by Marcus Samuelsson
I intended to choose a book for this month’s selection that was unrelated to cooking and chefs. Then I read Samuelsson’s book. I hope you’ll bear with me–I think Samuelsson’s and Ripert’s book (32 Yolks, March selection) should be paired. I hope you agree and enjoy this astonishing man’s memoir of his very different path to becoming a successful and famous chef.
Samuelsson’s story is literally one of rags to riches; the American dream fulfilled via a route and in a way that no novelist could concoct. Born Kassahun Tsegie in 1971 in rural Ethiopia in the midst of a tuberculosis epidemic, he contracted the disease by the age of one. His mother and older sister were also infected. As the mother’s health worsened, she walked 75 miles with the children to Addis Ababa for medical help. She did not survive, but somehow Marcus and his sister Linda (their adopted names) received prompt help, despite the waiting flood of ill people, and were cured.
Marcus and Linda were soon adopted together by the Samuelsson’s and went to live in Goteborg, Sweden. Marcus was too young to remember living with other parents or family, as his sister did, so the Samuelssons were the only family he knew. He received unconditional love and support from his parents and other family members, giving him a solid grounding in his early years (like Ripert had). He learned responsibility, discipline and focus from his father, as well as a love for fishing, how to prepare fish for eating, and how to smoke meats.
Like Ripert, Marcus developed an early interest in food and food preparation from a female family member, but from his maternal grandmother instead of his mother. She had worked as a maid for wealthy Swedish families, where she learned how to make restaurant-worthy meals. She prepared everything from scratch and introduced Marcus to rustic cooking. His love of aromas and flavors began here, and he has spent his life “chasing flavors.” Both Marcus and Ripert had this daily influence in their lives from an early age embedded in their memories and character.
As he grew, Marcus became a devoted and quite good soccer player. He was a member of a team that traveled to various countries where he was exposed to different foods and cultures. While Ripert already lived in the “Mecca” of culinary excellence (France), Marcus began to wish for wider horizons than Sweden. He was devastated when he was cut from the soccer group for being too small compared to other players. Not only could he not continue playing the sport he loved, but it also meant the end of travel outside Sweden. On the other hand, it steered him firmly in the direction of his other passion: food. The rest, as they say, is history.
Like Ripert, Marcus was not especially interested in academics, saving his brilliance for culinary arts. He enrolled in vocational school in his mid-teens where he learned about cooking, waiting and dishwashing. Since he already had some culinary experience from home, he did well quickly. Marcus enhanced his skills at two work positions in Sweden, learning everything he could at different stations in the kitchen and how chefs supervised. He honed his work ethic, too, which served him well all his life. It was clear that he was eager and committed, and people noticed.
However, Marcus was restless to leave Sweden to broaden his horizons and skills. He actively searched for new positions and connections. At age 18, he secured an internship at the Victoria Jungfrau Hotel in Interlaken, Switzerland. This was a major step up, and working under the well-known Chef Stocker taught him much. Marcus worked at various stations learning how to prepare all sorts of dishes and foods. He was surrounded by people from many different countries, both in the kitchen and in the dining room, and learned how to run a well-organized kitchen by observing the Chef.
Marcus then did a stint in Austria where he learned about heavier, richer dishes; and one in France with George Blanc, where he learned what it’s like to work in a 3-Michelin-star restaurant (everything fresh, no “phoning it in.”)
However, the position that changed his future the most was cooking on a cruise ship where he traveled around the world. He would leave the ship for the few hours it stopped in port to try the food of that culture, often from street vendors. That experience opened a new world of flavors, spices and spice blends, sending his creativity and imagination soaring to new places. He was ready to take his unique personal food sense public.
Marcus loved New York City, where he went to work at a Swedish restaurant named Aquavit. The chef there at the time was brilliant, but hard partying eventually took its toll: he died of a heart attack at age 32. The owner, unable to find the kind of replacement chef he wanted, asked Marcus if he wanted the position. Marcus accepted, and several months later he became at 24 the youngest chef ever to earn 3 stars from The New York Times! He had achieved success but was just at the beginning of what he wanted to do. (This is where the Ripert and Marcus memoirs part company: Ripert arrived in NYC at age 24, which is where his memoir stops and before he opened Le Bernardin.)
Marcus loved NYC and knew he wanted to stay, so he became a U.S. citizen. As much as he loved Sweden and his adopted family, he began to FEEL his awareness of being black as he entered his teens. Some of it came from student bullies, and some of it came from knowing that certain people didn’t really see HIM and what he could do. They just saw a black person and made wrong assumptions about him without taking the trouble to see what he could do. I think this was part of his strong motivation, drive and determination to be THE BEST at whatever he did, to work twice as hard as everyone else to attain his goal.
In NYC, Marcus felt and looked like he belonged, that he blended in with the crowd. He was strongly drawn to Harlem, to the people, culture and history there. People actually greeted him on the street. He had found HIS home, far from where he was born and raised in every sense.
As the years passed, he wanted to find a way to give back to them, to provide good food for them to enjoy, a place to meet and relax, to provide good local jobs and run a diverse kitchen. Thus was born The Red Rooster, a re-creation of an older Harlem fixture. His memoir details the difficulties entailed in bringing his dream to life, including almost going broke…but he did it, and it’s successful. Many of the dishes are re-creations of what the original Rooster served, but usually with a Marcus twist or variation that makes the food even tastier.
Harlem is not the only family Marcus found. The memoir includes a shocking, unexpected revelation discovered by Linda: she found their birth father in Ethiopia! Both had thought he was dead and they were orphans. In fact, he had spent ten years in seclusion after his wife (their birth mother) died, and he couldn’t find the children (nor did he know how to try). He eventually returned to his farm, remarried, and had 8 more children! Marcus and Linda had 8 step-siblings! They and their Swedish mother visited this new family, and one visit became an episode on Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown” series.
Marcus was able to help that family financially, including sending the 4 girls to school for as long as they want to stay. That took some convincing, as their father viewed that as labor lost on the farm. You can imagine how happy the girls were for this opportunity falling into their laps. This is a fine example of the generosity and philanthropy Marcus shows to so many people around him. He will give them a chance, a job, or whatever they need if it’s possible…paying it back and paying it forward.
Over the years, Marcus has garnered many awards and recognition for his culinary excellence, philanthropy, and myriad other outstanding achievements such as his work with young people. He was chosen as the chef for a White House state dinner hosted by the Obamas—as a boy, he could never even have DREAMED of doing that! He’s opened more restaurants, too. More information on all these parts of his life is available on his web site:
Marcus also filmed a 6-episode food series called “No Passport Required” for PBS. He visited 6 U.S. cities on a wonderful off-the-beaten-path culinary tour to Miami, D.C., New Orleans, Detroit, Chicago, and Queens, NYC. More information is available here:
Marcus has achieved another goal: to change the way people think about food and how they prepare and eat it. He’s been on the cutting edge of culinary innovation for years, and his ideas continue to spread and be welcomed. His memoir is an inspiration to anyone who reads it.
For a toddler who very nearly didn’t live long enough to leave Ethiopia; then was raised by loving parents in a family who chose him; and who finally grew so strong, he made his dreams become reality for himself and thousands of others…well done AND rare, I say.