Marcus Samuelsson: On Becoming A Top Chef
Marcus Samuelsson owns two restaurants in New York City and two restaurants in Sweden. He's cooked for President Obama and prime ministers, served as a judge on Top Chef and Chopped, and recently competed against 21 other chefs on Top Chef Masters. (He won.) He's the youngest chef ever to receive two three-star ratings from The New York Times.
Samuelsson's journey to some of the most celebrated restaurants in the U.S. was a long one — and started several thousand miles away. He was born in rural Ethiopia, where he contracted tuberculosis when he was 3 years old. His mother, who was also battling the disease, walked with Samuelsson and his sister 75 miles to a hospital in Addis Ababa. Though Samuelsson and his sister recovered, their mother did not. After her death, both Samuelsson children were adopted by a family in Sweden.
Samuelsson details his path from Sweden, where he learned to cook from his grandmother Helga, to New York City and the Food Network in his memoir, Yes, Chef — in which he pays homage to his Swedish family and to food.
"Food has always been in my life," he tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies. "Being born in Ethiopia, where there was a lack of food, and then really cooking with my grandmother Helga in Sweden. And my grandmother Helga was a cook's cook."
Helga's roasted chicken, pan-fried herring and black bread captivated Samuelsson, who spent many afternoons watching and helping his grandmother cook.
"We were jarring, pickling, there was always a bowl of chicken soup ready to be served, there was always sausage ready to be made," he says. "She was incessant all year round with cooking. ... It was really in those rituals that my love for food was built."
Samuelsson went to the top cooking schools in Sweden and then apprenticed in Switzerland and Austria. From there, he traveled to the U.S., where he started working at Aquavit, an award-winning Scandinavian restaurant in New York City. Shortly thereafter, Aquavit's head chef died, and Samuelsson was asked to take over the position — at 24 years old.
"I was nervous," he admits. "I didn't want to be the one to take a famous restaurant like Aquavit down. All my buddies in Sweden would know about that. But I also knew that if I worked really hard, I could do it. ... And we just kept cooking and hiring cooks. ... Eventually our tribe of misfits became our strongest weapon, and we developed this crew, and one day we got three stars from The New York Times."
Samuelsson went on to open the Japanese-influenced Riingo and later Red Rooster, which is located in Harlem. He also packed up and moved to be close to his restaurant.
"I thought, 'Why should food options be lowered once we cross 96th Street? That's unacceptable," he says. "We have to have better options today in terms of food. ... When you walk into a store in certain parts of Harlem, and they never have corn in corn season or apples in apple season — and that's unacceptable. Ethiopia has fresher food options. ... I wanted to be in Harlem and inspire other people to do the same."
On difficult chefs
"I've got plates thrown at me, I've got scallop marks on my face that I've gotten thrown at me. But not for one second would I challenge the chef for that. In today's age, that might sound crazy, but when you're in that moment, you don't challenge the chef. I considered myself very lucky to be picked to work in those kitchens. That was just what happened. I saw guys being beat down in the walk-in fridge. I've had colleagues that didn't know a way out. One kid cut his finger off because he thought that was his way out. It was very, very tough. ... I was very clear with the commitment. You had to give a lot, but I felt like I got much more back. And I still feel like that when I'm learning something. There always a sense of fear. Some of my colleagues took a lot of drugs. Some of them got drunk. For me, I started to throw up. I got this knot in my stomach, and I would throw up."
On being an African chef
"The narrative of a black chef didn't exist. Black people have always cooked and been part of serving, but not from a chef perspective. Not in these establishments — the three-star, highest establishments. So when they say 'Marcus Samuelsson' coming in — that's a Swedish name, and then they saw me, it was a shock. I was not applying for the dishwashing job — I was applying for a chef job. So being able to, in a nonthreatening way, and getting the job just like anybody else — they were just not used to it. They had just never seen it, ever."
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. My guest today, Marcus Samuelsson, writes that to be a chef, you have to be willing to be a jerk. A chef is at the mercy of miscreants who execute service poorly, egg whites that decide not to fluff properly and tomatoes that didn't ripen because of an unexpected heat wave.
Samuelsson's new memoir is in part about what it takes to be a master chef, the insults and abuse suffered in training and the demands of running a business. And it's in part the story of his remarkable life. He was born in Ethiopia, raised in Sweden, trained in some of Europe's finest restaurants and is now a resident of Harlem and owner of one of New York's most celebrated restaurants, Red Rooster at 125th Street and Lennox Avenue.
