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Harlem globetrotter

We meet Marcus Samuelsson, Obama's favourite celebrity chef

Harlem globetrotter

Text by Matthew Lee

Marcus Samuelsson raises an eyebrow in the direction of the props we’ve prepared for his shoot: a plate of salmon and a basket of fries. For approximately half a second he looks distinctly unimpressed. Oh dear. Has he been asked to do the Swedish-American split-identity thing before? “Maybe a few times,” he replies, turning to face our camera and resurrecting his smile like a true pro.

When we’re not floundering in faux pas, the 43-year-old chef is nothing less than charming. We’re in Uppsala on a cloudy day for the launch of his new venture, Kitchen & Table, and the place is packed with customers, although it’s never tough locating a man who featured in Vanity Fair’s 2011 Best Dressed List among the conservative dressers of Sweden’s fourth city. Today he wears a purple cardigan, yellow tie, flat cap and stripy socks. The restaurant is almost as colourful, packed with cosy red armchairs, bright green pillows and vases full of plants – it resembles a furniture showroom. That isn’t meant to be unkind. 

The look of Kitchen & Table isn’t a million miles away from that of Red Rooster, Samuelsson’s acclaimed New York restaurant, which takes its culinary cues from Manhattan’s rich cultural heritage. On its menu are hints of Latino, Asian and African-American cuisine – jerk chicken, grits and collard greens, steamed pork belly buns – but the signature dish wouldn’t be out of place on a dining table in Sweden. Manhattanites go crazy for Helga’s meatballs, a recipe taught to Samuelsson by his Swedish granny.

Scandi-American fusion is only half the story. Samuelsson’s new memoir, Oui, Chef, begins with a striking opening sentence: “I don’t know my mother’s face.” He then tells his story: he was born Kassahun Tsegie in Ethiopia and suffered from tuberculosis, as did his mother and his sister Linda. They walked 75 miles from their village to the nearest hospital; their mother succumbed to the illness and the kids were put up for adoption. “The worst thing that ever happened to me turned out to be a blessing,” he says. “I got the chance to go to an incredible school in Sweden and have incredible, loving parents. I worked hard and took the opportunities I had, and I realise how lucky I’ve been.”

In Sweden, Samuelsson was a fairly typical boy, obsessed with football – he’s a long-suffering fan of Gothenburg’s perennial yo-yo club GAIS – and increasingly interested in food. The latter hobby was nurtured during weekends with his grandparents, roasting chickens and cooking early prototypes of Harlem’s favourite meatballs. “My uncle was a » fisherman so I could butcher a fish at 10 years old,” he says, recounting the benefits of a Scandinavian education. “At 12 I could smoke mackerel and from a young age I could preserve herring.”

Like Gordon Ramsay, who Samuelsson accuses of racial abuse in Oui, Chef – a claim furiously denied by the British chef – he wanted to be a professional footballer, but instead found his way into culinary school. “I started thinking about food as a career in my mid-teens,” he says. “As a kid you want to belong to something, whether it’s a football team or a kitchen team, and being part of a kitchen team was a magical time for me. I met chefs who had travelled to Stockholm, London and Paris – and they’d done it through food. I wanted to do the same thing.”

With the help of his mother and the local library – the internet was yet to be invented – he found overseas restaurants where he could further his career. He worked in kitchens in France, Switzerland and Austria, and in 1994 a friend helped him land a job as an apprentice with Aquavit, a forward-thinking Scandinavian restaurant in New York. Within a year he was a 23-year-old executive chef with a three-star review from the New York Times.

In 2003, a year before Noma opened in Copenhagen, Samuelsson wrote a cookbook entitled Aquavit and the New Scandinavian Cuisine. “It was just a question of giving Scandinavian food a vocabulary in bigger cities,” he says, playing down the notion that his work predated the global veneration of New Nordic cuisine. “Food trends change constantly. Journalists used to write about France, Italy, Japan, America – now it’s Scandinavia. I’m biased, but I feel we’ve always been very good at art, fashion, film and food. It’s not new.”

