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Lunch With
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Lunch With Marcus Samuelsson

30 September 2017

We meet the chef and restaurateur at his new place in East London to talk soul food, community, and cooking for Obama.

Marcus Samuelsson, the chef Barack Obama chose to cook for his first State Dinner as President of the United States in 2009, looks comfortable sitting down, but it’s clearly not his natural state. He’s not here to eat lunch. He’s here to work.

Here is Tienda Roosteria, the light-filled street-level taco restaurant the chef has just opened in The Curtain, a new boutique hotel in London’s Shoreditch. Downstairs is Red Rooster Shoreditch, Samuelsson’s first attempt to replicate the spirit of his restaurant in Harlem, New York, the restaurant where Obama held a US$30,800 per ticket Democratic National Committee fundraiser in 2011, wowing his influential guests with Samuelsson’s “comfort food celebrating the roots of American cuisine”.

Samuelsson does not so much as glance at the menu. So neither do I. He does not order food.  So neither do I. It is clear there will be no ‘lunch with’ Marcus Samuelsson. Just the story of the 46-year-old’s life so far. But what a story it is.

Samuelsson was born Kassahun Tsegie, in Ethiopia, in 1971, but having lost their mother to tuberculosis, in 1973 he and his sister, Linda, were adopted by Lennart and Ann Marie Samuelsson and taken to live in Gothenburg, Sweden. The couple had already adopted Anna, an eight-year-old girl born to a Swedish woman and a Jamaican man.

Samuelsson’s first memory of his life in Sweden is of food. “I remember going berry picking with my sisters and my grandparents,” he says. “It’s a memory that has been reinforced by pictures of us in the woods picking blueberries with blueberry juice all over our faces.”

Lennart Samuelsson was a geologist, but he came from a rural family of fishermen, and it was during school holidays with his grandparents that his son’s food education began. He fished, foraged and was taught how to cook by his grandmother, Helga.

“In the country there’s little separation between adult and child. You have a knife, you clean your mackerel, there’s blood.”

In his mid-teens he flirted with the dream of becoming a professional footballer, but instead he chose to pursue cooking, enrolling in the Culinary Institute in Gothenburg and then going on to work with “the best chefs in the city”. He then ventured abroad, honing his skills in Switzerland, Austria and, finally, France, where he worked at Georges Blanc’s eponymous three Michelin star restaurant in Vonnas.

It was in France that Samuelsson started to think about moving away from Europe. “Working in those kitchens I was always the only black kid,” he says. “My ultimate goal was to own or be the chef of my own place. I spoke to chef, and he said, ‘It’s not going to happen for you [in Europe].’ It wasn’t a racist suggestion, I knew he cared about me a lot.”

It wasn’t the first time Samuelsson had been made aware of the unique challenges he would face.  “A black man’s journey will always be very different,” he says. “You can say, ‘Oh, how unfair, how difficult,’ or you can see it as a way of getting stronger. I never looked at it as a problem. I looked at it as an advantage.”

His parents were an inspiration. “They were also a minority,” says Samuelsson. “They were white parents with black kids.” Lennart in particular encouraged his son to question the status quo and think deeply about how he could move forward.

In 1994 Samuelsson travelled to New York to apprentice at Scandinavian restaurant Aquavit. The following year, having been promoted to executive chef at just 23, he became the youngest chef ever to receive a three-star rating from the The New York Times. In 1999, still in his 20s, he received the Rising Star Chef of the Year award from the James Beard Foundation.

In the eyes of the critics, Samuelsson was a success. But he says he didn’t feel like one, and over the next decade a combination of experiences inspired him to change his direction of travel.

In 2000, Linda located their birth father, Tsegie, and the pair travelled to Ethiopia to meet him and their eight half siblings, reconnecting him with his African roots.  Then 9/11 encouraged him to reassess his priorities. “I was not mentally where I wanted to be,” he says. “I started to ask myself bigger questions: ‘What are you doing this for?’”

In 2006, he again travelled to Africa and produced a book on African cooking, The Soul of a New Cuisine: A Discovery of the Foods and Flavors of Africa, and he moved to Harlem. He started looking into the neighbourhood’s history and the African American experience in America: the Great Migration, jazz, the Civil Rights Movement and, of course, soul food.

“Africa was part of my story,” says Samuelsson. “When I looked at American food, I saw that a big part of it came from Africa.”

In 2007-2008 the financial crisis hit and people started to turn away from “fine dining” in search of something more in tune with the times. “I spoke to my Mum, and she said, ‘Why do you always cook for the rich guy? We didn’t grow up with only rich people. We didn’t grow up with rich people at all. Why don’t you just cook for regular people?’” he says, rapping his knuckles on the table.

It took another two years, during which he married Ethiopian-born model Gate Maya Haile, before all the pieces fell into place, but he finally opened Red Rooster Harlem in 2010.  He had his own restaurant and a clear sense of purpose: to become deeply embedded in the Harlem community and to help it flourish.

“It’s my job to hire from the community,” he says. “Even if you’ve been to jail. So what? You stole a car when you were 18, you’re now 26. You’re not going to get a chance? Come on. It’s crazy.”

“People talk to me every day about the change Red Rooster has made [in Harlem],” he says. “It’s real.” According to the Samuelsson, most Harlem residents know somebody who has worked at Red Rooster or Harlem EatUp! the chef’s annual food festival in Morningside Park in May.

Did he speak to Obama about this social mission? “He sees the ambition, the intent, our hiring policy. He knows.”

I suggest that, considering Red Rooster’s strong ties to Harlem, opening in London seems a strange move. “I never wanted to do another Red Rooster,” he says. “I was just not into it, because I thought it was so connected just to Harlem.”

But Samuelsson identified similarities between the two neighbourhoods.  “You could go to London many times and never have been East, right? There was another poetic story here, very different to Harlem, but there was a mystique here that was interesting to me. The graffiti, the Jewish cooking, the Bangladeshi cooking, Old Spitalfields Market, Hackney, Broadway Market, there was a stickiness, something that spoke to me.”

Our conversation over, a feast is transferred to our table, but Samuelsson is up and changed into his Red Rooster shirt and apron.

I sit alone, devouring fried yard bird from the Red Rooster Shoreditch menu, a dish that consists of a pair of giant chicken thighs marinated in buttermilk, coconut milk, garlic and chicken shake, a combination of Ethiopian berbere, smoked paprika, ground cumin, celery salt and garlic granules, and fried to a burnt orange crisp, sitting on a bed of mashed yam, collards and beans. The ultimate “comfort food”. From the same menu, there is salmon in an awase glaze; then from the Tienda Roosteria menu, there’s dense crumbly wedges of cornbread, a mound of chips and guacamole, and the Bad Hombre, a taco piled high with spicy fried chicken and a refreshing pico de gallo salsa.

While I eat, I watch Samuelsson giving a cooking masterclass that is being filmed on an iPhone and streamed live on Facebook. He’s not here to eat lunch. He’s here to work.

Words: Charlie Carver / Images: Rebecca Matthews