Along the way, Samuelsson cooked on a cruise ship, became the youngest chef ever to get a three-star review in the New York Times and took first place in Bravo TV's "Top Chef" master's competition. He's written several cookbooks. His memoir is called "Yes, Chef."
Well, Marcus Samuelsson, welcome to FRESH AIR. In the book, you return to Ethiopia, where you were born, and you learn a little bit about the kind of village you were born in. Just tell us a little bit about where you came from.
MARCUS SAMUELSSON: Well, it's about two hours away from Addis, and once you come out on the field, it's really just this big, red, clay - almost like an ocean of just red clay that you find so often in Africa. And we lived in a - you know, I was born in one of those huts just on the side of the road.
DAVIES: And there's a remarkable story of you and your sisters and your mother getting tuberculosis and you managing to survive. How did that happen?
SAMUELSSON: Well, TB was very big in Ethiopia at the time, and me and my sister and my mother got tuberculosis. And my mother decided that she's going to take us to Addis, to the capital, Addis Ababa, because somewhere there, she would find a hospital so she and we could get cured.
Well, back then, in the early '70s, she didn't - her way to get them back there was walking. So she walked with me, carrying me and my sister, I was four years at the time. So we walked for days to go back to Addis.
DAVIES: And do you know what happened when she got there?
SAMUELSSON: Once we got to Addis, she found a hospital, a black-line hospital, which that by itself is a miracle, right? We walked at night because it's too hot to walk during the day. And then once we got to the city, she asked around, and she got to the hospital. Well, this hospital has a line as long as like two days waiting to get in just to the hospital.
Once we got into the hospital, so me and my sister got cured from tuberculosis, but my mom, our mother didn't make it. She passed away.
DAVIES: And how did you get to Sweden?
SAMUELSSON: Well, you know, there's so many what-ifs in life, but I think this is one of the biggest, you know, for me is that really, me and my sister were cured from tuberculosis, and the doctor said, well, these two kids got to go. There are thousands of kids in the hospital in Ethiopia.
And the nurse there at the hospital, she was really the one that said, you know what, I'm going to take these kids home and set them up with an adoption bureau. So we stayed with - just through the mercy of this nurse at the hospital, took us in, two kids that she was not related to. And then about three months later, she said we were on our way to Sweden.
DAVIES: So you were connected with an adoption agency, and the people that you knew as your parents adopted you from Sweden.
DAVIES: And there's a moment in the book where you describe them coming to Ethiopia to get you and your sister, and you describe, among the details that you focus on were what they brought to eat: sandwiches made of a hard parmesan-like cow's milk cheese with a few thick slices of green pepper and another sandwich with slabs of a rough country-style liver pate. This is - you obviously were a baby, you weren't there, but somehow you've constructed this wonderful description of what they brought to eat. When did you become fascinated with food?
SAMUELSSON: Well, I mean, they actually - they picked us up in Stockholm. We had another nurse.
DAVIES: OK, it was in Stockholm.
SAMUELSSON: That flew with us from Ethiopia to Stockholm. So, but at the airport, and I just think that describes that era and that time, and there obviously was obviously that - for them, if we're going to wait for these kids, of course we need to eat. But we're not buying anything at the airport, we're making it ourselves, right. I just think it describes our family well.
And what was typical at that point was - and still is - this sort of dark, rye-ish bread with Vasterbotten cheese, which is a very sharp cheddar-parmesan-tasting cheese and this liver pate that I've eaten obviously so many times growing up. And it explains a sense of home, that you can make a sense of home in anywhere, you know, whether that's at Stockholm airport or, you know, just as long as there's sense of familiarity.
And the sandwiches was - brought familiarity to my mother and my father when they picked us up.
DAVIES: Do you remember when you first became fascinated with food?
SAMUELSSON: Absolutely. Food has always been in my life, and I think it's on two aspects: being born in Ethiopia and when there were lack of food and then really cooking with my grandmother Helga(ph). And my grandmother Helga in Sweden, she was a cook's cook. She always cooked.
When you came to her kitchen, when you came to her home, the first thing you remember is the smells. It just smelled of food. And you were - you had to be ready to work when you got over to her house. You know, we were jarring, we were pickling. We were - there was always a bowl of chicken soup or something ready to be served, or there was always sausage ready to be made. And she was in-season all year round with cooking.
