Chef Marcus Samuelsson brings his diverse culinary style to the heart of Harlem.In the world of celebrity chefs, Marcus Samuelsson might not be a household name quite yet — but Emeril should watch his back. This globally diverse chef — born in Ethiopia, raised in Sweden, trained in Austria and Switzerland, and now settled in New York City — has won several James Beard awards (including Best Chef in New York City), garnered rave reviews for his restaurants (he currently owns five), written three cookbooks in English (and a few others in Swedish) and conquered the greats on Bravo’s Top Chef Masters (he won season two). Samuelsson even cooked the first state dinner for President Obama’s administration. His latest venture is Red Rooster Harlem, which was awarded a prestigious two stars from The New York Times. We visited with the 40-year-old chef about his new eatery, his culinary background and his inspirations.
American Way: What’s the concept behind Red Rooster?
Marcus Samuelsson: We are really celebrating Harlem. Red Rooster was actually a restaurant in the neighborhood in the ’30s and ’40s, so this is kind of a contemporary throwback. We are serving all kinds of comfort food, from meatballs to fried chicken. It’s inspired by all the different kinds of people who live in the neighborhood.
AW: Will tourists feel comfortable here? It sounds like a place for locals.
MS: It’s really both. It’s a good place for regulars because we only accept half a room’s worth of reservations each night, which encourages walk-ins. But for tourists, it’s a great place to come and really see Harlem. You can really get a feel for the people who live there.
AW: So what should we order?
MS: If you’re visiting from out of town, you might try the Fried Yard Bird, because it’s a signature here in Harlem. If you live in New York, you might try the Swedish meatballs. But no one should leave without trying the sweet potato doughnuts — they are really something special.
AW: How did you get started cooking?
MS: Growing up in Sweden, I cooked a lot with my grandmother and my family. I got a scholarship to go to Switzerland, and then to Austria and France. I have a background in both home cooking and professional training, because I’ve experienced both worlds.
Find more information about Marcus Samuelsson at www.marcussamuelsson.com
AW: Who have been your biggest influences?
MS: My grandmother and my family were the biggest influences in my cooking. But I’m also inspired by the diversity in America. In terms of chefs, I’m inspired by Nobu [Matsuhisa] and Charlie Trotter.
AW: You traveled the country for your cookbook New American Table. What was that experience like?
MS: I think a great way to see the country is through food. Americans should celebrate American food as much as they do European food.
AW: What were some of your favorite places?
MS: I really like markets. Those are the places I like to visit. When I go to Los Angeles, it’s not about seeing Hollywood; it’s about seeing Grand Central Market. In San Francisco, I love to visit the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market.
AW: What’s next for you? Will we be seeing you on television again soon?
MS: No, I’m focusing on Red Rooster — it’s a huge responsibility. We also just launched a new website called FoodRepublic.com. It’s male focused but female friendly. MarcusSamuelsson.com has mostly female readers, and I saw a need for something a little different.