Marcus Samuelsson on Food, Race, Women, & Opening a Narrative That Didn’t Exist

Text, Photos, & Video:
Francisco Collazo

Chef Marcus Samuelsson, author of "Yes, Chef," speaking at Tenement Museum on August 9, 2012.
Chef Marcus Samuelsson, author of “Yes, Chef,” speaking at Tenement Museum on August 9, 2012.

His career has been on an upward trajectory since 1995, when he became the youngest chef to win a coveted three stars from The New York Times, but as Marcus Samuelsson explains in his memoir,
Yes, Chef, which was published in late June, the success he enjoys today was never certain and by no means inevitable.

You may be familiar with part of Samuelsson’s story, as he has become known as much for his on-screen personality (he’s competed on “Top Chef Masters”) as his back-of-house cooking skills, but in case you’re not, here are the necessary highlights:

Samuelsson was born in Ethiopia in 1971; within a year, he, his mother, and his sister contracted tuberculosis; his mother died of the disease. In 1973, he and his sister were adopted by a Swedish couple and the siblings moved to Sweden, where they were raised. Samuelsson fell in love with cooking thanks to his grandmother, and by the late 80s and early 90s, he had entered culinary school and apprenticed at some of Europe’s finest restaurants.

In 1994, Samuelsson moved to the US to begin an apprenticeship with the upscale Swedish restaurant, Aquavit; he rose quickly, becoming executive chef, and was awarded those three stars just one year later… the youngest chef to ever receive the honor. After that, the awards kept coming, and Samuelsson opened a number of restaurants in New York City, including the now-closed Merkato 55. Most recently, Samuelsson opened Red Rooster and Ginny’s Supper Club in Harlem; he also has two restaurants in Sweden (Norda and Street Food).

Samuelsson is a popular figure in New York, and with the release of his memoir, he’s been making the rounds at bookstores and cultural institutions as part of a book tour. On August 9, he spoke at the Tenement Museum, a site that seemed especially appropriate given his dual immigrant status.

Samuelsson’s talk and the Q&A session that followed were remarkable for their honesty and their intensity. Samuelsson touched on a number of themes that resonated with my own experience. In the video clip below, he speaks on issues of race, the influence of women in American cooking and restaurants, and what it has been like for him to “open a narrative that didn’t exist.”

As the clip opens, Samuelsson is speaking of his adoptive father and how he prepared Samuelsson for the challenges he would face as a black chef–and a black man–in a white man’s world. Samuelsson talks about how he confronted that challenge, and how its very existence compelled him to think about how he would hire staff and run a restaurant in the future. Later in the clip, he talks about the process of writing his memoir and why it was important for him to include failures as much as his celebrated successes.

To learn more about Samuelsson, order his memoir, Yes, Chef. To see upcoming stops on his book tour, visit his website. To see more photos of his talk at the Tenement Museum, you can view my gallery on Flickr.