(ARISE magazine, Issue 16) Adopted from Ethiopia, raised in Sweden, made in America, celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson has blended the ingredients of his bittersweet life and come out sizzling
Out of the kitchen to launch his latest book, Marcus Samuelsson has walked right into the fire. It should be a time for celebration, but the release of his memoirs Yes, Chef, has instead put the 42-year-old in hot water. First there was The New York Observer’s scalding critique, in which writer Eddie Huang scoffed that Samuelsson’s famous Harlem restaurant Red Rooster “fails utterly in its goal of paying homage to the neighbourhood, coming off instead like an embarrassing exercise in condescension, much like the book”.
Speaking to Samuelsson days after the piece was published, on the eve of his US book tour, he was clearly still angry and quick to disregard Huang’s comments. “I don’t look for validation. I look at our work here and our purpose here, and whether someone is going to agree with that or not it doesn’t matter. I’m still gonna be here.
“As an African, we’re used to getting jumped at left and right – we get tested all the time… I recognise when somebody tries to enter themselves into the conversation. We live in a world now where even if you don’t produce good content you can just jump in by screaming at those people who do”. He could equally be talking about another man not best pleased with what’s in Yes, Chef: British celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay. In the book, Samuelsson claims Ramsay called him a “fucking black bastard” during an enraged phonecall back in 2000. Ramsay denies the allegation, his spokesperson describing it as “completely false and extremely offensive”.
While Samuelsson says elsewhere in Yes, Chef that he has “no big race wounds”, he does recall a bully at school in Sweden asking him why he wasn’t good at playing “negerboll” (neger is Swedish for ‘negro’). “Me and my sister just wanted to be like Swedish kids but we couldn’t,” he says. “That’s why it’s so sweet just to be here [in Harlem]. When we stand out it’s because of our actions, not anything else”.
As the owner and executive chef of Red Rooster Harlem, Samuelsson has carved out a niche – bringing his own twist and glamour to the neighbourhood’s legendary soul-food scene. It’s been a long journey to the top. After studying at the Culinary Institute in Gothenburg, Samuelsson apprenticed in Switzerland, France and even on cruise ships. In 1994 he arrived in America to take up an apprenticeship at Aquavit, and a year later was made executive chef at the Nordic-inspired restaurant. Within three months he had received a prestigious three-star rating from The New York Times – the youngest chef ever to do so – and went on to win two titles from the James Beard Foundation (the Rising Star Chef Award in 1999 and Best Chef In New York in 2003). In 2009 Samuelsson reached the pinnacle of his career when he was asked to cook for Barack Obama at his first state dinner. His fame shows no sign of waning, with regular appearances on TV shows including his own series Urban Cuisine, Top Chef Masters (which he won in 2010), The Today Show and Dr Oz. Yes, Chef is his fourth book, and Red Rooster is only one of his restaurants (the others are Ginny’s Supper Club, newly opened downstairs at Red Rooster; Marc Burger in Chicago; and Costa Mesa – with Norda and Street Food in Sweden). He also has a website, FoodRepublic.com, “for men who want to eat and drink well”.
Given his eventful life story, public squabbles are unlikely to concern Samuelsson too much. “My mother walked 75 blocks – that was a test in life,” he says, “A real test in life”. He’s referring to his birth mother; the woman who in 1971, in the small Ethiopian village of Meki, gave birth to a boy called Kassahun Tsegie. When he was three years old, his mother put him on her back and, with his sister Fantaye in tow, set out on the long road to the capital Addis Ababa, in search of treatment for the tuberculosis all three had contracted. Seventy-five miles later they reached the hospital – but Kassahun Tsegie’s mother died shortly afterwards. The two siblings recovered and a year later were adopted by a white Swedish couple, Lennart and Anne-Marie Samuelsson, taken to Sweden and renamed Marcus and Linda.
In a recent piece for Huffington Post, Is That Your Baby? Growing Up a Child of White Parents, Samuelsson recalled his childhood with “the original Brad and Angelina (if Brangelina lived in a small fishing town and made cabbage rolls”. “There was so much love, so much positive energy. I never heard my parents say, ’We have adopted kids’. The minute my sister Linda and I landed in Sweden, we were their kids.” In our Big Question feature in Issue 13, ARISE asked ‘Should non-Africans be able to adopt African children?’ How would Samuelsson have answered? “It’s a complex issue and I think that sensitivity and tone are the key things. It worked for me and my sister but it might not work for everyone else… [and] as I said in the Huffington Post, maybe one day there’ll be an African family adopting from Europe.”
