Culture

From The Vault: Chef Marcus Samuelsson

Culture

From The Vault: Chef Marcus Samuelsson

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With his latest restaurant, Red Rooster, breathing new life into Harlem all over again with its multi-culturati scene, we were eager to sit down with celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson, the cock of the New York foodie walk.

The first amazing thing we found out?

He’s not a celebrity chef, he says. He’s just a guy who loves to cook, who has more endorsement deals than knives: television shows, websites, social networking accounts, a hospitality group, and a self-designed line of shoes called MOZO Chef Signature, which look like a cross between skater shoes, high-end sneakers, and Italian driving moccasins. He’s an Iron Chef champ. He huffs for HuffPo. He’s cooked for the Obamas—their first state dinner at the White House. And he helped The Man feed the fat cats at a DNC fundraiser at Red Rooster in March (lobster salad and short ribs). He’s handsome and married to a model, Maya Haile. He’s a fashion plate, and we’re not talking starters and sides: Burberry, Acne, Dior, Valentino, “Brooklyn” Nikes, Ralph Lauren, and Vuitton bags to travel. He’s a philanthropist (Tap Project for UNICEF, World Childhood Foundation, CCAP) and an activist. And he has a biographical back story that James Frey or JT LeRoy wouldn’t have tried to float past their publishers: Ethiopian-born, orphaned at 3, raised in Sweden, three stars at 24, with a new concept of “fusion” cooking that seems to express not only his life, but a vision of a world on the edge of ethnographic change, forever.

What we learned from our talk:

Five of Marcus’ favorite words are: platform, conversation, proposition, journey, and community.

Why Rooster? Why Harlem?

“I thought, I live here. Why is it the case that there are more sodas than fresh apples on my block? What can I do in that conversation? Food is my platform, and I can bring that to this community. No one is coming to Harlem for anything. You have to create it.”

And:

“That’s the proposition. Create a magnet, create the jobs. If we hire just 60 people—some of these kids, maybe they worked in a fast food restaurant before, so when we serve and they meet the person who just graduated from school, they meet the Harlemite guy, you’re creating a new language. A new conversation.”

And:

You have to separate yourself from the conversation in order to give your best. All of these people, they’re connected, they aspire. None of them would work at a four-star restaurant, a three-star restaurant—they would not actually have been spoken to. But they’re good people and they deserve a chance, and these standards that I was taught and trained by I got in my blood when I was 17 years old. Some of them are 19, some of them are 45—it doesn’t matter. They’re still going to get a chance. The restaurant was an opportunity to create a community and a place where people who go by say, ‘I’m going to work there.’”

The next trend is “local, authentic.” The last trend was “fusion, exotic.” But Rooster is authentically local because Harlem is exotically fusion. Two birds with one stone.

“The authenticity first is by the intent. We are here, and we are authentic because our staff is from here, and because of the conversation of the menu. East of us is the Harlemite from the Latin community—that’s why we have a big section of that [tacos and tostadas]. The center of us is the Trinidadian and Jamaican community [dirty rice and jerk beef]. And then you have the African-American community [mac and greens, fried chicken], and then you have the Jewish [braised short ribs] and Italian-American [asparagus with pine nuts, lemon chicken]. The menu’s laid out so that we are ‘a place.’ It’s not like, ‘I like foie gras, so let’s have foie gras on the menu.’ It doesn’t fit.”

What we love about Marcus: He’s put his money where his mouth is.

“When I was 21, I ate at a fuga restaurant in Japan. I was completely broke afterwards. I flew to Japan to do this and I did it, and I left with a smile. It was still fantastic. When I ate at Alain Ducasse the first time, same thing. Every year I took one trip that put everything in the red and saved up all my money and ate. It’s the only school. But I worked every weekend for it. You just work and you do it. Getting there—with your borrowed tie and pants, but getting there. Eating a tasting menu. Those are experiences.”

What Marcus tweeted the day we talked to him:

“A mind all logic is like a knife all blade. It makes the hand bleed that uses it.” —Rabindranath Tagore.

Was it something we said?