And it's really when I came up to her house and started to spend the afternoons there after school and just learning how to make meatballs or learning how to make gingersnap cookies or sticking my - learning how to make fresh breadcrumbs from a day-old bread, and so it was really in those rituals that my love for food was really built.
And it was also the way that grandma's food was a treat, and my mother, that was so busy raising us, she wasn't really a cook. She didn't like cooking that much. So you could sort of compare my mother's food with my grandmother's food instantly. And we all loved - me and my sisters, we just both loved - we all three of us, we loved grandma's food.
DAVIES: Because it was done with a lot of care and relish and preparation and enjoyment.
SAMUELSSON: Absolutely. It wasn't just about serving the meal, it was really about picking the carrots, getting the apples. It was going to the butcher, going to the fishmonger and being part of the whole experience of cooking. And dining is just - eating at the - dinner at the table was just one aspect. You know, cleaning up was also a ritual that we had to do, you know, learning how to eat properly with a fork and knife, where your elbows should be on the table.
It was really - the energy of our family was centered around eating. It was a time where we knew when our father got promoted, or my sister or I did well in school.
DAVIES: Now, your Swedish father was - I think he had an academic job, right? But he had a background as a fisherman, and you said in the summers, you and he would go to kind of get the summer cottage ready and get the fishing boats ready and spend days with him and other relatives who lived that life. How do you think that influenced you?
SAMUELSSON: Well, you know, being this kid that grew up in Gothenburg but every summer had that other of going to this (foreign language spoken), which is basically about two hours north from Gothenburg, which is a complete fishing village and just being around my uncles - on my father's side relatives, you know, when you're on - when you live in a fishing village, you might not have money, but you're going to eat well.
And what I mean with that is you always eat in-season, but it's very clear what you're going to eat. You're going to eat fish. I don't remember eating meat during the whole summer. It was either mackerel or smoked mackerel or cod or peel-and-eat shrimps or crayfish. And there was always something that needed to be fixed, whether it was the net or whether it was the boat or the boathouse or preparing for fishing the next day. And, you know, everyone had a role.
DAVIES: And you said you really learned to work hard, and that work ethic really stood you in good stead later when you were in the kitchens. You know, I wanted to ask if - you know, when you think of people who are accomplished athletes, I mean, they've learned a technique, and they have trained, but they also began with natural ability, you know, speed and reflexes and hand-eye coordination.
And I'm wondering: Do chefs, do you think, are they born with certain natural abilities which give them, you know, the tools they need to develop that craft?
SAMUELSSON: That's a great question. I do think that it's a combination of both, right. A chef is part an athlete, as you explained, but it's also an artist, but it's also this wonderful thing with curiosity and craftsmanship. If you're not curious and want us to keep evolving, it's not going to happen.
But you also have to protect and develop a sense of taste, right. It's such a specific job, being a chef, because people want to know your opinion, how you're going to approach this piece of salmon, how you're going to approach the asparagus in spring. And so it's nothing generic.
So I do think, you know, for me, certain things I was born with was this desire of being connected to food, again looking here from when we didn't have any food to from my grandma's time where really the two world wars was really like, you know, she didn't have a lot, either. So she had to make a lot.
But then being a chef, where you're around the best ingredients possible. So all these threes were very important for me, for my narrative of being a chef.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Marcus Samuelsson, his new book is called "Yes, Chef: A Memoir." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: We're speaking with chef Marcus Samuelsson, he's the executive chef and owner of The Red Rooster restaurant in Harlem, and he has a new book, a memoir called "Yes, Chef." So you worked at a restaurant, you went to a cooking school in Sweden, then you went to one of the better restaurants in the country. Then you went to Interlaken in Switzerland and from there other places.
DAVIES: Do you want to describe maybe one of the more colorful chefs that you worked for? There was this character Paul Griggs(ph) who I think was an Englishman, right?
SAMUELSSON: Yes, I mean, what - coming to Switzerland for me was life-changing because for the first time, I was in a truly international place. I mean, the guests were Americans or Swiss or Japanese or come from, you know, Dubai. So their quest of their food was completely international.
DAVIES: This is when you were in Switzerland, not Sweden, right?
SAMUELSSON: In Switzerland, this is when I was in Switzerland. Coming to Victoria Jungfrau in Interlaken, such a grand place, you always had to execute at the highest level. So you were taught right away very, very high standards. And this kitchen was run by an incredible chef called Herr Stokar.
