Chef Marcus Samuellson: A Holiday Interview
Different cultures, styles, and generations fuse in the cooking of Marcus Samuellson. Born in Ethiopia, after his mother’s death from Tuberculosis, Marcus was adopted and raised in Sweden, where his family reveled in making fresh food, that inspired his culinary dreams. After training in Sweden and apprenticeships in Switzerland and Austria, Marcus came to New York in 1991 to apprentice at Restaurant Aquavit. At the ripe old age of 24, Marcus became executive chef of Aquavit, and soon after that became the youngest chef ever to receive a three-star restaurant review from The New York Times. In 2003 he was named “Best Chef: New York City” by the James Beard Foundation. A long time resident of Harlem, his own restaurant, Red Rooster, opened in uptown Manhattan in December 2010. With a new book out,“Marcus Off Duty”, we chat with Chef Samuellson about cooking fresh food at home over the holidays.
Zady Marcus, if you could only pick one, who would you name as your chef role model?
Marcus Samuellson I would have to say my mentor and friend Leah Chase. She established an iconic neighborhood restaurant in New Orleans that’s known nationally for how it welcomes and brings together all kinds of people from different walks of life. She epitomizes hospitality at its best, not to mention she makes the best fried chicken I’ve had in my life!
Z: Your background is diverse and you incorporate that into your cooking. Was this an organic development? At what point did you learn about Ethiopian cuisine and learn to cook it?
MS It feels natural for me to incorporate flavors from different cultures into my cooking. It’s what I’m drawn to and I can’t imagine cooking any other way. I first began cook with Ethiopian flavors and was inspired by traditional dishes when I moved to New York City and started to develop my own style, aside from the classical training that was in my background. I learned even more when I met my wife Maya, who is a master at Ethiopian cuisine.
Z: You travelled all over the county for your new book. What was your favorite city for food and culture that you visited?
MS: It’s hard to pick a favorite. But one that stands out a lot in my memory is Los Angeles; Korea Town, specifically. I was blown away by the amount of delicious, authentic street food available there. The neighborhood inspired a lot of recipes in my book, most notably one of my favorites– K-Town Noodles.
Z: What is an ingredient you think everyone should have in their kitchen?
MS: I think everyone should consider buying coconut milk for their pantry. It’s amazing to break out for braising meats, adding to soups, and for use in desserts. It lends a flavorful fat that’s a delicious switch from the ubiquitous cream and butter, and it pairs well with savory, spicy and sweet dishes.
Z: Is there a relationship between your unique style of dress and unique style of cooking?
MS: You could say that I like to be bold- with my clothes, and with my cooking!
Z: What does the term “Slow Food” mean to you? How can people incorporate this idea into their own cooking?
MS: To me, Slow Food means that the food we eat is good and healthy, comes from healthy animals and plants, nourishes the individual, and helps the community. The term ‘slow food’ reflects that we all need to stop and think about solutions so more people can eat this way.
Z: What is your go-to dish to make at home over the holiday season?
MS: My favorite dish to make at home around the holidays is hands-down my grandmother’s Swedish Meatballs with lingonberry sauce. This dish reminds me so much of home and comfort, and that’s what the holidays are all about. Plus, with mashed potatoes on the side and gravy, it’s a warming dish that’s perfect for cold weather, and is easy to make for entertaining friends and family!
Z What is the food culture in Harlem? Have you seen it change in recent years, since opening up Red Rooster?
MS: I’ve definitely seen it change, but I’ve also seen it stay true to its roots. It’s a reflection of the different people who live in the neighborhood- which I love. You can find the best tacos, the best collard greens, and new restaurants keep the neighborhood feeling vibrant with people going out and having fun at night.
Z: Why did you choose to open your restaurant in Harlem?
MS: I lived in Harlem for several years before I opened the restaurant and really fell in love with it. I wanted to open my restaurant in Harlem as a spot for the neighborhood, that also celebrated the neighborhood.
Z: Where do you shop for meals you cook at home?
MS: I like to shop at the farmers market in Harlem. There is one on 125th street where I’ll buy my produce. I’ve been really excited to see growth in the options for fresh food available uptown, and I’m looking forward to continuing to see that growth.
Z: How do you describe the New York Restaurant scene?
MS: It’s vast and unrivaled in its depth. There is so much happening here on all levels, from the family-run dim-sum spot in Sunset Park, to the Michelin Starred fine dining spots where it takes months to get a reservation. If you love food, it’s the place to be.