Marcus Samuelsson has been cooking all his life, and his dossier is impressive.
At 23, he was the youngest person to receive two New York Times three-star reviews while the executive chef at Aquavit, where he started out as an apprentice and quickly worked his way up. The winner of Top Chef Masters and Chopped, Samuelsson won the James Beard Foundation’s Rising Star Award in 1999 and Best Chef: New York City Award in 2003. He was also the guest chef for the Obama Administration’s first State Dinner in 2009.
When not cooking, Samuelsson is busy writing best sellers – notably, Aquavit and The New Scandinavian Cuisine in 2003; The Soul of a New Cuisine: A Discovery of the Foods and Flavors of Africa in 2006 (named Best International Cookbook by the James Beard Foundation in 2007); New American Table in 2009; Yes, Chef: A Memoir in 2012; and Make it Messy: My Perfectly Imperfect Life, a version of his 2012 memoir for young adults in 2015. Red Rooster Cookbook: The Story of Food and Hustle in Harlem is expected to be released on October 18, 2016.
The death of Samuelsson’s mother would ultimately have a profound impact on his cooking. She passed away a year after he was born, and he was adopted by a Swedish family. His grandmother – Helga, a professional chef – taught he and his two sisters how to do everything from pickling fresh vegetables and making jam to baking ginger snaps and other treats. The experience, Samuelsson says, “taught me to love and appreciate fresh and local food.”
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That was in Smögen, on the west coast of Sweden, but Samuelsson, Chef and Owner of Red Rooster Harlem, also gained experience from other relatives in another country – specifically, his father, Tsigie in Ethiopia (where Samuelsson was born).
“Spices are the key element driving taste in Ethiopian cooking,” Samuelsson writes on his personal website. “In Ethiopia, food is often viewed through a strong spiritual lens, more so than anywhere else I know.
One thing Swedish and Ethiopian cuisine have in common is the use of cardamom, Samuelsson also uses in all of his cooking.
At the Red Rooster, the cardamom really stands out in the aptly named “blueberry hill,” a cardamom custard with blueberries and an almond cookie.
Other specialties are his Grandmother Helga’s meatballs served with braised green cabbage, buttermilk mashed potatoes, and lingonberries. Beyond that, he hones in on the environment in which he is cooking for inspiration.
The pickling that his Grandmother taught him so well can be found all across the Red Rooster Harlem’s menu, including the chicken and waffle with black bean chili syrup and pickled daikon; the pickled onion in the red oak Caesar salad; the slow-roasted short rib and skirt steak with fermented cabbage; and the pickled chilis in the broccolini.