And he was this classic sort of French chef that you think about. He was - he spoke both German, Swiss-German, French, English. He spoke every language. And Paul, that was my chef that was truly the guy that was - the sous chef in my section of the kitchen, he was very...
DAVIES: Sous chef meaning what, like a deputy chef?
SAMUELSSON: Yeah, sous chef, the word sous is under, it means under in (unintelligible), so it's right under the executive chef. And every day, you know, you could get fired. Every day you were up for being fired. And Chef Paul's job was to prepare his section so Mr. Stokar, the big chef, could never walk into our section and so Mr. Paul would never get embarrassed, right.
And so it was completely top-down in fear, but it's also about discipline and love for the ingredients and respect for the guests. So, you know, I choose to look at all of this rigid training as a mass blessing to me because it gave me discipline, which is very important, which gave me incredible amount of work ethic, which you have to have, and you become very humble, and you learn a lot.
DAVIES: You know, do - I think a lot of people, perhaps from cooking shows and things like Chef Gordon Ramsey picture the typical executive chef as this, you know, kind of raving semi-lunatic. I mean, how common are those kind of outbursts of temper in the kitchen?
SAMUELSSON: Well, I mean, you know, chefs are very colorful, and back in the day, you could basically treat your employee however you wanted. You know, I've got plates thrown at me, I've got scallop marks in my face that I got thrown at me.
But not for one second would I challenge the chef for that. And I realize today, in today's age, it might sound crazy, but when you're in that moment, you don't challenge the chef. You just don't do that. I considered myself very lucky to be picked to have the chance to work in those kitchens, so - and that was just part - that was just what happened.
You know, you see - I saw guys being beat down in the walk-in refrigerator. And it was very, very tough. But one thing that was also there, it was this sense of love and caretaking. And if you were ready to be in this place, truly in, you would learn a lot, and you would come out, you would be an incredible good young cook.
So as long as - you know, I was very clear with the commitment. You had to give a lot, but I felt like I got much more back. And I still feel like that when I'm learning something. You know, there was always this sense of fear. You know, for me, it was, you know, this sense of fear, we all dealt with it different. Some of my colleagues, they took a lot of drugs. Some of them got drunk. You know, for me, I developed this sense of - I started to throw up. You know, every day, I got this knot in my stomach, and I threw up.
DAVIES: Every day before you started your shift, you would throw up?
SAMUELSSON: Oh, during the shift, and I knew when it was coming. But I also knew how to deal with it. I threw up, I washed my hands. I can count - I knew in my head how long it would take to throw up, take off your apron, wash up real well and be back in the kitchen without nobody notice. So you become a master of your sort of panic attacks, right.
DAVIES: And how long did you keep - when did you stop throwing up, or did you?
SAMUELSSON: It was really in my late teens to my early - it was a three-year period, really, where I threw up almost every day. And I know this sounds completely insane, but I still think it was worth it because I was in, I was committed, and I knew that these guys, these incredible master chefs from France, from Germany, from Switzerland, sat on that sense of knowledge, and that humbling - it was a humbling experience.
This was also about not being seen but just getting the work done that had to get done. And, you know, I took pride in not being fired. When we made mistakes, the chef just looked at you and said you're fired, almost like in a Donald Trump show or something like that. And I just wanted to make sure that I would not be on that - I would not get the pink slip.
DAVIES: There's so much going on in a kitchen and so many skills to learn, from how to, you know, be careful and pick just the right ingredients to how to kind of cut them and slice them and the techniques of cooking and searing and all this stuff. Can you think of an example in one of these apprenticeships where someone taught you something, and you said wow, that's it, that's important, I get this?
SAMUELSSON: Absolutely. You know, in Switzerland, I had this chef that taught me how to break down a lamb completely and not like when you look at the bones, when you debone the whole lamb that the meat and the pieces of meat was completely separated, and the bone of the lamb was completely just - it was almost like a surgeon, you know.
And he was just laughing at me, and he was calling me all kinds of names, and I just knew, if I'm just going to be quiet and just keep having him screaming in my ear, and I'll just watch and become a really good studier of a craft, I'm going to know in two months how to make that, to debone a whole lamb.
And that's something that I can take with me for the rest of my life. So who cares? It's a fair tradeoff. If he wants to yell at me, I'll take it.
