We all know and love Marcus Samuelsson, and it seems that this innovative chef has become the culinary world’s golden boy recently. 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 review.
The New Potato: What would be your ideal food day?
Marcus Samuelsson: "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."
TNP: 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."
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TNP: 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."
TNP: 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."
TNP: What was it like leaving? Was it a good or bad experience?
"I think any time you move on from one thing to another it’s a scary experience. I didn’t know what would happen — but you have to take big risks to reap big rewards."
TNP: What made you decide to open Red Rooster? How long was it on your mind?
"Red Rooster was on my mind since before I moved to Harlem. I met Sylvia Woods — owner of the famous Sylvia’s — 15 years ago at an event, and it was her speech that convinced me I had to move to Harlem if I was going to open a business there. I wanted a restaurant where everyone would be treated equally and where they could come together to share stories of their day over a plate of yummy food and drink."
TNP: Do you think people are starting to follow in your footsteps in terms of Harlem? How so?
"I think people are starting to come up to Harlem more in general and that makes me happy. I want people to come up here, grab a drink at Red Rooster or any of the other fantastic establishments north of 125th Street, and see the street life that happens on a daily basis. It’s once you’re here that you see some of the best-dressed people mixing it up with young artists and seasoned musicians."
TNP: Are there other neglected neighborhoods you’d like to see revitalized? What are they?
"I was out in the Bay Area promoting Yes, Chef and Oakland reminds me so much of Harlem. It’s a neighborhood that is gaining traction and soon it will become the place to be — like what Brooklyn is now and what Harlem is about to be."
TNP: Ginny’s Supper Club is reminiscent of Harlem in the Twenties; Do you think restaurants are time capsules in a sense?
"Absolutely. But that time capsule can also represent the time we live in right now. At Ginny’s, our decor might be reminiscent of our past, but the food — like jerk veal tongue buns — is very modern. The music is a look at the greats as well as [showcasing] new talent. That’s why we had Roberta Flack one week and Motown Record’s newest sensation the next."
"I just felt I wanted to share stories of my journey. It started off as a cathartic exercise for myself but as I got deeper and deeper into the process, I realized that there might be lessons in there that everyone can use. It’s a story about family, food, race, dedication, failures, triumphs and hopefully some delicious memories along the way."
TNP: In it, you talk about some fairly abusive kitchen experiences. Where do you draw the line concerning how chefs treat their help? Can you respect someone’s personal style of running a kitchen or is there a certain way to do it?
"I don’t love that I got hot scallops thrown in my face, but I also know it was meant to teach me to be a better chef. I don’t think chefs should ever abuse their help, but it’s about expecting the best out of someone — it’s the only way they can learn. I think every chef has his or her own style and you have to respect it. In the kitchen we are taught to say “Yes, Chef” and there’s a reason for that. If there’s a weak link in the line, it can end up harming everyone in the end."
TNP: Are there things we as customers just wouldn’t want to know about? Can you tell us?
"My lips are sealed."
TNP: Is cooking in your restaurant kitchen treated differently than when you cook for someone like Barack Obama? Is your process different? What was that like?
"That’s what I love about the kitchen at Red Rooster. We have cooked for President Obama and President Clinton in there, but we have also cooked for the guy who lives in Apartment 4B in the building next to us. Service is the same for both parties and that’s the way I like it. Of course, cooking for Obama at the White House is an experience I will never forget. I was so nervous and wanted everything to be perfect, but in the end I was very, very happy with the result."
TNP: In terms of your recent openings as well as your new book, how much stock do you put in reviews? Do they matter to you?
"I would be lying if I didn’t admit reviews mattered to me. But you have to think about where the review is coming from — did the writer take the time to read the menu and the book carefully? Are they understanding our point of view? A bad review can show you where you need to improve and a good review indicates you have to work harder to keep that level of expectation high."
TNP: You’ve done a lot of food TV. What do you think of the trend in general? Does it ever go too far?
"There are so many TV food shows now and while some are better than others, it’s a great way to educate people about different foods. I had a young kid come up to me at a cooking demo and question the choice of cheese I was using. Was it ricotta or was it burrata? I asked him how he even knew the difference and he said “Food Network!” I loved that. Does it ever go too far? I guess there are certain lines you shouldn’t cross, but as long as it’s educating people on how to make better choices, I think it’s great."
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TNP: What’s most important to you when competing?
"Doing the best job I can."
TNP: We all want to ask — how do you win against greats like Jonathan Waxman and Susur Lee? Is it just about the cooking? Or is it something else?
"I am up against so many incredibly talented chefs, most of them who I know personally and are part of my food tribe. I don’t know how one wins; I just stay focused and think about every aspect of the dishes I’m putting out."
TNP: You’ve joined the online conversation by starting your own food website, Food Republic. Not many chefs can say the same thing. Do you think that’s a new culinary frontier? Will chefs be following in your footsteps on this?
"I started Food Republic because I saw a void in the online space. I wanted a place that told guys how to peel ginger or what was the best tool to use when making sous vide chicken. Guys are finding themselves comfortable in the kitchen and that should be celebrated. On MarcusSamuelsson.com, our demographic is more female, so we include a lot of recipes and stories that talk about healthy foods to eat before working out. I think there’s a growing intersection of food and tech. Look at how many people whip out their cameras to take a picture of their food so they can post it on Twitter or Instagram."
TNP: You’ve won basically every accolade a chef can win. Are you constantly still setting new goals? What are they?
"I’m always setting new goals because if I don’t, I might as well quit being a chef. You have to remain curious and adventurous because that is what makes us better, more interesting people."
TNP: And lastly and most importantly, how do you feel about new potatoes?
"Love them mashed, boiled, roasted, sautéed, as gratine..."