Marcus Samuelsson was 24 when the New York Times gave his restaurant three stars and 27 when he arrived in Minneapolis to open the upscale Aquavit in the IDS Center. He was 28 when the James Beard Foundation named him Rising Star Chef of the Year, and 33 when the foundation named him Best Chef: NYC. Oh, and there was that cooking gig for President Obama's state dinner at age 39.
But those are just numbers that, for most Scandinavians, don't mean much in the real world once the klieg lights are off and the reporter's notebooks are packed away.
What does matter is that Samuelsson's mother died of tuberculosis in Ethiopia while carrying her children -- Marcus, 2, and his 4-year-old sister, who were also sick -- under a hot sun to a hospital 75 miles away. This is where his remarkable tale begins in "Yes, Chef: A Memoir."
"I have never seen a picture of my mother," he writes in a chapter that moved this reader to tears. "My mother's family never owned a photograph of her, which tells you everything you need to know about where I'm from and what the world was like for the people who gave me life." One year later, the next journey takes the siblings from Addis Ababa to Göteborg, Sweden, where they start a new life with another family.
Samuelsson's tale has been told in shorthand whenever he wins an accolade or finds himself standing at yet another microphone. But never has it resonated with such stark simplicity and pathos as in this memoir, in which he takes the reader on a journey from the kitchen of his beloved Swedish grandmother to restaurants in Switzerland, Austria and France before heading to New York City where, many years later, he calls Harlem home.
He talks candidly in his memoir about race and growing up as a nontraditional Swede. About tales from the culinary underbelly where, unlike so many cooks, he stays clear of drugs. Of finding family members in Ethiopia and of unexpectedly fathering a child. His is a story of hard work, focus and determination to be the best in whatever he did, all told with enthusiasm, optimism and modesty, and a Scandinavian can-do attitude.
"'Yes, Chef' sort of encompasses all that journey, the ups but also the downs. I didn't want to create a book that was a victory lap: I won five awards here," he said in the interview. "I didn't want to do that male, sort of very one-noted way of an athlete. The downs are probably just as important as the ups."
In a phone interview, Samuelsson talked of his time running the Minneapolis restaurant, of the celebrity factor and his future.
Q I remember when you came to Minneapolis, you were talking about getting Minnesotans interested in sea urchins, among other things. How did you find the reception here?
A Minneapolis, for me, was an important steppingstone for me to grow in America, to be outside of New York. It was an eye-opener for how the rest of America -- and how the Midwest -- worked. I think we had a lot of success. The fact that the restaurant was so big wasn't Minnesota's fault. We took on a big, ambitious space. When I think about all the cooks coming out of Minnesota now and Minneapolis, I think in some part we were part of that journey.
I still remember my friends like J.P. [Samuelson] and I see Andrew [Zimmern] all the time. So it's like that generation of chefs is still very influential, and of course there are younger, new chefs coming up, which is great. But it was activated, and I feel like I was part of the transition between just sort of concept restaurants into this more fluid, chef-driven restaurant. And maybe we were part of getting people over that bridge. At the end of the day, it's part of that beautiful landscape of Minneapolis restaurants you have now.
Q Aquavit Minneapolis opened at a time of change in the local restaurant business. You definitely upped the ante for everyone.
A Even then you saw that alternative restaurants were important. Now alternative is the new normal. And that scene was just starting, and I think that's great. Each city should have its own type of restaurant. Everything that we gave had an imprint, a footprint, in the city.
Q When you were first starting in New York and then in Minneapolis, the whole celebrity factor in chefs was just beginning. What do you think of the celebrity attention now?
A It's always been about the craft for me, and enjoying the craft. I started cooking for the love of cooking and I am going to keep cooking whether there's a celebrity aspect to it or not. I do think it's great how young and old people can talk about food. It's such an interesting bonding factor that they can do that. If it means that it spreads the conversation around food, around cooking, then fantastic. If it means more young people are going into the field, or know more about ingredients because it has more of a platform, that's great.
But if you enter the field thinking you're going to become a celebrity chef, then you enter it the wrong way because you're not going to make it. You're just not. That's what I talk so much about in "Yes, Chef." It's a long road, a long journey. You look at Andrew Zimmern, and he cooked for a long time before he could travel the world and tell people what food was weird or strange or whatever. But there's a lot of knowledge there before he got to this.
If I ever doubted my love for cooking, I wouldn't have a chance to, 30 years later, 20 years later, to have this conversation with you. It's about the love for the craft.
Q When you were here in Minneapolis, you were 27. At the time you seemed to be an incredibly ambitious young man. Do you feel you can go off in other directions? Have you reached whatever it was you were looking for at that young age?
A I still feel like I'm beginning in many ways. I feel like there's a lot of tasks in cooking that I want to master, that I want to do better. But I definitely feel that working a long time and being able to express myself in food is a privilege. I've been able to do that in Europe, in America and in different places, through different ways, whether it's through restaurants or through cookbooks. I can take a lot of pride that I can launch cookbooks and there's an audience out there that supports that. So at 27, I was maybe singularly focused on the restaurant, but today at 40 there is restaurant work, there is charity work, there is cookbook work and now there is the memoir. It's a larger body of work, but it's all done with authorship and sensitivity and respect of love of the craft.
