Marcus Samuelsson is one of the world’s top chefs with an impressive list of accolades including two three-star ratings from The New York Times, two James Beard Awards for best chef and best international cookbook and consecutive four-star ratings in Forbes’ annual All-Star Eateries. He’s cooked for President Obama, opened his dream restaurant in Harlem and is a mentor on ABC’s The Taste. Samuelsson tells us about his path from Sweden, where he learned to cook from his grandmother Helga, to New York City and his latest cookbook, Marcus Off Duty, a four year journey of learning, living, tasting and cooking, with 150 recipes he cooks at home with his wife Maya on a quiet night in.
When did your passion for cooking start?
I’ve enjoyed cooking since I was young. My grandmother Helga was my greatest influence and I owe a lot of my success to her. She didn’t just teach me how to cook, but to cook seasonally, with a spiritual compass, and with traditions and values that I would use my entire life. My sisters and I were always encouraged to help and do the work, not just watch.
When I was a teenager, I went to a local culinary school in Sweden and realized I was really good at cooking. When you find pride and confidence in yourself and what you do, there’s no better time to develop that passion. And it was hard work. I struggled a lot because I was different. I had to prove myself over and over again.
You attended top cooking schools in Sweden and apprenticed in Switzerland, Austria and France. What was the biggest lesson you learned?
I learned some of the most important life lessons in those kitchens. Whether I was plucking feathers off a duck or making dinner for the chef’s dog, I worked as hard as I could.
Working in kitchens is a lot like being on a sports team. You rely on each other so much and become as close as family. There’s no pressure like the pressure of not wanting to let down your family, team or kitchen.
After only a year apprenticing at Aquavit, you became Executive Chef. Then The New York Times awarded you two three-star ratings. At the time, you were the youngest chef to have achieved that. How did this affect your career?
I owe it all to hard work, timing and my amazing team who believed in me. So many doors were opened after that. And this was long before chefs were seen the way they are now—the inner circle of top chefs was small. But as soon as that happened, I was in, and made friends with people who will be my friends forever.
You cooked for President Obama—what was it like being guest chef for the first state dinner?
That was one of the most nervous days of my life. I met the president and first lady, and have since seen and cooked for them several times, but there is no greater intimidation than the first.
Usually state dinners are French. But I wanted to create something that would be familiar to their guest, the prime minister of India, Manmohan Singh. I did a lot of research and used inspiration from both American and Indian cuisines so everyone felt at home. The prime minister was also vegetarian, so there were lentils, cornbread, chutneys and sweet potatoes. It was the ultimate, albeit refined, mashup.
You’re no stranger to TV. You won Top Chef Masters in 2010, judged Top Chef, Iron Chef America, Chopped and most recently ABC’s The Taste, plus guest appearances on Today and Good Morning America. How do you stay fresh?
I go out to eat, read and experiment often. The food world changes so quickly. You have to stay informed and try new things to be successful.
Of all the things you’ve done in the last four years, what’s your most memorable moment?
Opening my restaurant Red Rooster. Everyone wants to be their own boss, but what really drove me was Harlem. I love the neighborhood I live in and want to share it with people who might not otherwise venture about 110th Street. There’s so much to share here—and it’s more than a restaurant. We are a pillar in the community, a meeting place, gallery, music venue, place of employment, and we just so happen to serve delicious food, too.
What’s the best thing at Red Rooster?
The fried yard bird. When I moved to Harlem, I learned how to make it and put my own spin on it, of course.
Also, Helga’s meatballs with lingonberries, braised green cabbage and buttermilk mashed potatoes. Making meatballs with my grandmother and sisters is one of my oldest memories. They’re a staple of mine and I always serve them at family gatherings—everyone loves them.
Where can I see some good music after dinner?
Ginny’s Supper Club, it’s our sister venue downstairs from the restaurant. It’s a modern reincarnation of the glamorous speakeasies and Harlem nights of the 1920s with live jazz music. It’s so intimate that no matter who’s playing, you’ll have a very personal experience.
After that, if you’re thirsty, head over to 67 Orange Street. Their cocktails are spot on. It’s tiny and intimate, the kind of place that’s hard to find in other New York neighborhoods.
What do you cook at home?
A lot of what I cook is in my new cookbook Marcus Off Duty. It’s a mashup of cultures and flavors which, in my mind, is more reflective of what Americans eat today. The recipes draw from meals my co-workers share with me as well as food I eat on the road and at home.
I also cook a lot of Ethiopian food with my wife Maya—nobody cooks better than Maya. Ethiopian food isn’t something I grew up with, but I was born there so I’ve always had a connection and curiosity.
Thanksgiving is right around the corner. What’s Thanksgiving like at a top chef’s house?
Our extended family doesn’t live in the U.S. so we invite our friends, who are also immigrants, over for Thanksgiving. It’s a very multicultural dinner and probably not as traditional as one would expect of a chef. There is definitely turkey and the usual sides, but maybe the bird is seasoned with Harissa or tandoori. And the pie isn’t your average pumpkin pie.
What do you do with the leftovers?
Pytt i panna, or Swedish hash, is another dish I grew up with. It’s all about utilizing leftovers and making sure nothing goes to waste. It’s perfect for Thanksgiving leftovers, or breakfast.
Any tips for the first-timer Thanksgiving host?
Plan ahead. Do as much as you can in advance. Some dishes can be made a day or two before.
Have a great playlist. Music should always be in the background of any great gathering—Thanksgiving is no exception.
Make a specialty drink. Little personal touches go a long way to impress your guests.
Have fun! Nobody wants a stressed out host.
What’s next for you?
There’s a lot of exciting things happening in the next few months, but first I have to make a killer Thanksgiving.
For more Thanksgiving everything, see our turkey-to-pie survival guide, with recipes from Marcus, The New York Times and other famous foodies.
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