Home is where the stove is
Born in Ethiopia and raised in Sweden, Chef Marcus Samuelsson tells us about his globetrotting life and how for him food and hospitality is all about creating a community
With 12 restaurants across New York, Chicago, Montreal, Stockholm, Gothenburg, Bermuda and London and a second season of his TV series No Passport Required by Eater and PBS imminent, chef Marcus Samuelsson has cooked for everyone from Paul McCartney to the Obamas.
Born in Ethiopia, he moved to Sweden at a young age, and after France, Switzerland and Japan, his passion for community brought him to Harlem. We spoke to him about his life working around the world and how when you’re landed in a new culture, food becomes both a focus for identity and a great way to relate to the world around you.
You’ve travelled a great deal. How has that shaped you?
One of the luxuries of having been an immigrant so many times is that you have to almost take a normal structure out, you’ve just got to connect. And to do that as a young, black male four or five times as I have had to do, it trains and shapes you for something. It actually can give you an advantage. If you have to connect with someone who doesn’t speak the language or you’re in a foreign place, it almost takes all the noise away and you just go for it.
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 this country. Then you have the chance to send your kids to school and create your own life. Immigrants are super-strong people. And this comes out through their food, through their rituals.
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 mom always told me to make things more affordable and 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 cannot walk around these beautiful boulevards without taking in the vibrancy and diversity. You walk on 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. Red Rooster changes seven nights a week; we have Sunday church, Gospel weekends, dancing, midweek cultural events.
Things have changed in Harlem but you have to make sure that progress is not regress. We want to be part of the conversation, we want to have those community board meetings here and to make sure that Harlem’s culture really thrives still.
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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. It’s still a journey and a struggle. For me it’s very clear that my work has to be around the subject of inclusion and diversity 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 as mostly being outside in nature, whether that was in the cold winters or in summertime, fishing with my family or 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 mom, and going to Ethiopian events in Gothenburg with her. But going to Ethiopia for the first time, I remember specifically landing and feeling at home right away.
Was your love of cooking something that comes from the family?
Yes, I was constantly doing something with my sister and my grandmother. One day picking lingonberries, the next day making jam, the next day bottling it and putting it downstairs. You don’t think you’re doing work, it’s just family life. It’s the same thing in Ethiopia; these are rituals that are part of the tribes and the countryside 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: the injera bread that comes from the teff flour, the berbere spice, the fermented butter, the way you share and break bread. Swedish culture, with its herring and its salmon, its pickling and preserving… it’s not quite as distinct. And obviously Sweden is a much smaller country, but it does have some specific notes. If you’ve been there you will remember it.
From the moment you arrived in New York you’ve won accolades and rave reviews, whether working for other people or after starting your own restaurants. Has the path of 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, “I’ve never seen it so therefore it cannot happen.” So I spoke to my father and he said, “You should go to America”, because a lack of diversity gives you clarity, 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.
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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 done is something to aspire to for emerging Ethiopian talent?
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 got the chance to travel and do an internship, and now I can see her art at MoMA. It’s a balance between having pride in your culture and history but maybe 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. 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 Samuelsson’s NYC
- 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.
- The Bronx 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.
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