Q You have a very different personality than many chefs on TV who are ranting or over the top.
A I think it's the connectivity of Africa. It's very humbling. When I'm there, we're dealing with the most basic level of food, which is how to get clean water, how do we teach people how to work with ingredients so they don't outgrow the land. It's cooking with potatoes and things like that. It's the most basic, the most fundamental.
My grandmother's cooking was very family-oriented. The fine dining culture is just one aspect of our industry, not the only aspect. I'm engaged in food on so many levels, and I love that. So my work, my craft, is around food, and writing is one aspect of it, communicating a narrative, cooking online is one aspect of it, solving the food chasm that we have in Harlem and finding a farmers market is another one, and all of them are equally exciting for me.
Q Your cookbooks have always been interesting stories in themselves. You've gone in different directions with them than many other chefs.
A For me, it's not necessarily pointing at yourself, but I'm looking at something. When I did "The American Table," I looked at American cuisine and what in my mind I thought was possible and where it was going. For the "Aquavit" cookbook, it was really important to explain how Scandinavian food was then and where it could go from a restaurant point of view. And with "Soul of a New Cuisine" it was really talking about how Africa exists as well. I don't even know that much about African food. But, hey, together let's look at it. It's not one country, it's a continent. It's very diverse.
Each has been callouts to what I have been around and was curious about, and the readers have wanted to do that journey with me. And that's the beauty when you have an audience. They take a leap of faith as long as that's curated. I curate it for them, they stay with me. You can't take that for granted. That's a special relationship. It's very unique. That's why we work so hard. Our relationship is not value based on price. It's not like tomorrow it's 40 percent off. That doesn't work. I want you guys to be in on it. And then go home and cook it and experience with your family. And then let me know how it was.
Q What was the process for working on your memoir?
A It took five years. For the first three years, I basically just wrote. When I was on the road, or in the morning, for an hour in the morning, whether it was for the book, I just wrote pages, thinking about when I was with my father or thinking about growing up in Ethiopia, really just thoughts of putting down my experience. Then we went back and forth a bunch of times on it. And then, eventually, the last two years was the hard part, figuring out what was NOT supposed to be in the book. Like my editor Ann said, "No, Marcus, you can't talk about everything in a 300-page book." That's when you learn all the structure about making a book. It's like making an album. I knew I wanted the reader to connect with the first chapter.
Q In the book you talk at one point that your purpose as a black chef was to document, preserve, inspire. Can you talk about that?
A I think it's very important when you have a platform. If you're Swedish in America, you're a minority in a way. I care about explaining the Scandinavian journey. If you're an immigrant, I think about that. Obviously, to be truly African-American in the sense of coming from Africa and living in America and being an American, I've watched this in the kitchen and I wanted to explain the narrative.
It's very complex, you know, the fact that black people worked so hard to get out of the kitchen for years and now they have to work super hard to get back into the kitchen. That's fascinating as a black person but also I think it's fascinating for nonblack people. Like wait a minute. What happened? And then I want to offer a conversation about race that's not polarizing.There is big unemployment among African-Americans in this country. So I want to invite African-Americans to come into this space. The cooking industry is an industry where you'll never be unemployed. We will always need you. But I also wanted to add some nuances like in the '70s it was very hard for African-Americans to get loans. And it was easier for immigrants. That's why you see a lot of immigrants with restaurants. That's fascinating. What country in the world would make it easier for immigrants than for its own people? It's the journey of 30 or 40 years, not just a journey of the last five years.
And I do think you have to deal with, hey, we [parents] worked really hard to put you to college not for you to go back in the kitchen, that's something I've discussed with a lot of middle-class African-Americans, and they talk about that. And I understand that. That was what my grandparents talked about. What my mother in Sweden said. These are all these layers. But I do think it's changing. There's a bigger audience of African-American diners and there's a bigger African-American wealth, and with wealth and diners comes "Hey, we should open a restaurant." I think it's arriving, but it needs people like Leah Chase [in New Orleans] and it also needs people like myself who has a platform. I have a responsibility then to open it up and make it attractive and communicating and that's what I have been doing as have a couple other people. It's important because you can't just reap benefits without giving something back. You just can't.
Q The past couple years have been a heady experience for you: opening a restaurant and being the guest chef for the state dinner for the Obamas. How do you take this in stride?
A For each thing, you have to slow down and focus. It's very, very hard. I learned that from my parents, but also learned that from soccer. You have to focus on this specific thing, this specific game or this specific event.
And it's funny about cooking for the president. I had cooked for the Swedish royal family since I was 24 years old. and although it was different experience, it was also very similar, a lot of back and forth. You don't just push out your food. It's about being quiet. You can't tell anyone what you're working on. So I felt like, "Wow, I'm ready. I've done this" [when the call from the president came].