Around the time of the book’s publication, Samuelsson was becoming interested in Harlem, the northern section of Manhattan famed for its African-American heritage. He opened a restaurant selling hearty comfort food such as fried green tomatoes and whoopie pie, dishes he refers to as soul food, “made with love and care, just like the food my grandmother in Sweden made.” Red Rooster, he tells me, is a place where local people can relax and hang out. “We want it to be a third stop, after work and home; a place that has the local touch and engages with the community.”

This, he says, is what he’s aiming for with Kitchen & Table, a chain of 20 restaurants he’s rolling out across Sweden and Norway in partnership with Clarion Hotels. While his clientele in Uppsala may be somewhat more conventional than some of the characters that walk through his doors on Malcolm X Boulevard, he believes that by hiring enthusiastic locals and working with nearby food producers, the venue will establish a personality and an identity of its own. The dishes are inspired by Manhattan and clearly signposted as such – there’s Upper East Side charcuterie, Lexington Avenue tandoori trout and Tribeca-style miso-roasted pike perch.

Going into business with Nordic Choice Hotels, the parent company of Clarion, is a further extension of an already wide-ranging portfolio. The Marcus Samuelsson Group boasts four restaurants in New York, Marc Burger in Illinois and California, and Norda in Gothenburg, while he aslo owns the Food Republic website and Ambessa, a range of Ethiopian teas. As well as running his multimillion-dollar business, Samuelsson has found time to create coffee blends for Starbucks, and he’s a regular guest on The Today Show and Good Morning America in the USA. His personal website alone requires six editorial staff.

There are so many consulting gigs, TV appearances and book tours it’s tempting to believe that a chef who’s deftly built a brand on the personal touch may be overextending himself with another 20 restaurants. He says that he doesn’t need to be physically around to be engaged, that there’s Facebook and Twitter, and that events like today’s cookery demonstration help create a relationship with locals and offer a chance to reconnect with Scandinavia.

Samuelsson has form when it comes to reconnecting. In 2000, he travelled with his sister to the tiny village 75 miles from Addis Ababa where they were born. There he met his biological father, a tribal leader who had been totally unknown to him until then, along with 18 new brothers and sisters. Earlier this year, Samuelsson and his wife, Ethiopian model Maya Haile, founded Three Goats, a non-profit dedicated to improving the health of kids in Ethiopia.

You can imagine how Samuelsson’s journey from Africa led to an invitation from Barack Obama to cook the State Dinner in 2009, but how can someone raised in Sweden relate to the African-American experience? “Well, I’m African and I’m American,” he replies.

To Samuelsson, identity is a complex, nuanced thing. He says he’s rarely experienced prejudice because of his skin colour – “although in France they’d never seen black cooks before” – but that it was necessary for him to “open the conversation much like Viv Anderson did when he became the first black man to play football for England”. Samuelsson proudly discusses his hiring policy (at least 50 per cent women) and speaks of how many talented “storytellers of colour” work at his restaurants.

Two weeks after our interview, he hosted the King and Queen of Sweden at Red Rooster in New York. Samuelsson served the royal couple a starter of cornbread with smoked trout followed by a main of Harlem kyckling, a local take on the roast chicken dishes of his childhood. The meal was classic Marcus Samuelsson. Fish in one hand, fries in the other.
kitchenandtable.se, redroosterharlem.com


Marcus’s New York hot spots

“One of the best pizza restaurants in Brooklyn, Roberta’s is at the heart of the movement happening in Bushwick. It’s stretching people’s idea of New York; it’s not just Manhattan these days.”

“This excellent restaurant on Lafayette Street in NoHo opened just a few weeks ago. It’s a Parisian-style bistro by acclaimed chef Andrew Carmellini, with a great bakery.”

Sushi Yasuda
“This is as close as you can get to eating sushi at a top Tokyo restaurant without going to Japan. Owned by Americans and staffed by Japanese chefs, it’s omakase-style – you don’t know what you’ll get, but the results are always spectacular.”


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