DAVIES: Now, you also did a couple of tours on a cruise ship, cooking on a cruise ship.
DAVIES: Now that's, I think, a very different kind of experience. What did you get out of that?
SAMUELSSON: Well, working on a cruise ship, I got many things. You know, it was - I saw the world for the first time. I always wanted to see the world. I learned how to eat really good Filipino food because the Filipino crew cooked incredible food at the crew mess every day. But I also realized for the first time that all the great food was not owned by Europe.
There were places like Singapore. There were places like Acapulco, wonderful places in, you know, South America. And this sort of - that yes, the food that I'm so passionate about could come from Europe, specifically from France, but it could also come from a wonderful sort of taqueria or (unintelligible) in Mexico that didn't exist - of course it existed for generations but not in our vocabulary as chefs.
And that was so important to me, that street food could be just as yummy and delicious as the highest art of French cooking.
DAVIES: So you were learning your lessons about tastes and flavors not from what you were making for the guests on the cruise but what you were getting going ashore at street stands.
SAMUELSSON: Absolutely, and I learned incredible, again, work ethic. On the cruise ship, we worked breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days a week for five months, right? So then you do that, breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days a week, you know, you become - your skills get honed every day. You train, and it's very tough, it's very, very tough.
DAVIES: You know, as you were getting your training and going through various cities in Europe and, you know, applying for these apprenticeships from one kitchen to another and getting help, what - how much did your race and African heritage affect these efforts, do you think, either in getting positions or how you were treated in kitchens?
SAMUELSSON: Well, my African heritage had a lot to do with it, you know, first in the sense of that I did not get the job because, you know, the narrative of a black chef didn't exist. You know, black people have always cooked and been part of serving but not from a chef perspective, not in these establishments, the three-star, highest establishments.
It didn't - so when they saw Marcus Samuelsson coming in, you know, Marcus Samuelsson is a Swedish name, and then they saw me, it was a shock. And I was not applying for the dishwashing job; I was applying for a commis or chef de partie job.
So being able to, in a non-threatening way, just applying for a job and getting the job just like anybody else and then having that - they were just not used to it. It was just like somebody - you know, before somebody - they had just never seen it, ever, ever.
DAVIES: Marcus Samuelsson's new memoir is called "Yes, Chef." He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross who is off this week.
DAVIES: We're speaking with award-winning chef Marcus Samuelsson, who has drawn on his unusual background and an international mix of flavors in developing his restaurant, Red Rooster in Harlem, the community he now calls home. Samuelsson was born in Ethiopia, raised in Sweden and trained in Europe before eventually making his way to the United States. He's written several cookbooks and has a new memoir called "Yes, Chef."
When we left off, he was saying that his African heritage made it harder for him to find work in European kitchens.
Now when you got to the United States, you came to New York at one point...
DAVIES: And then really made a name for yourself as a chef. I mean do you think that it ever helped that you were this exotic character, this Ethiopian guy who grew up in Sweden?
SAMUELSSON: You know, I never, you know, for me I know how hard I worked to get to New York and the letters that I wrote. I wrote a letter to David Letterman and Oprah and my former business partner to get a chance just to get into the country. And I was always committed to, you know what, just get me in the door because I knew that, right? I knew that in Switzerland. I've learned that in Austria. I've learned that in France. And this desire of excellence and desire of cooking and showing like, I can do it, I think that was the main thing for me that was the main thing for me that people were, could connect and relate to me from an African-American perspective or a Swedish perspective. That became eventually just the additional of things.
DAVIES: You said he wrote to David Letterman and Oprah.
DAVIES: What did you ask them?
SAMUELSSON: Well, I wanted them to open a restaurant with me. And obviously, they were not in the restaurant industry but those with the Americans that I knew. I obviously didn't know them. I just know that from watching the Letterman show and the Oprah show and the both, and had like sort of write down their addresses and sending them a letter. And it's just that letter in the sense of applying to what if? There's a dream and holding onto that vision in a dream is so important for any person that wants to get into field whatever, regardless of age, and just hold on to your dream, build a vision. Because sometimes when it's really tough that's the only thing that you have and there's so much in "Yes, Chef," it's really about, you know what? You can push through. If this is what you want to achieve, you can do that. Stuff is going to happen that you can sometimes control and sometimes not control. But keep on holding onto that vision and dream and push through.
DAVIES: You got to New York and started at this restaurant, Aquavit. You want to tell us a little bit about that place?
