Marcus Samuelsson often tells the story about how when he was in Europe working in various kitchens, he would systematically write letters to chefs who worked in the best restaurants, asking for a chance to show his talents. He also wrote two letters to celebrities he had read about in magazines, thinking they might be able to help him as well; Martha Stewart and Oprah Winfrey among them. Much to his disappointment, he never received a response; and at the time, he was crushed. Fast forward to the last decade when both of these icons regularly reach out to him for his help.
Marcus made his splash on the culinary scene in 1995 when the New York Times awarded him 3-stars at Aquavit — the youngest chef ever to receive such acclaim. In 2010, he went on to open his own restaurant, Red Rooster, an instant hit and celebrity hot spot — still a tough reservation, not to mention a bar scene that is literally four-deep on a Monday night at 11:00 PM. Next, an invite in 2012 from President Obama to cook at his first White House State Dinner. A regular on Food Network, he has also been profiled in hundreds of newspapers and magazine articles, including a fashion feature last year in Vanity Fair with his pal and Harlem neighbor, Actor Neil Patrick Harris.
Marcus has four cookbooks to his name, which include his widely acclaimed autobiography, Yes, Chef, and a brand new book, MESSY, aimed at kids. If that doesn’t make for a full plate, his restaurant empire continued to expand when he opened a second, more casual spot in Harlem, Streetbird, as well as a restaurant in Bermuda at the newly fully renovated Hamilton Princess. Not to rest on his laurels, Marcus launched the hugely successful Harlem EatUp!, Festival, announced last May with the help of former President Bill Clinton and Mayor Bill de Blasio. Marcus and I are the co-producers, and I can attest that he was as “hands-on” as anyone during the 15-month production process.
Interview took place in Ginny’s Supper Club in the basement of Red Rooster:
HK: Did you ever say anything to Martha Stewart or Oprah Winfrey the first time you met them?
MS: No, I never confronted them. I just learn from them. I see how they attract the best of the best; they are their own perfectionists. I just relished the moment I was in their presence that first time; I didn’t focus on the negative.
HK: Back in the day, who was your biggest chef influence?
MS: Gray Kunz. He connected Southeast Asia with New York City and the West. Then Jean Georges took it to the next step with Kaffir lime leaves and lemon grass. I never knew about spices like that. I’ve also been lucky to meet so many icons in our business, who have been influences — Julia Child, Charlie Trotter, George Blanc, others.
HK: Growing up, you wanted to be a soccer player in the worst way, but you were told you weren’t big enough. In “Yes, Chef,” you explain how that experience really hurt, and you felt more like a ‘failed soccer player, than an accomplished chef.’” Explain.
MS: Soccer was a huge part of my life growing up. I still love to get out there and kick a ball around. Soccer taught me about teamwork, which of course is critical in the kitchen. You also have to enjoy what you’re doing, have flair; you have to work at it.
HK: What would you have done if you never made it as a chef?
MS: I would have been a baker, or done something artistic, like a painter – just to get that outlet for a creative expression. Painting and writing for me is very solitary and a nice balance to the kitchen where there is a team.
HK: What are your favorite restaurants?
MS: Spring day at Barbuto: It’s about the unique experience. I never look at a menu. Jonathan [Waxman] has that sense that I am going to take care of you, and it’s going to be delicious. It always is.
HK: Fun international city other than Stockholm:
MS: Tokyo – it’s still so foreign; and London; it’s so cosmopolitan.
HK: Spices you hate:
MS: Spices with too floral a nose, like too much saffron.
MS: Besides fashion? I am in love with style! I’m completely in love with music. I love to sneak out or right downstairs at Ginny’s and watch a sound check or rehearsal while drinking a good glass of red wine. Musicians are so cool! I am happy to be able to provide a slice of a musical experience in my own way with Ginny’s.
HK: When you were younger, you talked about having major anxiety issues. You said you “grew up, running in fear.”
