Marcus Samuelsson talks ‘Yes, Chef,’ Texas cuisine, and transforming Harlem
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At the prime age of 42, Marcus Samuelsson has already attained a lifetime of culinary success. As a 24-year-old chef, he became the youngest chef ever to receive a three-star rating from The New York Times; in 2003, he received the “Best Chef: New York City” award from the James Beard Foundation; in 2009, President Barack Obama invited Samuelsson to cook at his first state dinner; and in 2010, Samuelsson won Top Chef Masters. Most of what the public knows about this charismatic chef stems from watching him in his numerous appearances on popular food shows – up until now that is. Samuelsson recently released a memoir, “Yes, Chef,” detailing the story of how he went from being an Ethiopian-born orphan to becoming one of the most respected culinary minds of our time. The book is captivating in all its great detail and overt honesty, likening it to such greats as Gabrielle Hamilton’s “Blood, Bones & Butter” and Anthony Bourdain’s “Kitchen Confidential.” This July, Samuelsson will be stopping in various Texas locations on his book tour and took some time to talk with TEXAS MONTHLY about “Yes, Chef,” his Harlem restaurant Red Rooster, and what stands out to him about Texas cuisine. A lot of chefs come out with cookbooks every few years or so, but what made you know it was time for a memoir? I felt that this would be a book that I would want young chefs to read. These kinds of books weren’t around when I was growing up, and you can get recipes from chefs all the time. The journey of how the chef got to where he is isn’t sitting around all the time. I felt that it was important to share my story now. The book isn’t just for chefs though; it’s for everybody. Everyone can learn about me, learn from me, and even learn from my mistakes. Just like you said, cookbooks come out from a chef every three years or so, which is great, but I see this as a different way of communicating and telling my story. Touch a bit on the title of the book for me. I read about how you came up with it and I thought it was rather unique. “Yes, Chef” is about a pretty humbling life. For a long time all you can say back in the kitchen is “Yes, Chef,” but saying those words teach you a lot. It taught me a lot about staying humble, teamwork, respect, and patience. I learned a lot just by saying, “Yes, Chef” or “Oui, Chef.” When my chef Michael, my team, and I cooked at the White House [in 2009], we got the chance to meet the president. It’s funny because when Mike met the president he got so nervous he called out, “Yes, Chef!” The whole team and even the president laughed. But, I realized that’s a personality from our world as chefs and a mark to the humbleness and patience we must possess. There’s always a moment when a chef realizes food isn’t just going to be a source of nourishment or enjoyment for them. When did you realize that cooking would be your career? When I was a teenager I loved cooking with my grandmother, but I didn’t see it as a profession. Part of [why I became a chef] was my not becoming a professional soccer player. That taught me a lot about converting rejection and working within a team, and I’ve always viewed the kitchen as a team. I remember coming up as a young chef and someone saying that there was a lot of travel in cooking. They told me about the kitchens of France, Paris, and Asia. I thought it was intriguing that you could cook, travel the world, and speak different languages. I knew that that was something I could do. The journey was there; it was just about working really hard to get there. I knew it was attainable and that if I worked hard enough that there would be a chef in that room who would see me and that he or she would recommend me to the next place. It was all a journey. I know there were are a lot of obstacles that came your way in your journey to becoming chef. What kept you going through all that? The love for the craft. Every year I set different goals for myself. I remember sitting in my room and writing down all my goals. When I was in Switzerland, I wanted to go to France. When I was in France, I wanted to come to the U.S. When I became a chef, I wanted to make three stars. I confidently set humble, attainable goals for myself, and that always kept me going. That helped me immensely in my life and my career. What did you envision for Red Rooster when you opened it? More specifically, why did you chose to open it in Harlem? I love living in New York. I’ve lived there all my life as an American. It’s such an incredible part of the world, and it’s a part of the world people come to for innovation, creativity, passion, and food. But, I realized that only part of this city is activated and realized. We aren’t utilizing the whole city if we aren’t doing anything in Harlem. I lived in Midtown before opening Red Rooster, but I realized one thing I could do for myself and the city at the same time is move to Harlem, understand the community, and eventually open a restaurant. We changed the view of dining in Harlem and we also addressed unemployment. We allowed more people of color to participate in dining, not just from a cooking point of view, but also from a participation point of view. I come from a mixed background of white parents, green cousins, and just an overall mixed family. Dealing with race was something I’ve been exposed to ever since I was young. On that note, tell me about the cuisine you make at Red Rooster and how that food embodies you as a chef. I moved up to Harlem five