“Are you going to throw a plate at me? I'm ready! I can take it,” laughed Marcus Samuelsson, the award-winning chef. Samuelsson is the creative mind and palate behind eight restaurants in the U.S. and Sweden, and the author of five books. He’s been blunt about coming up in a business where, to succeed, you have to be as tough as petrified jerky. He says he still has the scars from flying crockery, lobbed by irate head chefs and restaurant owners.
“Having to cook for the owner's dog was one of my most humble moments,” he told “Off The Cuff.” “It wasn’t like ‘no’ was an option. ‘Cause if I would have said no, the door was right there. So, sometimes you just got to push through it, do it with great smile and pride, and do better than the guy next to you, regardless if you're cooking for the royal family or the dog.”
Samuelsson is long past cooking haute-cuisine dog chow. He’s co-owner of his restaurants, which include the acclaimed Red Rooster, based in Harlem, N.Y. “I can't communicate the way the chef communicated to me back in the days. It wouldn't work. I wouldn't get the best out of that individual today. And that's not bad. That shows that we have evolved,” he said. “But I still need to get the same type of commitment out of that person. Excellence is excellence.”
In 2009 he created the menu for President Obama’s first state dinner. The following year he won Bravo’s “Top Chef Masters Season Two.”
His journey to top chef is well-known. He was born in rural Ethiopia. When he was two, Samuelsson, his mother and sister contracted tuberculosis. His mother carried her children 75 miles to the nearest hospital, where she died. The siblings were adopted a year later by a couple in Sweden.
From his 2012 autobiography, “Yes, Chef,” it’s clear he didn’t learn to cook from his adoptive mother. “She made pasta as not even a prisoner would tolerate it,” he wrote. But his maternal grandmother, Helga, a former maid, was a creative home cook. He trained in restaurants in France and Switzerland. His big break came in 1995 at Aquavit, a Swedish restaurant in New York, when the chef died suddenly of a heart-attack. Samuelsson was promoted to head chef, at 26.
“When I started cooking, it was very much ‘cheffing’ was [done by] an elder man in a white chef hat…. there was two things you never saw in the kitchen. It was people of color, and women. As a person of color in the creative field…yeah, the window is a little bit shorter,” he said. “This is the opportunity that I've created. So I have to work really, really hard for that every day. But it also helps me to be very driven and focused. For me, it's not about complaining. It's about: Here are the facts, here are the cards that I was given. We can do just as good as anybody else and prove it many, many times. And I'm really excited about that.”
Samuelsson says his international background and outlook have informed his cooking. “I've learned just as much on a taco stand in Mexico or in a street market in Singapore, and a corner here in Harlem, as much as I learned when I was in France at a three-star Michelin restaurant.” He believes good food belongs everywhere. He’s even done the impossible and made airline food palatable – as a consultant to American Airlines.
“If you are cooking at home, cook with your family. Invite your family into the conversation of food because that's going to spark better eating. So, set the table, you know, like it would be a restaurant. Not every day, but maybe on the weekends when you have more time. Get everybody excited about it. You can do different settings. You can do, like, a supper club feel versus a French dining feel, “he said.
Samuelsson is an advocate of family outings to the farmer’s market. “When you go to the farmer's market regularly, you realize it's not four seasons. It's really 26 seasons. Every other week it's sort of shifting. And when you start to pick up the beautiful nuances in the farmer's market and you bring that home and you cook with it—that’s really when the magic starts happening,” he said.