Marcus Samuelsson’s journey from being a toddler in war-torn Ethiopia to becoming one of the most recognizable chefs in the world is the stuff movies are made of. When Marcus was 1 year old, his birth mother carried him (born Kassahun Tsegie) on her back and took him and his sister on a 75-mile walk to a hospital in Addis Ababa so all three could be treated for tuberculosis.
His mother succumbed to the disease, but Marcus and his sister Linda (born Fantaye) survived. They were eventually adopted by a Swedish couple – Anne Marie and Lennart Samuelsson – and taken to Göteborg, Sweden.
The rest, as they say, is history: He’s won multiple James Beard Awards; was crowned Top Chef Masters champion; authored six books; cooked at Obama’s first state dinner; and opened numerous restaurants, including Red Rooster Harlem. He even co-founded FoodRepublic.com.
Samuelsson was in Orlando Saturday, Aug. 5, doing a cooking demonstration for kids for Macy’s Culinary Council.
I got a chance to chat with the affably gregarious (and gregariously affable) celeb chef about, among other things, the immigrant experience, his fave Orlando restaurants, football allegiances, who he considers his chef-nemesis, and what he’d cook for Donald Trump.
Faiyaz Kara: You’ve talked about going through an existential crisis of sorts after 9/11, which led to your move to Harlem and establishing a presence in that community.
Now, 16 years later in our “post-Obama world,” is there anything you feel you can do as a chef and restaurateur to help foster community integration and understanding?
Marcus Samuelsson: I mean food is that. It really brings us together. If you haven’t been to a different country or met someone of a different culture, then food and music are two of the easiest ways of building an understanding.
I think about this as an immigrant constantly – what can I do to help bridge gaps? – whether it’s through my Swedish herring, or fried chicken to Sweden, or serving someone an Ethiopian meal and talking about the importance of eating with your hands.
FK: The story of your journey from Ethiopia to Sweden is incredible and forms the basis of your book Yes, Chef. You’ve also talked about how your life has taken a series of twists and turns, but that they were “crystal clear.” Do you see your life as being fated in some way?
MS: First of all I think it’s a blessing to have windows into so many different cultures. That’s not a given. Having my Ethiopian side and having an insight into Scandinavia and also to live in Harlem, I think it’s a blessing to have these three cultures very strongly identified within me.
As far as my life being fated, I never thought about it like that. But I do know that there were so many random incidents – if my mom didn’t get tuberculosis, we [Marcus and his sister Linda] wouldn’t have been adopted; if that nurse in the hospital hadn’t taken care of us, we wouldn’t have got to Sweden; if my [adoptive] parents could’ve had their own children, maybe they wouldn’t have adopted us. There were so many things – luck, fate, whatever that juju was, I don’t want to change it and I don’t want to jinx it, I do know that!
FK: So, what is your first food memory?
MS: Oh, fishing for mackerel with my uncle. Going out in the cold [grimaces] cleaning the fish in the boat with all that blood.
FK: You were on Season 2 of Top Chef Masters and won. I’ve spoken to chefs who’ve turned down appearing on the show for myriad reasons, so what made you agree to do the show?
MS: I had a lot of fun on the show! I was there with my friends, like Jonathan Waxman, and I knew I wouldn’t have this chance again. I just left
Aquavit and I hadn’t opened Red Rooster yet, so I just happened to have a slot of time that worked.
FK: Which chef really impressed you during that season of Top Chef Masters?
MS: There were so many. Just cooking every day with Jonathan, we became very, very, very close. And Susan Feniger. You know, we all went over to her bowls afterwards and just started spooning stuff into our mouths. It’s a good sign when seven chefs walk over to your station and start eating the food you made.
FK: Who was your nemesis?
MS: Susur Lee! I mean he is very competitive! [laughs] But being on that show, I have to tell you, it’s like you’re part chef and part athlete because it’s tiring!
FK: When you’re at home and you’re craving comfort food, do you gravitate toward something Ethiopian or Swedish or American?
MS: Oooh, that’s a good question. My favorite comfort food is my wife’s doro wat – the Ethiopian chicken stew. But I also grew up eating fermented cod roe spread in the morning, so I miss that too! [laughs] Very different! I know it doesn’t sound good [laughs]. So, I’m split between the two.
FK: The dishes at Red Rooster incorporate a lot of diverse flavors, from Jamaican to Spanish to Italian to Peruvian. What are FIVE of the best food cities in the world where one can indulge in diverse cuisines?
MS: I would definitely put New York on that list, especially a borough like Queens. Tokyo. It changed my life going to Tokyo. I happen to love the Middle Eastern and Persian food in London. Love a place like L.A. if you think about downtown L.A., Koreatown, and Little Tokyo. And then Singapore because you have Arab, you have Chinese, you have Portuguese, you have Indian, and Malay culture. Eating hawker stand food is one of the most delicious you can eat.
FK: Do you have any favorite restaurants in Orlando? Or any you really want to visit?
MS: I’ve always been impressed by the Ravenous Pig and how they allowed themselves to grow. It’s nice to see people coming to a city, staying in the city and growing that brand while fostering the next generation of chefs in this city. I also want to check out some of the Vietnamese restaurants as well.
FK: You cooked for Obama at his first official state dinner in 2009. If Trump were to ask you to cook a meal for him, what would it be?
MS: I have no idea. I mean it was incredible to cook for Barack Obama and the First Lady. It’s something I’ll always remember. I don’t think I’m really qualified to cook for Trump [laughs]. I’m not qualified for many, many reasons! [laughs again]
FK: What cuisines are you high on right now? Which ones currently spark your interest?
MS: Well, you just mentioned it – I want to know more about Peruvian food. Also regionality – you think about China and India, but you can’t just say “Chinese food” or “Indian food.” You can go to Durban, South Africa, and have incredible Indian food that will be related to India, but regionally will be very, very different.
Or you can go to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and have completely different Indian food. And Chinese food as well. The Muslim Chinese food, for example, is very interesting with cumin and lamb. Things like that are what interest me.
FK: Any plans on expanding your culinary empire to Orlando?
MS: I don’t know yet. I know I’ll open in Overtown in Miami first, but Orlando is such an amazing place. I mean, 50-60 million people come here every year to visit and they normally stay three or four days, so dining is a big part of the attraction.
Out of that, obviously, comes a great food scene, but I gotta do Overtown first, and then we’ll see.
FK: So, the U.S. is playing Sweden in the FIFA World Cup. Who are you rooting for?
MS: [Laughs] Oh my God! [laughs] I gotta go with Sweden otherwise they’ll kill me! [laughs again]
FK: What’s your favorite food scene in a movie?
MS: I mean Big Night, the whole movie! My favorite scene is when the brothers are looking across the street at that other restaurant which happens to be packed, because every chef and every restaurateur has gone through that and you can’t quite figure it out. It’s just an awesome scene.
FK: What’s next for Marcus Samuelsson?
MS: Next is cooking here for the kids, which I’m really excited about, and then we have our food festival Harlem EatUp!, and even though it’s in May, it takes a whole year to plan and build it but, you know, working in a magical place like Harlem gives me a lot of strength. It gives me a lot of energy.
FK: Lastly, what question are you most tired of getting?
MS: When people ask me “What food do you hate” because it’s not the food’s fault! Maybe I misunderstood it!