SAMUELSSON: I got to New York and Aquavit and Aquavit at this time was very well-known in Sweden. It was a big deal like for us as Swedes to have a restaurant in New York City. So...
DAVIES: It was a - it focused on Swedish food, right?
SAMUELSSON: Yeah. It focuses on Scandinavian food and that was my former partner, Hakan Swan, that I wrote to and he gave me a chance to come to New York and this was such an amazing time. It was just also the development really, what I think of these New York chefs, like, you know, Jean Georges was very young, Danielle, Alfred Portale, Bobby Flay was just coming up, so the city was just bustling with these young chefs - American chefs, also and French chefs sort of figuring out what should the New York food scene look like. So to be there in the middle of all that, watching this sort of in front of me but also being eventually becoming part of that is an amazing journey, you know, the fact that we got three stars after I became a chef was obviously a big deal. I became the executive chef because the chef before me, Jan Sendel, passed away.
DAVIES: Right. That was quite a remarkable story. You at the age of 24...
DAVIES: ...became the executive chef of this really well - well, quite well-regarded restaurant.
DAVIES: And then the big break was when you got a three star review, I think it was from Ruth Reichl. Is that right?
SAMUELSSON: Yes. I mean, you know, again, what if? There's so many what-ifs in life, right? And Jan very sadly passed away and Hakan was looking for a chef in Sweden and so I - me and Larry Manheim are the sous chef at the time, were sort of we held down the kitchen and just, you know, kept it running. And then one day in May when Hakan came back he said, you know what? I've found my executive chef. And I was like OK. Great. Who is it? I'm excited. It's you. I was like, oh my God, and I was, I was nervous because I didn't want to be the one to take a famous restaurant like Aquavit down. All my buddies in Sweden would know about that and they would find out. So I was nervous about that. But I also knew that if I worked really hard, I think can do it. Something in that inner voice in me said, you know what? If I get the support and trust, I can do it.
And me, and my first hire was Nils Noren, an incredible friend and an incredible chef that joined me. And me and Nils just set our goal out and just kept on cooking and training our cooks and hiring cooks. Nobody wanted to come and work for us. You know, in New York it's very competitive getting good cooks, still is. And if you don't have a big repertoire or known, it was very tough to get good cooks. But eventually, sort of our tribe of misfits, of cooks who probably didn't get into other kitchens, became our strongest weapon, essentially. And we developed this crew, and we were really tight and one day we got three stars from The New York Times.
DAVIES: And that was a huge thing for you to get a three star review from The New York Times. At this point you had become to develop some of your own innovative stuff. What were some things you were cooking dinner there that was - that you...
SAMUELSSON: Well, it was always for me about keep asking myself questions: Will I be this young cook that would just take in these French dishes and doing it? And I was like, no. I refuse that. I have to have authorship in my food. I have to figure out what is me, what is my story, what is my take on this. And I started building up this Scandinavian building block, where we were really pickling and preserving, you know, this sort of it has to be a strong narrative of seafood in there. Game was very, very important because that's what we grew up with, a lot of game meat. So game meat, pickling and preserving and this sort of balance between sweet and sour and seafood became sort of pillars that I hung up every day showing. So a dish could be like salt cured duck with potato pancake and lingonberry ginger vinaigrette, that would have been a duck dish that would have been an appetizer back then. And, you know, I salt cured it the way my grandmother taught me. I seared it the way I was taught in France. The lingonberry jam I knew how to do but I added in more ginger the way I may be experienced it in Asia. And the potato cake was roasted the way I've seen them similar in Switzerland.
DAVIES: The other thing you write about is how you spent all of this time going through Chinatown and other parts of New York picking up new flavors.
DAVIES: I mean you also went to Ethiopia and became reacquainted with the land of your birth and got Ethiopian dishes and spices. I mean that's a lot of stuff to bring together, isn't it?
SAMUELSSON: Well, you know, first of all, I mean I fell in love with Aquavit but I also fell in love with New York and all of New York - that other New York, Queens, Brooklyn and Chinatown. And Chinatown spoke to me so well because there's something that I've experienced in other places on the boat, but to have one place to go down to and constantly be put in front of ingredients that I wasn't familiar with, that was my way of wow, being curious and saying wow, what happens if I take jackfruit and put it on a sorbet? Sometimes good. Sometimes not so good. What is galangal, because I've had this flavor before (unintelligible) lime leaf in a sorbet and so on. So this was the narrative of non-European food spoke to me, probably because I came from Africa but I didn't know where to get it from. And Asia then became, the Asian and the Chinese culture and going to K-Town, Koreatown, on 32nd Street, became these places for me where I could just wow, buy a bunch of ingredients, try them out in my kitchen at Aquavit and eventually put them on the menu. And it's almost a laboratory, you know, it became a lab and, you know, it was driven with a lot of love and passion.
