African legend: Marcus Samuelsson
Born in Ethiopia and raised in Sweden, Chef Marcus Samuelsson tells us about how food is all about creating community
Looking at his track record, it’s fair to say that chef Marcus Samuelsson is something of a gastronomic megastar. He’s got 12 hugely successful restaurants in cities such as New York, Chicago, Montreal, Stockholm and London, as well as a TV series called No Passport Required, of which there have been two seasons so far. He’s even cooked for the likes of Paul McCartney and the Obamas (more than once!). But it’s not the glamour and accolades that excite Samuelsson – though they can’t hurt – but rather the chance to champion diversity and create communities through his work.
Born in Ethiopia, he moved to Sweden at a young age and was raised by adoptive parents. He later moved to France, Switzerland, Japan, then Harlem in New York when he was 25. We speak to him about his life working around the world and how, when you’re landed in a new culture, food becomes a great way to relate to those around you.
You’ve moved around a great deal. How has that shaped you?
One of the things you learn being an immigrant so many times is that you have to do away with any form of normal structure – you’ve just got to focus on connecting with people instead. And to do that as a young, black male four or five times, as I’ve had to do, shapes you. It can actually give you an advantage, I’ve found.
Your passion for exploring immigrant communities through cuisine shines through on your TV series No Passport Required. What is it that inspires you about America’s food scene?
America is incredible when it comes to food because of its diversity, whether it’s the West African community in Houston, the Mexican-Americans in Chicago, the Filipinos in Seattle, the Armenians in Los Angeles or the Arab-Americans in Detroit. Immigrants are more passionate and patriotic than ever. The more we get bashed, the stronger we come back. Imagine you have to go through three or four different borders and leave everything behind and come to a new country. Then you have the chance to send your kids to school and create your own life. Immigrants are super-strong people, and this shows in their food.
The community in which you’ve settled in Harlem, with your restaurant Red Rooster, holds a special place in your heart. What brought you to this part of New York City?
My mum always told me to make things more affordable and to do something in the neighbourhood where you live. Harlem is the epicentre of black culture in America, even the world. The people of Harlem are what make Harlem. You simply can’t walk around these beautiful boulevards without taking in the vibrancy and diversity. Walking down 125th Street, the stores are literally on the street and there’s people calling at you for everything; it’s more like a street market in Africa.
Things have changed in Harlem over the years, but it’s important to make sure that progression is not actually regression. We want to be part of the conversation; we want to have community board meetings here and to make sure that Harlem’s culture continues to thrive.
Where does that desire come from?
When we were growing up, diversity and inclusion looked and felt very, very different than it is today and we’re still not where we should be. For me, it’s very clear that my work has to be centred around this important subject, whether it’s Red Rooster or No Passport Required. To be able to focus on this using food and culture is very meaningful to me.
You speak lovingly about both your Swedish upbringing and your Ethiopian roots.
Really, I remember my upbringing mostly as being outside in nature, whether that was in the cold winters or in summertime, fishing with my family and foraging with my grandmother. Ethiopian culture is equally strong, but it came later in my life. My first memories of Ethiopia are from Sweden, looking at pictures of Haile Selassie or listening to Ethiopian music with my mum. But when I went to Ethiopia for the first time, I specifically remember landing and feeling at home right away.
Was your love of cooking something that comes from your family?
Yes, I was constantly doing something to do with foot with my sister and my grandmother. One day we’d be picking lingonberries, the next day making jam, the next day bottling it and putting it downstairs. You don’t think of it as work, it’s just family life. It’s the same thing in Ethiopia; these are rituals that are part of tribal life and family gatherings. I hope that even in modern society those rituals never go away because they’re a big part of shaping who we are.
What is it about these two cultures that inspires your work?
Both countries have a very strong food culture. People will remember an Ethiopian meal much more than they will remember most other meals. It’s as specific as sushi in a way: injera bread that’s made from teff flour, the berbere spice, fermented butter, the way you share and break bread. Swedish culinary culture is not quite as distinct, but it does have some specific notes – herring and salmon, pickling and preserving.
Since you arrived in New York, you’ve been winning accolades and getting rave reviews for your work. Has your path to success always been smooth?
Not at all. I knew I wanted to one day own my own restaurant, but a chef once told me: “Those are not ambitions you can have as a young black chef; no one’s going to come and support it.” He wasn’t racist, he was just saying that he’d never seen it so therefore it cannot happen. So I spoke to my father and he told me to move to America, since a lack of diversity makes you stand out.
Greatness is not a linear path. You have to be humble enough to do the work, you have to be arrogant enough to think independently, and you have to discover things that other people have not found to make it work.
Your other projects include the Three Goats Organisation, founded with your wife Maya, which supports young girls in disadvantaged parts of Ethiopia. Do you think travelling and experiencing other cultures, as you have, is something emerging Ethiopian talent should aspire to?
I think that the blessings of travel are huge. Look at Julie Mehretu, one of the world’s leading young artists. She’s of Ethiopian descent and she had the chance to travel and do an internship – now I can see her art at MoMA. It’s a balance between having pride in your culture and history but travelling abroad to get another perspective as well. Working hard, being proud of your heritage and then broadcasting that. It’s a blessing to be from Ethiopia and it’s also a blessing to represent the country elsewhere. And there are so many ways that Ethiopia inspires, whether it’s the incredible music or the iconic runners and amazing painters, or the film industry that’s building there right now.
Ethiopia is rich in both culture and individual icons, but we all represent one Ethiopia.
Marcus Garvey Park
This green space in Harlem is where I spend most of my free time with my son.
The Apollo Theater
There’s a majestic legacy of African-American entertainers who have played here.
Parlor Jazz at Marjorie Eliot’s
This lady performs jazz in the living room of her brownstone apartment for free.
Biking around the Yankee Stadium area, there are some amazing graffiti pieces to go find after watching a NYCFC game. Lots of hip-hop culture started round here so it’s nice to listen to my Spotify tracks as I explore.
The High Line
You can walk from the Meatpacking District down to the Whitney Museum, and it gives you such a New York feel. Since I travel so much, it’s good to have a place that makes me really feel like I’m in New York City.