I’ve been reading a lot of chef memoirs lately. I like the grime and the glamor of the professional kitchens. Anthony Bourdain provided my first salacious foray into the world of haute cuisine. Marcus Samuelsson, on the other hand, is the anti-Bourdain. Where Bourdain is a foul mouthed, loose cannon, who is an occasional genius in the kitchen, Samuelsson is quietly hardworking, channeling the Nordic values of his adoptive Swedish family into his ironclad work ethic, with tremendous results.
Born in Ethiopia in a small village, his family was ransacked by tuberculosis, which ultimately killed his mother. After her death, small Marcus and his sister were adopted by a kind, grounded Swedish family. Marcus thrived in Sweden, becoming an adept athlete and loving all things outdoors. He also fell in love with cooking, a heritage imbued by his grandmother. After graduating high school, Samuelsson spent the requisite time in France learning the rigid traditions of professional cuisine.
When Marcus eventually landed in New York, at Aquavit, a highly celebrated Swedish restaurant, he quickly rose through the ranks to become executive chef, and grew the franchise to world renown.
Sprinkled throughout the 18 hour days at the restaurant are astute observations of African American culture as informed by civil rights, in contrast to Marcus’s experience as an African Swedish man, now thriving in America. Though content with his time in NYC, he yearned to connect with his home continent and bring some of Africa’s complex flavors and misunderstood ordeals into the limelight. He built a restaurant focusing on regional cuisines from Africa, to astounding success. Later, he built “Red Rooster”, an upscale staple in Harlem today.
In between cooking for President Obama, winning Top Chef, and accruing a James Beard award, Samuelsson proves to be a hard working, humble man, with talents to envy ; talents he brings to work for social change in Harlem.