Marcus Samuelsson defines being a chef by embracing “ubuntu” ” a South African term meaning “I am what I am because of who we all are”. Samuelsson’s attitude about food embodies the spirit and long held belief we share: food unites us all in the sharing of happiness.
Samuelsson, chef and co-owner of the restaurant, Aquavit, a sleek Scandinavian eatery in midtown Manhattan, is the youngest chef ever to receive a three-star restaurant review from The New York Times in 1995, and yet another three-star review from The Times in 2001. In 1999, the James Beard Foundation declared him best “Rising Star Chef”and again proclaimed him “Best Chef: New York City”in 2003.
Samuelsson is an orphaned Ethiopian. He and his sister were adopted by a young Swedish couple and raised in an upper middle class family environment on the West Coast of Sweden where his passion and love of food was unearthed by his grandmother, a professional cook. “My grandmother would boil some potatoes and we’d open a jar of herring she’d pickled earlier,” he says. “Then we went out and got some chives in the garden, chopped them up, added some yogurt and sour cream and that was the meal.”
Later he landed a summer job at a local bakery, cooked in small restaurants, and eventually received a degree from the Culinary Institute in Göteborg.
Samuelsson apprenticed in Austria and Switzerland before being selected for an eight-month apprenticeship at Aquavit by owner Håkan Swahn. After his Aquavit apprenticeship, Samuelsson took a position at the three-star Michelin restaurant, Georges Blanc in Lyon, France. “At Georges Blanc I learned that to be a top chef you have to have a passion for success as well as a passion for food,”said Samuelsson. “It’s not enough to be able to prepare delicious food. You have to be consistent as well, and serve two outstanding meals a day to each and every guest”
Samuelsson returned to Aquavit and worked under executive chef, Jan Sendel. In May of 1995, owner Håkan Swahn appointed him Executive Chef of Aquavit where in just three months time he earned the three-star restaurant review from The New York Times.
Samuelsson is also an award-winning author of cookbooks with titles in both English and Swedish. In 2002, Samuelsson’s first Swedish cookbook was released, En Smakresa: Middagstips Från Marcus, which was awarded “Cookbook of the Year”in Sweden.
Samuelsson’s first American cookbook, Aquavit and The New Scandinavian Cuisine, was released in 2003. His 2006 African-inspired cookbook, The Soul of a New Cuisine, received the prize “Best International Cookbook” by the James Beard Foundation. He describes his latest book, New American Table (October 2009), as an affectionate, thoroughly diverse tribute to the modern American table.
Of his African-inspired cookbook, The Soul of a New Cuisine, Samuelsson explains to Tseday Alehegn with Harlem World Blog: “There are so many stories coming out of Sweden in comparison to my Ethiopian side. Cars, IKEA, there are so many brands coming out of that little country, and in the case of Ethiopia although there are many rich stories, the music, the art, the food..you don’t get as much exposure to it. So I wanted to do a project that viewed Africa and its cultures. You know a lot of people think of Africa as war, famine, all this stuff, and for me..it’s like..every part of the world has that”
“The food itself, the recipes may be ancient,”Marcus says of African cooking, “but I want this book to be a fusion of African cultures and food..sort of looking into the window of other countries within Africa. And Africa’ doesn’t mean you have to live in Africa to experience it. It’s more about revealing this diversity, the richness, and being open-minded”
In November last year, the White House invited Samuelsson to cook the state dinner honoring Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, where he worked with White House Executive Chef Cristeta Comerford.
In the last few months, Samuelsson has completed a book tour, created a series of online videos for AOL, appeared on “The Early Show”to teach Harry Smith how to make fried chicken with an international twist, and has been chosen to appear in season two of Top Chef Masters which will begin in April.
Samuelsson and his wife, the beautiful Ethiopian model Gate Haile, will open a new restaurant, Red Rooster Harlem, in the fall. The Harlem restaurant will feature fresh local food and include items like collard greens and cornbread, among a myriad of other eclectic offerings.
Chef Marcus Samuelsson says his passion for food has no geographic bounds. His efforts are proof positive that the love of food unites us all in the sharing of happiness.