Marcus Samuelsson’s ‘Yes, Chef’ shows us the many faces of soul food
How do you define Marcus Samuelsson’s cuisine? The term “fusion” feels dated and limiting. Rather, it’s a cuisine that’s greater than the sum of its influences — Swedish, Ethiopian and African-American, all of which he comes by honestly. Samuelsson, who was born into extreme poverty in rural Ethiopia, was adopted at two by Swedish parents and spent years laboring in European kitchens, where he frequently endured racism. His hard work came to fruition in Harlem, where Samuelsson opened upscale soul-food joint Red Rooster in 2010.
Now, at 42, he’s written a chef’s memoir (a new-ish genre exemplified by Gabrielle Hamilton’s “Blood, Bones & Butter” and, more recently, April Bloomfield’s “A Girl and Her Pig”) that reads more like a traditional autobiography, albeit one from a very young author. “When I was coming up cooking,” he tells us, “I would have liked to have had a book like this, and not just for cooking. It’s the journey of my life, and I want to tell that story.”
Your training in Europe sounded brutal. Has it affected how you run your own kitchen?
Yes it was hard, but there was also a lot of love. … Yes, people yelled at me a lot. I also learned a lot, because I loved my craft. Yes it was tough, but I didn’t care if somebody yelled at me, as long as I learned. … Process is the most important thing. Especially today, when chef students can travel either themselves, travel through YouTube, travel through online spaces, and see so many things, right? That challenges us as chefs — the whole idea of process. And nothing beats process:?the ability to fall in love with something you did many, many times over.
You write that you had to disguise exotic ingredients when you became the executive chef at Aquavit. Are diners more adventurous now?
Yes, and the high-end guest is also more diverse. When I started cooking, there was one guest: a 55-year-old male businessman. Today, customers are much more diverse — it can be a 22-year-old woman that comes from Singapore, and for her, usually there’s nothing new. So, because customers are more diverse, what our customers are asking us for is evolving. If you look at a classic fish restaurant today, it’s not so much European- or American-focused as it was 20 years ago. It’s lighter; it’s brighter. And it’s better food that way.
Are 55-year-old-businessmen now seeking out exotic flavors?
Absolutely. … I think the diner is more fun because there’s much more reflection of real life. There are women, there are people of color, of all religions — [fine dining] is a diverse environment. The world is more diverse, and that’s a good thing.
What flavors inspire you now?
The core of me as a chef is that I’m very curious, and I think that’s the most important thing — to keep being curious.
Coming to Harlem, coming to Red Rooster, I had to learn about a cuisine that I didn’t grow up with — African-American cooking. I had to learn that. … My Swedish side is something I grew up with, but my African and Harlem cuisine that I’ve been creating here at Rooster — Harlem cuisine — is something I’m still new to. And I love that journey, because I’m going to become really good at that one day, because I work at it every single day. Harlem cuisine will also continue to evolve — the East side of us is Latin and Mexican, there’s a Caribbean side, a Dominican side, Italian and Jewish sides, as well as African-Americans. I’m excited about American food. I’m excited locally when I’m here at Harlem, and I feel like I’m chasing those flavors right now.