It's funny how you get training. When I started cooking for the Swedish royal family, never did I think that this experience would be something that I would know what to do here [at the White House]. But in life you have situations where you never know when you're going to pull out that card again.
Q Where did you cook for the Swedish royal family?
A All over the world, Stockholm, New York. But it's similar preparation [to the White House], right? You get the call. You have to be quiet, you have to be private about it. You go back and forth with the menu. You have to consider the occasion. If it's big, you craft something based on the occasion. You do a couple of trial cooking experiences. And then it's the next level. And if you're quiet about it, you actually have a chance to do it all again. My team has been around that a bunch of times so I knew what guys to pick. They wouldn't put it on Facebook and they would be private about it, and this is a commitment to the service.
But of course, as an immigrant, as a Swede, as an American, walking on that [White House] lawn, looking over to the left to the Oval Office, of course I felt so "oh my God this is a big day." I was nervous but you can't show it because you're leading a group of cooks.
With [Red] Rooster [his restaurant in Harlem], there's a different commitment. Being committed on tough days, when things aren't working out, when some staff are leaving and they are not committed to the cause the way you are. Maybe the idea of working in Harlem was exciting for them and they didn't understand how hard it would be. I'm committed enough to this, to hiring cooks and waiters from downtown. I'm working on that very, very hard.
Q Tell me about Red Rooster, your restaurant in Harlem.
A My intent, both for the city and for Harlem, was to think of the city to expand and grow. Once you come and eat in a restaurant, you also see other things. You see your neighbors, you see the community, you just don't do drive-by. Before, it was "let's take picures of these places in Harlem and then leave," but now people stay for hours. That was part of it, to get to know Harlem in a different way. Then the other thing was to create jobs in a community that desperately needs jobs. That's what we've been doing, hiring from the community. And so it was duo. But I also believed that if the New Yorkers and visitors and the Harlemites all met in Harlem, all three can learn from each other.
Q For your Twitter feed, is that you or your staff sending out the messages?
A It's a combination. Mine are very much when I'm in the moment, what I see: a Korean melon or a great taco stand in Grand Central market. I really want to point people to experiences that are fantastic. Then there are messages from my team. When there's a vintage old picture telling you where to eat, that's definitely me.
Q When your business partnership with Hakan Swahn fell apart, your name had become a valuable commodity that you no longer were in control of. Tell me about when you had to buy back your name. I found it fascinating.
A I thought it was fascinating too. Just cooking, just working for those years and I looked at my partner as my older brother, and never thinking about that protection. At some point that was dumb of me. I should have done that, and that's a lesson there. But I didn't want to scream and shout about it [when I realized it]. Let's figure out how to slowly regain this, take back my name, with a strategy. It was a tough road on a personal level and for so many different reasons and my guard was down and suddenly it had to come up. It was a tough haul. But it also made me better, right? It will never happen again. And if you are strong and love your craft, you can continue to do your craft. It was probably the moment for me when I asked the most questions: Should I continue doing this? I felt like I got tested and the answer was "Yes." And then I will do it smart and do it better.
It also showed what our industry had become at that point. When I came with $300 bucks in my pocket to America, did I ever think that my name would have a meaning like that? It just showed how much our industry has grown. The funny thing is today when cooks are not working the classical route up, they start with a brand and their own name. And it's like they are already where I was 20 years into my career. Their first investor meeting is "Well, I'm my own brand."
Q Who was the most important influence on you?
A Several. My parents and my grandmother. But also the chef who gave me a shot. The chef in Switzerland who opened the door for me. He saw how much I worked just like other young cooks in Switzerland. Of course he looked up when he saw this young black cook coming in. Two hours into it he was treating me like everyone else. And that was so important at that time. I was all alone in a foreign country and he will always be a person that I adore and admire because he gave me a shot and he guided me. He was hard on me when I needed it. He guided me. I trusted him. He was very important.
And also people like Charlie Trotter who helped me out in the beginning when I came to this country. Everytime there would be a dinner in Chicago, he would say "Marcus, come up. There's a Spanish guy who's going to be here. Come meet him." Putting me in that kitchen when I was 24, 25, 26 , 27 years old. Constantly pushing fantastic experiences in front of me. It's like all of those experiences are like a hidden paycheck. And then when you do that and work hard, great stuff will happen. I just know. Be around people who love the craft and good stuff will happen. It just will happen.
Q Your work in the kitchen and on the plate always seemed to reflect an artistic flair. Do you follow artists?
A Absolutely. Most of my New York friends are chefs, artists or writers. The creative life has always spoken to me. In order to do Rooster, I paint a lot. I do paintings in order to decide on the menu. I have to go to galleries and museums to see what has gone on before me. It's part of the process. I have to think about positive and negative space on the plate. And what story do you want to tell on the plate? What story do you want to tell on the menu?
Q You've got a busy schedule for your visit.
A I'm excited to come back to Mpls. I love coming back to Minneapolis.
Follow Lee Svitak Dean on Twitter: @StribTaste