It’s common practice for chefs to draw culinary inspiration from the place they call home, but when you’re born in Ethiopia, raised in Sweden, and live in Harlem, the line begins to blur. “Being an American chef with an international background is what shapes me,” explains Marcus Samuelsson, the chef and co-owner of Red Rooster Harlem.
After attending the Culinary Institute in Gothenburg, Samuelsson apprenticed at leading restaurants in Switzerland and France before becoming the Executive Chef of Aquavit in New York City. Within a year, he earned a three-star rating from The New York Times—the youngest chef ever to do so—and not long after, received the Rising Star Chef Award from the James Beard Foundation. But his real aha moment came in 2009 when he was asked to cook the first State Dinner for President Barack Obama and Prime Minister of India Manmohan Singh. “It was absolutely intimidating, but it was fun,” he recalls. “It was one of those moments when you’re like, wow, this is an amazing moment. I called my mom and she said, ‘This is a big stage to screw up on. Don’t ruin the family name!’”
The following year, Samuelsson achieved another lifelong dream when he partnered with Andrew Chapman to open Red Rooster. “It fulfills my dream to showcase American comfort food with hints of my Swedish and African roots,” he reveals. “I want this to be a place where people from all walks of life break bread together.”
Describe your cooking style.
Using Harlem as a source of inspiration is always exciting to me. I love comfort food and I love being around it. That’s something I really learned from my home in Sweden. It meant something different in Africa and it means something entirely different here in Harlem. When you come to Red Rooster, you really sense that the dishes are all centered around comfort.
Are there any similarities between the cooking styles in Sweden and Ethiopia?
They’re probably as opposite as they could be, but both countries make an effort to utilize all the parts. For example, if you cook with salmon in Sweden, you’ll use the skin as a crispy chip. In Ethiopian cooking, it’s the same way. You’ll use the whole animal—even the bones. It’s about doing a lot with what you’ve got.
What is your favorite appetizer, entrée and dessert currently on the menu at Red Rooster?
We have a new appetizer called the Kimchi Lobster Roll that is wrapped in cabbage. It’s light and the perfect beginning to a meal. For an entrée, I love our Lemon Chicken with Harissa and Raw Kale Salad because the kale salad is hearty, but light. For dessert, I like The Green Viking Apple Delight because the apple sorbet is very refreshing.
Is there a particular dish on the menu that really embodies New York?
I think our Harlem Chowder does that. I cook it with a lot of seafood like lobster, clams, salt cod, scallops and shrimp and it’s meant to feed four people. It’s served with some great bread for dipping. I have fun cooking it and the guests have fun eating it together.
How does using quality olive oil change the taste of a dish?
You don’t have to use a lot when you have great olive oil. You don’t have to be heavy handed. You just have to put in a little bit and you get that beautiful nutty flavor. When we cook the lemon chicken dish, we massage the raw kale with Pompeian Picholine extra virgin olive oil. It’s a little bitter, but it’s perfect for pairing with kale.
What did you cook for President Obama and the Prime Minister of India?
It was very much based on vegetarian food because we wanted to utilize the White House garden so we started with a salad, followed by lentil soup, and then we did shrimp from the gulf with curry and collard greens.
What is your least favorite food?
Food that is cooked without passion. Any food with a story and a heart behind it, I’ll support.
What was the most challenging part of writing your memoir Yes, Chef?
I wanted to make a book that a young person would read and feel inspired by. It’s a lot about love… love for the industry as well as love and family. Writing a memoir is something that every person should do, whether you publish it or not, because you get to know yourself really, really well. Talking about something is one thing, but when you’re forced to write it down, it’s something else.
What would you choose as your last meal on earth?
I’d get some cured salmon from Sweden and some Ethiopian chicken stew and eat it with my hands.