Despite their differences, one thing united the family: food. “We had to learn how to create our sense of family value, and food became this thing that we hung on to,” says Samuelsson. “In my Ethiopian family it could be a tribal handshake, it could be singing, it could be language – we had other ways to connect. When you are a large family you figure out what can be that connecting tie.”
In his online biography, Samuelsson reminisces about how he nourished a love for food in Sweden: “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. My grandmother, Helga, would gather us in the kitchen to teach us how to pickle fresh vegetables, and make meatballs, ginger snaps, cookies, and apple jam”. The legacy of his childhood is still apparent in his cooking today, where the emphasis is on fresh and local ingredients. At Red Rooster you can snack on Swedish delicacies, including pickles, cured meats served with lingonberry jam, and Helga’s Meatballs, which even Huang had to concede are “excellent”.
But on the menu you’ll also find African specialities – from coffee and tea to injera, the spongy bread that is a staple in Ethiopian cuisine. They’re souvenirs of Samuelsson’s first return trip to Ethiopia in 2000. “I got to know about myself, I got to know about different types of food and I developed an African and Ethiopian side to me that I didn’t have before,” he says. Another thing he didn’t know until his sister Linda decided to dig into the family history was that he wasn’t an orphan after all – his father was still alive and he had eight half-brothers and half-sisters. How was the reunion? “It was amazing and very strong,” he enthuses. “I didn’t know him the way I knew my Swedish father but there are other things you pick up like language, his laughter, his walk. He is a tribal leader… and my mother sacrificed herself so that me and my sister would be able go to the hospital, so I knew there was a lot of strength within my family and that has helped me each time I’ve had obstacles in my life.”
Samuelsson later travelled to 20 different African countries, including Senegal, Tunisia, Morocco, South Africa, Tanzania and Zanzibar. Unsurprisingly, exploring African food was a highlight. “I stayed with families. I wanted to know it from a family point of view rather than a restaurant point of view,” he says. The trip resulted in the book The Soul Of A New Cuisine, which is full of beautiful photography, stories and recipes from the trip. Samuelsson also went on to create a pan-African menu for the since-closed Merkato 55 in New York. Would he give it another go or even launch his own pan-African restaurant? “It depends,” he says thoughtfully. “Here at Rooster we have a lot of African-inspired dishes and I feel that a lot of the dishes that I wanted to do there [at Merkato 55] I encompass in my restaurants and those dishes are very popular… I wanted to create a menu from Harlem: African-American cooking, Caribbean, Puerto Rican, Mexican food – but also immigrant food from Africa and Sweden.”
THE RIGHT INGREDIENTS
The staff at Red Rooster are as diverse as the cuisine they serve. Says Samuelsson: “Asian, black, white, Jewish, Christian… with a diverse team we’re gonna be more set up for understanding the customer and we can cook better food.” He is also helping to inspire the next generation in his role as a UNICEF ambassador and through the Careers Through Culinary Arts Program (C-CAP), an organisation that since 1990 has provided culinary training and employment opportunities for young people. Samuelsson has been hands on, taking on graduates from C-CAP to work in his kitchens. “Having my restaurant and being on TV is a platform,” he says. “Coming from where I come from you have to give back”.
With the notoriously antisocial hours of a chef and all his philanthropic activities – not to mention building a relationship with his estranged daughter, Zoe, who was raised by her mother Brigitta with financial support from Samuelsson – it’s a wonder Samuelsson has any free time. But when he does, chances are he’ll be spending it with his wife, Ethiopian model Maya Haile, who he married in Addis Ababa in 2009. “Marcus was born in Ethiopia, raised in Sweden and then moved to Harlem,” Haile told Glamour magazine six months after the wedding. “I was born in Ethiopia, raised in Holland and then moved to…Harlem. How many people have experienced those things? Right away our shared backgrounds were something we connected on. And we both love basketball.” And, of course, food. “I cook at home but so much of my time is spent in the restaurant,” says Samuelsson. “My wife cooks a lot of Ethiopian food, which is great. When I want a good Ethiopian stew I just go home and it’s right there”. In Haile, Harlem and his passion for food, Samuelsson has finally found a place to call home.