Getting to Ethiopia was much later and I felt that it was time for me to start, you know, when in New York when an Ethiopian person responded to me right away I didn't know that, first of all. Why are you talking to me? I felt like wow, I'm Swedish. But, of course, for any person who is in New York City, when they look at me they see I'm an Ethiopian man. So it took me a while. So I really learned about Ethiopia from the Ethiopian community here in New York and then eventually I warmed up to the idea of you know what? I have to learn more about myself.
DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with Marcus Samuelsson. He's the executive chef of the Red Rooster in Harlem, and has won many awards. He has a new memoir called "Yes, Chef."
We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: We're speaking with Marcus Samuelsson. His new book about his career as a chef is called "Yes, Chef."
I have to ask you about the honor of being chosen to cook for President Obama's first state dinner.
DAVIES: You want to talk a little bit about developing that menu?
SAMUELSSON: Well, that was such a huge honor. You know, first time when Sam Kass called me, he's a chef down in D.C. working with the Obamas, I felt like is somebody like pulling a joke on me here. Are you kidding me? And he was so cautious, Chef Kass, because he's like you're in the running, you know, he didn't want to give it away, you know, give any false hope, you know, because he can't because at any given time it could be somebody else. So I remember that first development menu that we made, I just started to ask myself questions, you know, it's for the Indian prime minister. I also watched, you know, the evolution of Michelle Obama's wonderful initiative with the garden. So I started thinking about the food, not necessarily as like what will be the best food that I cook but actually from a serving point of view wouldn't it be better if it will be something that speaks towards India? Something that speak towards her commitment to the garden? Wouldn't it be better to do something that highlights America and American wines because I looked a little bit at former state dinners and they were all French food whether they, you know, and that I think makes sense if it's a French prime minister coming, but not necessarily for the Indian prime minister. So our state dinner was historical in many ways. It was Obama's first but it was also the first time where we really didn't serve French food at the state dinner.
DAVIES: So what was your menu? What did you serve?
SAMUELSSON: While the menu, you know, for me it was important also to sort of bring it to the sense of it's a dinner party, right? So we started what could be a better dinner party than breaking bread? So I started with a bread course, which was sort of the first time there. So I have both cornbread and Indian chapatti that you can sort dip in sambal and chutney. And I thought it would envision this way of these people maybe not knowing each other on the table but sort of passing the sense of hey, let's break bread. So we started with the bread course. Then we had a salad course where the salad was actually picked from the first lady's garden. And then we did a lentil soup. I wanted to make this commitment to humble ingredients that would taste just delicious because it was cooked and prepared with spice in a certain way. So I did red lentil soup and then we had really a vegetarian course, which was pumpkin dumplings with a little bit of tomato, jam and greens or green prawn that was really taken from a New Orleans, was taken from Louisiana. So we did this sort of beautiful shrimp dish with a curry spices and then we did a pumpkin tart for dessert with an little bit of Indian Garam masala spices, all served with American wines.
DAVIES: We have just a bit of time left and I do want to ask you about the Red Rooster...
DAVIES: The restaurant that you've opened in Harlem. First of all, why Harlem?
SAMUELSSON: Well, after 9/11 and the economical downturn, I started to ask myself questions. Marcus, you have to have deeper interaction with the city. You know, I was living in Midtown. I felt like, you know what? If you can connect the city, if you could really change the footprint of dining, you know, it's really about putting a restaurant in Harlem. And I couldn't go half in, so I moved from Midtown to Harlem. But I didn't dare to open a restaurant for another three years, three or four years, because I felt like I didn't know Harlem well enough. Just because I'm black doesn't mean that I would know Harlem. So I felt like I have to sort of bike it, walk it, and learn it and understand this sort of words that are thrown out so strongly, like whether it's food desserts and, you know, as even as strong as food apartheid you hear sometimes and so on. And I was like, no. This is not a dissident. And it's absolutely not apartheid. For me was more about food chasm and that's really where I landed on. This is food chasm. We have food. And I felt like, you know what, I got to put a restaurant in the middle of that community and what if we could change the footprint of dining.
