I use perfectly fed chickens, ones that weigh exactly three pounds. My grandmother bought whole chickens from the market, some fat, some skinny. I use real butter instead of fat. But the layering of flavor and the techniques? They’re all hers.”
- We mark the passages of our lives with food.
The first meal the young Samuelsson cooked by himself—really all by himself, without his grandmother or mother looking on—occurred when he was twelve, on an Easter trip to the island of Smogen off the west coast of Sweden. It was a guys-only trip, him, his father and his uncle. They were there to fish and to work, scraping, sanding and painting the fishing boats to get them ready for summer.
During the trip Uncle Torsten invited him into the smokehouse where they cured that day’s catch of herring and eel. “It was an initiation of sorts, into manhood,” he recalled. “Chest puffed up, I stoked the fire, yanked fish off rods, and piled up stones.”
The last night they were there Marcus underwent another initiation of sorts and pan-fried fish and potatoes for all of them. His father and uncle drank beer and spoke in Swedish dialect, and he reflected with pride on how good the food tasted and the lesson it carried for him. “Although I was still a kid and years away from any thought of becoming a chef, I was learning the beauty of food within a context: how important it is to let the dishes be reflective of your surroundings.”
- France is still, well, France. It’s fundamental.
In time Samuelsson moved on from his grandmother’s tutelage to learn his trade at restaurants in Sweden and Europe. Eventually he made the pilgrimage to New York where he landed a job in the kitchen at Aquavit, a small, upscale café between Park and Madison whose Nordic fusion cuisine seemed a perfect fit for his talents. But he had other things on his mind, notably a stint at the one country he had missed in his travels around Europe. “I had to get to France,” he said. “Anyone who wanted to know greatness had to go to France.”
Once there, he received first-hand lessons in greatness from Georges Blanc at his restaurant in Vonnas, between Dijon and Lyon. His signature dish was lobster lasagna, made with fresh lobster, sautéed spinach and oven-dried tomatoes, and it was unlike any lasagna he had ever had before. When Blanc offered him a full-time job it was, for Samuelsson, like graduating from a culinary academy. He had done what he wanted. He turned down the offer and flew back to New York to carve out his own name in cooking.
- It’s a charmed life, for those of us fortunate enough to live it.
Back at Aquavit and now in charge of the kitchen, Marcus became the youngest chef ever to win a prestigious three-star rating from the New York Times, signaling not only his arrival as a chef of prominence but boosting his confidence that he could hang with the heavy hitters in the mostly white, Eurocentric lineup of elite “Division One” chefs—his term—in America’s premiere restaurant city.
His attractive personality and unique story made him a natural for television, earning him an invitation to compete on Bravo’s “Top Chef Masters.” Soon after the show began taping in Los Angeles he received another invitation—this one from the White House, to oversee President Obama’s first state dinner after taking office. That was another hard invite to turn down, and Samuelsson flew back and forth to Washington D.C. to make sure everything happened as it should. The multi-course dinner included potato and eggplant salad, red lentil soup with fresh cheese, roasted potato dumplings with tomato chutney, green curry prawns with smoked collard greens and coconut-aged basmati, pumpkin pie tart, and chocolate-dipped fruit. The guests of honor, India Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his wife, were vegetarians.
That done, Samuelsson returned to the cooking show and won it.
This article is adapted from Kevin L. Nelson’s book, Foodie Snob, published by Lyons Press. Photograph from MarcusSamuelsson.com.