Marcus Samuelsson: On Becoming A Top Chef

Originally published on May 24, 2013 12:31 pm

A longer version of this interview was originally broadcast on June 28, 2012.

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."


Interview Highlights

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."

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Transcript

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. Chef Marcus Samuelsson, owner of the acclaimed Red Rooster restaurant in Harlem, recently a procedures James Beard Award for his memoir called "Yes, Chef," which is now out in paperback. The book 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. It's also in part the story of his remarkable life. He was born in rural Ethiopia, an orphaned at age three, when his mother died in a tuberculosis epidemic. Samuelsson and his sister were adopted by a Swedish couple and raised there. He trained in some of Europe's finest restaurants before eventually making his way to New York. Marcus Samuelsson has written several books. I spoke to last year when "Yes, Chef" was published.

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?

MARCUS 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. It's nothing generic.

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 also looking 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: 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.

SAMUELSSON: Yes.

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 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 the main chef, right, so it's right under the executive chef. 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: 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. 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. 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. But 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: Oh 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.

SAMUELSSON: Yes.

DAVIES: Now that's, I think, a very different kind of experience. What did you get out of that?

SAMUELSSON: 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 South America. 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 y Fonda in Mexico that didn't exist - of course it existed for generations but not in our vocabulary as chefs , that street food could be just as yum 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...

SAMUELSSON: Absolutely.

DAVIES: 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: Marcus Samuelsson's memoir is called "Yes, Chef." We'll talk more after break. This is FRESH AIR.

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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR and we're listening to my interview recorded last year with Chef Marcus Samuelsson. His memoir "Yes, Chef" has just won a James Beard Award.

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, 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...

SAMUELSSON: Yeah.

DAVIES: ...became the executive chef of this really well - well, quite well-regarded restaurant.

SAMUELSSON: Absolutely.

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.

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 to build 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.

SAMUELSSON: Yes.

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 to Kaffir lime leaf in a sorbet and so on. So 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. 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 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: I have to ask you about the honor of being chosen to cook for President Obama's first state dinner.

SAMUELSSON: Yes.

DAVIES: You want to talk a little bit about developing that menu?

SAMUELSSON: 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: Well, 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. The restaurant...

SAMUELSSON: Yes.

DAVIES: ...that you've opened in Harlem. 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.

SAMUELSSON: Yes.

DAVIES: And I'm wondering when you take something like fried chicken...

SAMUELSSON: Yes.

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?

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 grandmother 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. 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 owns the Red Rooster restaurant in Harlem. His memoir, "Yes, Chef," has won a James Beard Award and is coming out in paperback. Coming up, David Edelstein reviews the films "Frances Ha" and "Before Midnight." This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.