The Ethiopian-born, Swedish-raised, French-trained Marcus Samuels-son was, at 24 years old, the youngest chef to ever receive three stars from the New York Times for his work at Aquavit. He was named “Best Chef in New York City” by the James Beard Foundation and seved as guest chef for the first state dinner of the Obama presidency. The savvy and prolific restaurateur is currently at the center of Harlem’s resurgent dining scene with Red Rooster, his most recent creation.
The film buff—and, we hear, mean footballer—could also teach a class on how to handle celebrity with dignity and cool if he had time between slow-cooking, community building, “city stretching,” and helping to solve Harlem’s food desert problem.
Kenan Gunduz: How did you initially connect with food?
Marcus Samuelsson: I was born in Ethiopia into a situation where we didn’t have food, and in many ways I think that defines how I relate to food. I was later adopted and grew up in Sweden, where my grandmother worked as a maid. She had become middle class, but her roots were in poverty, so the way she cooked reflected that.
KG: There was respect for what you had.
MS: Yeah, she never grew up with butter. She had the grease that was in the pan, and today we’re all using duck fat. She always used the fish liver; you go to the best sushi restaurants today and they serve Ankimo, monkfish liver. Pig feet, too, all that stuff. Then I went to France and realized the beauty of the highest, most luxurious food, but a lot of it was thrown away and that was shocking. Incorporating the highest ingredients and traditions, being born with very little, and cooking with my grandmother who knew how to work with little, but always eating well—that’s what I’m all about.
KG: Those cuts that get thrown away in traditional fine dining are seeing a resurgence, but doesn’t it take more time and expertise to make them work?
MS: I think most things I really dig take time. We’re all looking for a journey, something that’s more than what is presented. Some of my favorite filmmakers are Terrence Malick and Ingmar Bergman because they take their time. Sometimes it’s painfully slow, but I like things that have been through the tumbler for a while. When I make doro wat, a spicy stewed chicken dish from Ethiopia, just chopping the onion takes a while, and then you braise it and let it sit maybe one, even two days. The same with split pea soup in Sweden; my grandmother used to start it on Sunday and we’d eat it on Wednesday.
KG: That’s a lot of days for soup.
MS: Yes, but it tastes better, and slow cooking doesn’t mean you’re there the whole time. You can pickle, do crosswords, whatever you want.
KG: Why did you choose to open Red Rooster in Harlem?
MS: I think there’s an opportunity to have a dialogue with all the boroughs and neighborhoods, and that conversation can happen in Harlem. It can activate Harlem. I’ve been in New York for 15 years and I feel Harlem is still a part of town that’s mysterious and under-evaluated. But Harlem still wants to be seen, you know, like “We can do it, too.” And if you activate
that, and do it with dignity, everyone’s better for it. You create jobs, people come up, see something that’s unique and authentic, take part in the dialogue, and the whole city becomes larger. For me, Wiley [Dufresne] did it on the Lower East Side.
KG: Opening wd~50 was a big move on Clinton Street at the time.
MS: Roberta’s in Brooklyn is another great example. It’s so deep in Brooklyn, once you’re at Roberta’s you’re completely somewhere else. And it’s a reflection of that community. Before these restaurants, The Odeon was the ultimate.
KG: They were pioneers in TriBeCa.
MS: Yeah, and it stretched the city. The personalities and the interaction with the creative community that The Odeon fostered is the sort of dialogue we want to have. When you get that interaction, that kiss of creativity, you have something.
KG: What do you think about the trend toward seasonal, locally grown food that Brooklyn has become synonymous with?
MS: I don’t know anything about trends. I need to go back many, many times to know that it wasn’t just a first love thing, that it was more than that, and by then the trends have moved on. But I do think that Brooklyn as a whole—if you can speak about four million people or its many neighborhoods—is an indication of good things, and an appreciation for what’s around you, whether it’s locally grown food or the cultural communities on your doorstep.
KG: How connected were you with Harlem when you moved here?
MS: At first I didn’t understand Harlem fully. I had to live here for five years to understand. I had to walk every block and understand why there’s a food desert. Why is it harder to find an apple in September than junk food? I had to understand what my contribution could be.
KG: I understand there is now a farmer’s market in Harlem.
MS: Our market is not like Union Square, but we didn’t have a farmer’s market before and now we have one. And it’s growing, thanks to the commitment of a lot of smaller farmers who think the ‘hood deserves fresh produce, too. There’s the peach man who drives from Virginia every weekend to sell fresh peaches in Harlem. He doesn’t have to do that; there’s an easier way to sell peaches, but that’s his commitment. There are a lot of people like that. It’s really remarkable.