Swedish Roots of Dynamic and Diverse Chef Marcus Samuelsson
Interviewed by Sofie Kinnefors
Swedish award-winning chef, international restaurateur and cookbook author Marcus Samuelsson started early. Aged six he was already helping his grandmother Helga in the kitchen. “I have so many memories being in the kitchen with her. One thing is for sure – whether it was helping making meatballs, picking wild berries or cleaning fish, she used to really put me and my sisters to work.” From there on, Samuelsson was off to a grand culinary journey which led him to become co-owner and chef of Red Rooster Harlem in New York City.
Marcus Samuelsson was born in Ethiopia and raised in Partille on the Swedish West Coast. Marcus, his two sisters Anna and Linda and their parents would spend the summers at the holiday resort Smögen, located in Västra Götaland County.
“Every morning I went fishing with my dad, Lennart, and my uncles. We caught crayfish, lobsters, and mackerel, and often smoked and preserved the catch,” Marcus said.
His upbringing in Western Sweden and time spent in the kitchen with his parents and grandma Helga, along with the food they prepared, still play a major role in Marcus’ cooking.
On the various menus at Marcus’ restaurants you can, for example, find mackerel, herring, Arctic char and Swedish meatballs on the menus.
After finishing studies at the Culinary Institute in Gothenburg and gaining experience at fine restaurants in Switzerland and France, Marcus arrived and got his start in New York by training at world-class Nordic restaurant Aquavit in 1994. He showed major talent, worked hard and eventually became Executive Chef.
“It was very exciting for me. I always knew I wanted to come to New York, and I learned so much at Aquavit aside from cooking,” Marcus said.
Marcus was praised for his work as chef at Aquavit and in 1995 become the youngest chef ever to receive a three-star rating from The New York Times.
The Red Rooster Cookbook: The Story of Food and Hustle in Harlem is one of several books written by Marcus Samuelsson.
Marcus left Aquavit in 2010. Aside from working in the kitchen, he lectured, hosted and appeared on various lifestyle and cooking shows, worked on establishing new restaurants, wrote cookbooks and had the honor of cooking for President Barack Obama during his first state dinner.
In 2010 Marcus and fellow creator Andrew Chapman opened and successfully developed the now vibrant comfort food restaurant Red Rooster Harlem on Lenox Avenue.
“It fulfills my dream to showcase American comfort food with hints of my Swedish and African roots. I want this to be a place where people from all walks of life break bread together,” Marcus added.
Once again Marcus’ love for Scandinavian food shines through. At Red Rooster in Harlem you can order Scandinavian specialties like Helga’s meatballs, made like his grandmother used to make them, plus Uptown Lax Toast featuring smoked salmon, hard-boiled egg, avocado, radishes, lime aioli; and also luxury Americanized cinnamon rolls made from brioche bread rolled with cinnamon sugar and raisins.
So what can a person expect who is visiting the colorful restaurant for the first time? And what should one order?
“You can expect so much more than great food. Red Rooster is always buzzing with live music, art, and fashion. It’s a great place to see the who’s-who in the city and just to really have a great time. For a first order, I would say the cornbread and yardbird are staples, but you really can’t go wrong with anything on the menu.”
On a typical day at Red Rooster Harlem, Marcus makes time for family, his Swedish coworkers and his team.
“In the morning, I try to eat breakfast with Maya and Zion and maybe go for an early walk with them in the park. Then I get on the phone with my Europe team. Because of the time difference, it’s a great time to connect with them,” he said.
“Then, my main job at Red Rooster is to inspire the team and make sure we have the right culture in place. From teaching the team about the history of Harlem to preparing new dishes and updating them on the menus to getting ready for a new art installation, I am primarily there to teach and help the team grow.”
Currently based in New York, Marcus runs two Red Rooster restaurants, along with Marcus B&P in Newark, NJ and (through his partnership with Clarion Hotels in 2012) the restaurant chain “Kitchen and Table” – now in Clarion hotels throughout Sweden, Norway and Finland.
The talented chef and restaurateur’sstyle of cooking varies depending on which of his restaurants he is in. “My cooking style is pretty much based around the community where I’m cooking. At Red Rooster we do comfort food with an international twist, while at Marcus B&P in Newark the cuisine is rooted in the food of the migration communities with a Mediterranean influence, since that says more about the local community.”
Apart from grandma Helga, Marcusfinds inspiration in the late Chicago-based American chef and restaurateur Charlie Trotter. “Chef Charlie Trotter really had a big impact on me and how I think. He was so ahead of his time in terms of how diverse his kitchens were – it was amazing for me to see that at a pretty young age.”
Marcus also find inspiration in his family. And he doesn’t mind cooking in his spare time. On days off he likes to relax at home with his wife, Ethiopian model Maya and their son Zion. “I cook at home with Maya and Zion. We’ll usually do simple, healthy dishes together. I actually love when Maya cooks Ethiopian food, because she’s great at making those traditional dishes – I learn so much.”
So what’s next for the world-renowned chef?
“I have a show coming out on PBS in partnership with Eater this summer. I had the opportunity to travel around the US and meet amazing people from various immigrant communities, from the Vietnamese community in New Orleans to the Haitian community in Miami. I learned so much and I can’t wait to share that. It airs on July 10th.”
We’ll be watching.
All photos © Marcus Samuelsson