years before I opened the restaurant because I felt like I didn’t know enough about Harlem. I walked a lot and biked a lot around Harlem to learn about the nuances: the Italian heritage, the Mexican heritage, the Puerto-Rican heritage, the African-American heritage. This Americana landscape of immigrants, and that’s what we cook here. The menu is seasonal, but it’s driven by the people of Harlem. Sure, you’re going to have this African-American Southern tradition of fried chicken, collard greens, and catfish, but you’re also going to have moles as well because east of us there is a big Mexican community. We wanted to take a look at Harlem from more of a diverse view and create the menu around that. When did the celebrity chef role come to you and is that something you want to move forward with? I will always be a chef. That’s what I am. That’s my craft. I’m lucky enough in that whatever I do creates great interest, but I take great value in that interest. That’s why “Yes, Chef” took five years to craft and Red Rooster took five years to make. Whether it’s a book or a restaurant, I want to do what I do well. I value and respect the consumer, but this word celebrity, I didn’t go to cooking school for that. For me it’s about being privileged to cook and respecting the customer. If I continue that, I’m sure people will come. I worked a long time to be where I am today, but I don’t think that entitles me to anything. The value I have is about exceeding expectations. I want to continue to inspire the chefs coming up behind me. We put the restaurant in Harlem not just to keep it packed today; we want chefs to open restaurants in Harlem twenty years from now. If we can do that, then I know I’ll have succeeded. Were there any culinary memoirs you looked to for inspiration when you were writing your own book? Yes, there were a few. “White Heat” by Marco Pierre [White] was one. That was just an entirely a different book to me. It opened up my eyes to the life of a chef. Also, when Anthony [Bourdain’s] book came out, I was like, “Wow, I can really relate to that story.” Gabrielle Hamilton’s “Blood, Bones & Butter” was amazing, too. I didn’t want my book to just necessarily be a great seller. I wanted it to connect to the reader through all my ups and downs. They are going to learn a lot about my journey, and that’s what those books did for me at the time. You were recently in Texas for the Austin Food and Wine Festival. What stands out to you about Texas cuisine? First of all, I love Texas. I’ve probably been to Texas more than any other state outside of New York. California and Texas are the big two actually. Texas has its own identity, which is great for chefs. Within Texas, the food is very diverse. San Antonio is different from Austin, and Austin is different from Houston and Dallas. The pride Texans have in their food is similar to an Ethiopian’s pride in their food. And I love that. That’s important for a chef to have. Austin is also one of my favorite cities. It’s a town that has a lot of soul, and that speaks to me. A lot of great chefs come from Texas. I have some of my younger guys that worked for me and went on to Dallas and Houston, and I have a great friendship with guys like Tim Love and Dean Fearing. It’s fun to see the younger generation of Texas chefs coming up right now, and you know there is going be a history of great chefs in Austin because of what’s going on there right now. Would you ever compare Austin’s dining scene to New York’s? It’s just different. I don’t think Austin should compare itself to New York at all. It should have its own dining scene. It’s a different part of the world that does its own thing. Obviously in New York you have influences from all over the world right there in front of you. In Texas, you have other influences. For its size, Austin is a fantastic food town. You can find great Vietnamese restaurants like Elizabeth [Street Café], and that’s not always obvious to outsiders like me. Austin shows again and again that it can stand on its own and doesn’t need to compare itself to anyone. You start out the book talking about your biological mother. How has she influenced your life and your cooking, despite the fact you never really knew her or even saw a picture of her? Seeing a picture of your mother is something that is in front of you for the rest of your life, and even though I don’t have one of her, I still know that woman. She is strong. She has a lot of dignity. She knows how to navigate. She walked us those seventy-five miles to the hospital. Even though she couldn’t save her own life, she did save me and my sister. Even the way she ate on that journey: eating dry food and cooking it when it was dark outside so we wouldn’t get too hot, there is a lot of dignity in that. I’m a chef that came from a place where food is a struggle every day, but I learned about food from my grandmother in Sweden where it was about chicken soup, chicken and dumplings, and using leftovers in the right way. Then I moved on to become a professional chef. With all that happened to me, I knew I had to become a chef. Maybe I didn’t know it step by step, but looking back, I can tell it’s always been my profession. What’s next for you? Do you still have some goals written down that you haven’t gotten to? I want it to mean something to put on your resume that you worked in Harlem when it comes to being a chef. That means something to me. We want to open up the door for chefs to come. We’ve got a long way to go, but if we keep working and keep aspiring, I feel like we will get there in five to ten years from now.