If a younger Marcus Samuelsson had his way, he'd never had stepped in the kitchen. "Not becoming a professional soccer player was the best mistake I ever made," he says standing in his hailed, beloved Red Rooster restaurant on Harlem's West Side. As slim and sure-footed as the man is, we weren't exactly prepared for that one. He explains further: "See, when I get out on the soccer field, I can be as fierce as a competitor as when I'm in the kitchen." Now, we're getting it.
Since the Ethiopian-born, Swedish-raised Samuelsson landed in the kitchen of the Upper East Side's Aquavit in the mid-90s, he's been enjoying a breakneck, practically vertical ascendency as a chef, food-advocate, philanthropist, and (it's okay to say) celebrity. A James Beard award led to books on both Swedish and African foods; multiple, multiple television appearances; the amazing Food Republic website; and a gig cooking up Barack Obama's first state dinner (he kept it mostly vegetarian for the Indian prime minister). His journey from Ethiopia (where he was born Kassahun "Joar" Tsegie) to an adoptive home in Sweden to New York's competitive restaurant scene is not only a key to his personality, unique take on food, and story, but it's also a large part of his appeal and has, no doubt, contributed to his broad popularity (and sales of his book Yes, Chef: A Memoir).
He's come full circle with it, though, creating the Red Rooster in Harlem — a spot that celebrates the area's rich culinary history — and Three Goats Organization, which is dedicated to empowering Ethiopian women and a host of other charitable initiatives aimed at Africa. "It was an unexpected, difficult, and thrilling journey," he says, "that opened my eyes to a new world of cultures and flavors." Maybe, but we can't help but feel that, sometimes, he — the chef who does so much more than cook — is the one opening our eyes.
Putting African Cuisine on the American Table
"The African influence on the foods we eat every day is much more prevalent than you think. There is blame on our Western diet — heavy on salt, sugar, and calories — for the rise of obesity in not only African-Americans but all of us. It's a new idea, but a solution to these chronic problems would be a return to traditional African foods. I'm talking more grains, chickpeas, and adopting a predominantly plant-based diet. If I can influence even some small changes in the way people eat, then I can feel I'm doing some good."
"I’d triumphed and failed before, but Red Rooster was a result of a conversation I had with the incomparable Sylvia Woods and Leah Chase. I wanted to make an imprint on a community, and I knew it had to be Harlem. I'm proud of the community impact opening here has made in Harlem. We listen to our neighbors, who come from every walk of life, and try to understand how we can always be part of a positive conversation."
The Future of Food
"It might get worse before it gets better, but the fact that so many conversations are being started within the food space tells me that we are paying more attention to what and how we eat. But that all depends on [how] people are cooking at home and preserving culinary traditions with their families — the home cooks who are remixing the recipes they grew up with and making them their own."
Bringing It All Back Home
"Since both my wife and I are from Ethiopia, we feel it’s essential that we give back to the place we originally called home. It's not just an idea; it's an inherent duty. I mean, it’s crucial to know your past, stay present in the now, but always look to the future."
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Grooming by Andrew Colvin.