Marcus Samuelsson's memoir, Yes, Chef, tells the tale of a man who went from the humblest of beginnings in Ethopia to cooking for the President of the United States. Currently number 15 on The New York Times Best Seller list, the story is part love letter to food and family, part intimate recollection of the struggle to find a place in the world.
Tomorrow, July 26, Samuelsson will take Miami by storm on a one-day tour. The chef will hold a book signing stop at Whole Foods in Coral Gables from noon to 2 p.m. and then will host a wine-pairing dinner at Michael's Genuine Food & Drink at 7 p.m. (tickets for the dinner are $150 per person and include taxes, gratuities, and a signed copy of the book).
We spoke with Samuelsson about his Harlem restaurant Red Rooster, what it feels like to cook for the President, and where he ultimately calls home.
Short Order: Tell us a little about what made you write Yes, Chef.
Marcus Samuelsson: It's the story of my youth, but mostly it's about coming up in the industry as a young kid. It's the journey of being a young chef in Europe, then starting to define my own food through travel and cooking, then finally coming to America.
And it's also about all the families you can have as a chef. I wanted to connect to my audience. I have roots in Africa, in Sweden. It's about being in Harlem, being Jewish. It's our family. It crosses race, it crosses countries. It has no boundaries.
You know, black people would come and cook, but they wouldn't get the
title of chef. So I'm inspired by chefs of all colors. I'm talking
about why African-Americans might not be well represented in the
industry and its not one answer. It's multi-layered. And that's why I
wrote it down because talking about race, talking about diversity - you
can't do that quickly on a talk show. You have to be thoughtful and you
have to add something to the conversation.
For years, you were defined by your work at Aquavit, which was a Nordic restaurant. Now, you're in Harlem at Red Rooster. What was the impetus for the transition?
Black people worked really hard to get out of the kitchen and now we work hard to get back in. Part of the reason why I opened Red Rooster in Harlem is to change the footprint of dining so New Yorkers would come up to Harlem and locals would have a place to dine in a contemporary setting.
After 9/11 I was committed to doing something. I always loved Harlem, and so I moved to Harlem about ten years ago. I was walking around my neighborhood and I saw there was a food gap here. What can I add to that? When I look at unemployment in Harlem, which is around 19%, versus unemployment in the rest of New York, which is around 7%, I thought what can I do about that?
I started to ask myself questions. Red Rooster is the answer to that ten year process. I save tables for walk ins so that Harlemites can have a seat at the table. I live in Harlem. I'm extremely excited to be part of it and I think we're on our way. We're halfway there.
For years, Harlem, once a thriving center of music, food, and arts, really went through a tough time. But now there's a resurgence. People, including President Bill Clinton, are living and working in Harlem. What do you see in Harlem's future?
Harlem will never be the Meatpacking District or SoHo. Harlem is going through its own journey. I measure Harlem's success by whether or not unemployment goes down. If a farmers' market stays open nine months out of the year. Living there, that's the lens I look through.
Harlem was the music capital of the world.
How do you celebrate the rich culture of the neighborhood?
We celebrate the way we know how at Red Rooster. We encourage authors, writers, and musicians. The Apollo is a block and a half from the restaurant. We're connected to those beautiful gospel churches. We have art on the wall. There's so much there, I don't feel like I have to go outside the community.
President Bill Clinton wrote a blurb for Yes, Chef. You were asked to cook for President Barack Obama's first state dinner. Are you a political person?
I'm a chef that has a platform and I'm working toward lowering unemployment in my community If that's political... that's what I should be doing. It's not political, it's the right thing.
So how was it being asked to cook for a Presidential state dinner at the White House? How did you feel when you got the call?
It's an honor and it's exciting for the team. As for me, it's an opportunity to learn. We don't just represent ourselves. We represent the restaurant. We also have a job. When you're cooking, you're a servant. So at that point, you're serving at the highest level. I've been very privileged to be able to do what I always wanted to do, and there are exciting days that come with it.
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A lot of New York restaurateurs are opening locations in Miami. Have you put any thought into that?
I'm in Miami a lot. My buddies Andrew Carmellini and Scott Conant come down often. The team at Michael's are doing wonderful things. I'm super excited to work with them, so one thing at a time.
Will the dinner at Michael's Genuine be interactive? Will you be discussing the book with patrons and fielding questions?
Yes. Everyone responds to the book differently, whether you're adopted, or an immigrant, or just striving toward a goal. When you write something, you don't know who's going to connect to it. But it's been out for about two weeks and already I've gotten so many wonderful comments. I love being out there and connecting with readers and just getting together over a meal.
Your life's journeys have taken you many places. Is there one place that you really call home?
When I'm in Sweden I feel at home there. When I'm in Africa, in Ethiopia, I feel I belong there too. But in Harlem..I'm home. This truly is the country where you can feel embraced.