MS: I still get butterflies, but when I was younger, my stomach had major problems. I was too young with too much pressure. I had to learn languages, I was terrified to make a mistake in front of the older guys. Plus, I was conscious that I looked different from everyone else.
HK: What’s the vibe in your kitchen? Are you as strict as your mentors were with you?
MS: I’m very firm. Every day matters. But we’re going to respect the house we’re in, and we’re going to do our best, and we’re going to have fun.
HK: You recount the story how, early in your career, the chef at the famous Michelin Star restaurant in the Hotel Negresco in Nice, granted your request for an interview. You scrimped together the money for the 2-day train ride, only to be turned away when you walked into the kitchen. With all your fame, do you still experience prejudice?
MS: I am reminded every day of the racism I experienced back then just because of the color of my skin. I live each day now, reminded of that constantly. I work to do whatever necessary to help provide an environment that is totally opposite that.
HK: You had a great relationship with your parents, who adopted you. How did they help you deal with racism?
MS: My parents made me stronger. They told me to get back on that horse. And it was incredibly hard. I felt real pain on that 35-hour train ride back home. How was I going to explain to my mom what happened? My mom wanted to go talk to them!
HK: Your dad?
MS: My dad was a fisherman and a geologist – from blue collar to white collar. I learned humility, work ethic and inclusion.
HK: You seem very close to your two sisters?
MS: I am so close to both Linda and Anna; they are 6-7-years older than me. Linda is the family’s boss! I listen to her! She keeps me in line.
HK: I was very surprised to learn you have a daughter. I bet very few people know that.
MS: Yes, Zoe. I am closer to her now than ever. I had finished the book and realized she wasn’t in it: If I was telling my whole story from the gut, how could I not include her? I needed to retell that struggle. She is the highlight of my life, and I thank my mother and sisters for staying strong for me. She was just here visiting from Austria (she visits a lot) and she, my wife, Maya, and I had a great time together; we always do.
HK: Your advice to a young chef ?
MS: The penultimate experience is to learn something new. I believe most of the young aspiring chefs are pursuing this profession for the right reason – to cook, not become famous. These young chefs need to have their own experiences. They need to get out there and make it work, like when I worked and saved up enough money until I could pay my way to Japan and experience, first hand, how to filet a blowfish and experience a 21-course meal. To this day, I remember each and every course. That experience will always stay with me.
HK: Why aren’t there more black chefs?
MS: That’s a very complex question.
HK: You’re an Ethiopian, who speaks Swedish, who cooks. Where do you see yourself on the chef stage today?
MS: You have to know yourself. I came up the ranks, knowing so little about myself. Today, I know I have lived a full life, and I understand inclusion, not exclusion. I used to cook for the 1%. Now I like, and want to cook for the middle class. I present my life experiences on the plate. You see it in the dishes on my menus. Every one of my restaurants has some life markers, which represent where I’ve been.
HK: Present state of mind?
MS: I couldn’t be happier.
HK: Is this where you thought you would be 10-years ago?
MS: No way! I never envisioned this.
HK: How are you looking at life these days?
MS: We all go on a journey.. When you’re young, maybe you have your parents; maybe you’re not as lucky. You need to latch on to a mentor. Life throws a million curve balls at you. I want to win, but I don’t want to be so aggressive that I no longer have fun. And, “winning” today means less about me and “look what I can do with my food,” and more about what I can do to activate this [Harlem] community through my efforts. That’s what inspires me; and I do it through my cooking.
HK: What’s next for you?
MS: I feel so lucky and blessed to be part of communities. Husband, father, community of Harlem, hospitality. It pushes me, it aspires me. I came here with $300 in my pocket and all I wanted was to be part of a community. It was so hard for me to fight my way in. I am proud to be part; lead when I should; and be in the middle of the pack when appropriate, too… I lead a complete life.
HK: You truly are living the American dream. You already seem to be regarded as the “unofficial mayor of Harlem!” You have provided for so many jobs, and you’re very philanthropic. Would you every consider politics?
MS: No way! I do for the community on my terms.