By Anetta Nowosielska
No self-respecting New York foodie is unfamiliar with the culinary wonders of Chef Marcus Samuelsson, the owner and executive chef of Red Rooster Harlem, winner of Bravo’s “Top Chef Masters,” and the title holder for James Beard Foundation NYC’s Best Chef. Samuelsson’s skills were on full display one evening back in June at The Backyard Restaurant at Solé East in Montauk, where he oversaw a one-time, special four-course dinner paired with wines by Bedell Cellars, Channing Daughters and Clovis Point. Culinary accolades aside, Chef Marcus Samuelsson, is the protagonist of one of the great food stories of our time. “Yes, Chef,” Samuelsson’s memoir, is as much about his rise to culinary greatness as it is about his incredible journey from Ethiopia, where he was born into poverty, and into the kitchen of his adopted middle-class, white grandmother in Goteborg, Sweden. In Samuelsson’s life this jarring contrast plays a major part in more ways than one.
AN Have you always known that you would eventually write a book chronicling your life?
MS I don’t think I could have imagined that my life would be a story to tell, but who can know what their journey will be? This memoir was 5 years in the making because I kept adding and subtracting stories to the book. We had nearly 1,500 pages of copy and we had to edit it down to 300 or so pages.
AN How difficult was it to manage Red Rooster, your other projects and writing a book?
MS Well the way I see it, these difficulties are blessings. I have options to own multiple restaurants, work on my brand and write a book. So many people worry about making rent and how they can provide for their families. I cherished every moment I have to work on each project and took solace in that.
AN Some of the episodes in ‘Yes, Chef’ are incredibly moving. Do you see yourself as a person who overcame great odds or were you always destined for greatness?
MS Aren’t we all destined for greatness if we put in the work? There’s a guy on the corner of 125th and Lenox in Harlem selling fruit ices on the street. He might not have a big restaurant to walk into everyday, but he owns that corner during the summer. I see my journey as one that involves a lot of hard work and sacrifice but one that was also filled with love and luck.
AN What was it about Harlem that made you decide was the place for your restaurant?
MS After living there for five years it wasn’t even a question that I was going to open Red Rooster there. I walked and biked every block of my neighborhood and asked a lot of questions. From women like Thelma Golden who runs the Studio Museum to my barber at Sho Nuff, I wanted to know what their version of Harlem was. I learned about the people, the history, the music, the art, everything — and the menu reflects all parts of who and what Harlem is today.
AN Going from the famed Aquavit Restaurant to Red Rooster is quite the change. Do you weave any techniques from your old kitchen to your current set up or is this a completely new approach to cooking for you?
MS Being trained in the kitchens in Europe and learning my cooking chops there, you don’t ever forget how to break down a chicken or sous vide anything. Our menu at Rooster is comfort food, but that doesn’t mean we can’t take the care to fry our yard bird to perfection or create sauces using classic French technique.
AN You hoped for a soccer career. If you were to do it all over again, what other path would you be pursuing professionally?
MS Soccer is in my blood as much as cooking is…. if I wasn’t cooking I’d probably be teaching soccer to kids in Chinatown. Or maybe hanging out all day under the sun in South Beach!
AN You have built quite the reputation for a dapper style. Who are your favorite designers and what are your rules for your uniquely eclectic fashion style?
MS I have to give a shout out to my Swedish boys at Acne. I love their fabrics and how they cut their clothes. Sure I love the big names like Louis Vuitton and YSL, but I usually find them at all the antique shops I love to pop into in every city I visit. It’s always about mixing the high and low — I’ll rock some brightly patterned pants with an equally fun shirt and throw a scarf I bought at the African fabric shop with it.
AN Your meteoric rise in the US began one weekend when the Aquavit’s chef died of a heart attack. What would you say are the essential characteristics for any chef to rise to the occasion under such unpredictable circumstances?
MS I think it’s about having great mentors, being committed and staying curious. Once you feel like you know it all, you probably should move on and do something else. For me I always ask questions and find I can learn something new everyday just by asking someone where they’re from and what they like to eat.
AN Scandinavian cuisine is enjoying its moment in the spotlight. If Ethiopian gastronomy was to gain the same momentum, what would you suggest its stellar menu items to be?
MS Doro wat, kitfo, butter coffee, honey wine….I can go on.
AN. Any chance for Red Rooster out in the Hamptons?
MS Right now we’re focusing on what’s happening in front of us–Red Rooster, Ginny’s, Yes, Chef. But who knows where my journey will take me!