DAVIES: And you say a food chasm meaning?
SAMUELSSON: Well, for me I feel food chasm it really hits it because we have food, is just about the options in these, in neighborhoods like Harlem the good foods options are less served than there are north south of 96th Street and I resent that. I said why should my options love, food options be lower because I crossed 96th Street? That's unacceptable, you know, we have better options today than we had in the '50s and we have to have better options today in terms of food. You know, it's not about saying hey, you're not allowed to have sodas or you're not allowed to have any fast food. It's OK to have those, but it has to be more options as well. You know, when you walk into a store in certain parts of Harlem and they never have corn in corn season, and they never have apples in apple season, that cannot be - 2012. That's unacceptable.
You know, Ethiopia has more fresher food options than inner city of America and I just feel like we have failed there. An opportunity to start really narrow and bridge that, was to be in Harlem, be in of Harlem, inspire other people to do the same. Because once you come up and see a restaurant what happens? You just don't come up and eat.
You really come and see the neighborhood. You see the people of that neighborhood and you say, you know what? I'm going to go back and go wait for a museum. Or I'm going to go and listen to something at the Apollo. And you start looking at people not just, oh, yeah I've been to Harlem which was really I was driving in there, taking a picture, and then leaving.
No. It's about this journey of normalcy, of normal behavior in a community and react and deal in a way that you would do in any other part of town.
DAVIES: Now, one of the interesting things, when you look at the menu you see some Swedish dishes and you see some Ethiopian food, and of course some very traditional kind of soul food things.
DAVIES: And I'm wondering when you take something like fried chicken...
DAVIES: ...you give it an original take. And that must be tricky because people are, you know, it's a food that people have a great love for in a traditional way. You want to talk about what - what is your fried chicken? What do you do?
SAMUELSSON: Yeah. No, fried chicken was obviously one of the things that you're going to open a restaurant in Harlem - there's about 500,000 people in Harlem; I knew there was about 250,000 fried chicken experts. And I wanted to, again, have some authorship in mine. Right?
So I ate a lot of fried chicken. I started going to a place called Charles in Harlem to try the original and great fried chicken and then I said, OK, what's our take on this? What's going to be my take on this and how are we going to develop it so it's better but yet there's some familiarity?
And I looked at fried chicken like a great foie gras from France. Again, how do you have authorship on this? And I started to make some decisions right away. I want to cure it the way my grandma did cure it, in lemon and salt. I want to marinate it with a little bit of African influence, like coconut milk, and buttermilk. And then the chef in me started to think about it.
I've got to fry it on both low and high heat. That's how you get it to cook through and crispy. Now, the flour can be classic flour with a little bit of hint of corn in there, but most and more than anything, spices. So next to the fried chicken I have to create a spice blend. So we call it the chicken shake. The chicken shake has my spice blend and has lots of barberry from Ethiopia.
And all of these different steps, cooking it on low heat to high heat, giving it the chicken shake on top of it, marinate it both in buttermilk and coconut milk, letting it sit in the water and the lemon the way my grandmother did, all of that gives us a authorship and a license to call it the Red Rooster fried chicken.
Specific ways and decisions that we have to take. You know, and then otherwise we're not chefs. You have to have a point of view, you have to have a take on a dish like fried chicken.
DAVIES: Right. And one of the details was you fry it in day-old oil? Is that right? Why?
SAMUELSSON: Day-old oil that's been seasoned. And day-old back in the day, because obviously it was cooked before in something so the flavors of what's cooked before took shape in the oil, right? We don't really do it that way. We infuse our oil with a little bit of garlic and rosemary to add lots of great flavors.
DAVIES: So it's not literally old oil; it tastes like it's been around.
SAMUELSSON: Yes, absolutely. Like most good things. Like a good pair of vintage shoes. They feel easier to walk in than a brand pair of shoes.
DAVIES: Well, Marcus Samuelsson, it's been interesting. Thanks so much.
SAMUELSSON: Thank you very much for having me.
DAVIES: Marcus Samuelsson's new memoir is called "Yes, Chef."
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DAVIES: That's pianist Ellis Marsalis. Coming up, John Powers looks at the new season of Louis C.K.'s comedy "Louie." This is FRESH AIR.
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