If you were at the South End Buttery last week, you might have noticed a tall, sharply dressed African guy with a lilting Swedish accent sipping iced coffee, talking to a reporter, and radiating a crackling energy. There was something familiar about him. Maybe you did a double take, trying to place him: Who is that guy?
If you're a foodie, though, you'd probably know the answer: that guy was Marcus Samuelsson. The chef who won Top Chef Masters and Chopped All-Stars a few years ago. The man who orchestrated the Obamas' first state dinner. The youngest chef ever to receive three stars from the New York Times, who has cooked all over the world, and who has been reinvigorating Harlem for the past few years with his newest restaurant, Red Rooster.
Samuelsson was in town to promote his new book, Yes, Chef, which has spent the five weeks since its release on the NYT Bestseller list. A sparkplug of a memoir, it's a departure from the zero-fucks-given style of Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential.
"I wanted to keep a good pace, because the pace reflects who I am, it's really —" here he pounds his fist into his hand a few times. "You know? And I really had no interest in making it solely about food. The foundation of it is family — the fact that out of all colors and differences, you can create a family. It could be an inspirational book for a young cook, I suppose, but I didn't want it to become just an inside-the-industry thing."
Samuelsson's story starts far from the restaurant industry.When he was three, Samuelsson's birth mother walked him and his older sister — all of them sick with tuberculosis — to the closest hospital, 75 miles away in Addis Ababa. She died soon after, but Samuelsson and his sister recovered and were quickly adopted.
He says he wrote this book in part to answer the questions he's been asked over the years — about the politics of growing up an Ethiopian orphan in a Swedish home; the trials and triumphs of working abroad; race and gender minorities in kitchens; finding his soul's home in Harlem.
"What I love about Harlem is that you see real engagement. Everybody's into everybody's business," he says, a big, contagious grin spreading across his face. "That's nice, in a big city like New York City. I lived in Midtown for years, and I never knew my neighbor. Never, ever, ever. Walk with me in Harlem, and you'll see what I mean."
Harlem is also the perfect stomping ground for his jubilant dedication to food education and what he calls "eating with a spiritual compass" — a result of high culinary literacy and high engagement. He hosts free cooking classes at the local YMCA that draw over 200 parents and their kids, and occasionally invites groups of students into his home for impromptu kitchen time.
"For us, it's about hiring from the community, and so that means that it takes a little bit longer to teach cooks and servers," he explains. "I'm committed to having a certain local look and feel to my staff, and that takes different leadership skills than it does if all of your cooks worked with you in France.