12:36 pm Aug. 13, 2012
Everyone says that in order to be successful you have to be a bit of an asshole, and Marcus Samuelsson should be no exception to this rule. He's a culinary superstar, after all, and they tend to be pretty serious assholes.
But he's got that fantastic, that winning smile.
It is a smile that ingratiates. It suggests humility despite Samuelsson's aggressive multiplatform self-promotion. It shows that no grudges are carried despite a past riddled with acrimonious professional splits. It's a smile that lets you know he's not brash like Anthony Bourdain, full of conceit like Tom Colicchio; he is a guy who found a great deal of success early in his career because, as he tells it, he just worked really hard. That’s it.
The work shows. He's built an enormous food franchise, at the moment centered around Red Rooster Harlem, the soul-food restaurant he opened uptown in 2010. He's bolstered his fame with reality television appearances (winning Bravo's "Top Chef Masters"), his own food website, Foodrepublic.com, and he's about to launch a cookware line for Macy's. To add another item to his resume, Samuelsson recently wrote a memoir, Yes, Chef.
Fifteen minutes to show time last Thursday, the Strand Bookstore’s rare book room was full. The staff started bringing out extra folding chairs. A line of people snaked around the perimeter, waiting for wine and samples of Samuelsson’s food.
There was cornbread with a tomato salsa and cookies, items from the menu of his takeout joint, the Nook, an offshoot of Red Rooster. The menus for each were on the table. Ambessa teas were also available—the result of a partnership with the tea company Harney & Sons—infused with Samuelsson's signature African-meets-Scandanavian flavors, like Lingonberry Green, Choco Nut Blend, and The Earl of Harlem. The smile was in the room.
“That’s the Red Rooster cornbread too. It’s what you get at the table at his restaurant,” a man said to me.
“Is the wine [Samuelsson’s] too?” another chimed in.
Samuelsson hasn’t branched out to wine yet, but it's a mark of his reputation both for generosity and for branding that he'd already be considered a vintner. At any rate, the enthusiasm for the food suggested more than a few of the nibblers might head uptown for the full treatment at Red Rooster. (They'd have to wait about two weeks, of course; that's the typical wait for a reservation there any time between 6 and 9:30 p.m.)
Samuelsson finally appeared on stage. He looked like a fabric shop, exploding in patterns—blue and white knit tennis shoes, nubby vintage-looking pants, a white button-down shirt with a red and yellow floral design, a matching, floppy tie, both under a deep red suede vest (its back printed paisley). Like the smile, Samuelsson's style of dress tells you something: it's creative rather than flamboyant, offbeat without being zany; he's someone who will be interesting to listen to.
Samuelsson sat down in a cushy armchair and pulled out a small digital camera to take pictures of his fans.
Amanda Hesser, chef and author of food blog Food52, led the discussion. Demure in a taupe wrap dress, she began introducing Samuelsson. Before she could get much of a word in, he interjected.
“Before we start we should at least tell these people how we know each other,” Samuelsson said, playing cute.
“I was about to get to that,” Amanda replied
“I’m going to give them my version, are you going to go first?” Samuelsson bandied back.
Amanda explained that she had met Samuelsson while working at The New York Times. Writers were paired with notable chefs, assigned to profile their restaurants. At the time, Samuelsson was 24 and executive chef of Aquavit, a restaurant that he revived, its flagging reputation in desperate need of a facelift.
“First of all she has selective memory,” Samuelsson said. “So I’m going to tell you what really happened. [The] New York Times [had] previously profiled Jean-Georges [Vongerichten] and [the editor] said ‘we need someone who is young and has your energy.’ And our kitchen is a bunch of misfits, Swedes, and […] people who couldn’t get jobs somewhere else, and in comes this gorgeous girl into the kitchen and Amanda can both cook and write and she speaks French, and I’m like, I’ve never met a person that was my age and could cook and write. I just never met this combo. So Amanda was clearly my first food crush.” And then, Samuelsson smiled.
Samuelsson doesn’t seem particularly frayed by the restaurant business these days. It wasn't always that way. As black chef in Europe, where he began working at 18 years old, more often than not chefs slammed the door in his face. These experiences, he claimed, only made him stronger.
“Sometimes you can understand if you’re a woman or you’re black or you’re Korean or something like that if you get over the first hurdle it can also make you sharper. I truly walking on this thin ice,” Samuelson said, waving his arm like an air traffic controller to indicate a line. “For a black chef in Europe at that time, they’d never seen a black cook so if I make one mistake I was out. That helped me keep my focus so if I had to show up at 8 o’clock I’d show up at 7 o’clock.”
Born in Ethiopia, Samuelsson lost his mother, as a small child, to tuberculosis. He was eventually taken in by nurses and later adopted by a Swedish family.
“People always thought of me as a black kid raised in a white family.” Samuelsson said, “If I was a young cook coming up there wasn’t a book that spoke to me, so I wanted to fill that gap. [I wanted to write a book] that inspires a young chef, then a creative person and then later, [addresses] race, a black man’s perspective.
The book chronicles his childhood and the becoming a chef at Aquavit. The unraveling of that high point is the only part of Samuelsson’s journey about which he still seems slightly embittered. He was too naïve to know that in business someone could coopt his name and make money off his hard work even if he wasn't involved any longer. He had to drain his income to buy back the rights to “Marcus Samuelsson” after his relationship with former business partner and president of Aquavit, Hakan Swahn, turned sour.
He didn’t waste too much time rebounding. He opened Red Rooster later the same year, although only after some serious soul searching and hard lessons.
"My first name was Kassahun Tsegie," Samuelsson said. "Should I have a Prince moment and go back to that?” he recalled wondering at the time.
Branding being so key to Samuelsson's career, that didn't seem like a good idea. Now he has rejuvenated his image, but with new successes come new challenges. His latest came from fellow food-world rising star Eddie Huang, who has loudly questioned Samuelsson's motives and his authenticity in opening Red Rooster in Harlem. Samuelsson has said he put Red Rooster in Harlem to expand his culinary repertoire and also to act as a community builder. Friends Thelma Golden and Glenn Ligon listened in the audience on Thursday as Samuelsson spoke about the neighborhood.
“I wanted to create something that’s in and of Harlem and to preserve the heritage of American food, where we put no value—we invest more money in Tuscan than barbecue. [Community] matters in a place that has 19 percent unemployment. It matters when 40 percent of African American men are not working. I knew I couldn’t do that on 58th street. The sense of arrival for me wasn’t moving out of my community, the sense of arrival for me was moving into the community.”
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