"I wanted to prove this place was in and of this community," he adds. "And that is a challenge sometimes. Definitely."
Is it hard to stay grounded when you're cooking for bigwigs like the Obamas, I ask him, or for the Swedish royal family, as he did at 21? What about the fact that Bill Clinton gave a jacket quote for Yes, Chef? I'd imagine that kind of thing would be a trip. But he disagrees.
"I think the most influential people are people like Laverne, the lady who walks by my restaurant all the time," he tells me. "She told me I was a fool to open a restaurant next to Sylvia's. But then, she liked my food, and she told her whole church. That's influential.
"That's the magic of a restaurant," he says. "We get three kinds of people: the visitor who makes a reservation online, the New Yorker who calls, and the Harlemite who does neither — they just walk in, because it's their restaurant. If the First Lady comes in, different privacy measures have to be taken, things like that, sure, but once they're sitting down, no matter who they are, it's got to be yummy and delicious and done with care. That never changes."
After plowing through his story, one might assume that Samuelsson has accomplished everything he set out to as a boy in his grandmother Helga's kitchen. But his goals are a lot more fluid than that. "I've never looked at anything as a bus stop," he says. "I have a ways to go to become the chef and the person that I want to be, and I do have some relationships that I have to work better and harder on. That's my next journey."
We get up to leave, and a man decked out in a full linen suit — hat and all — at the next table turns around to get a good look at us. Samuelsson compliments his outfit right away.
"Thanks. Not so bad yourself," the man says. He squints, then asks, "So, restaurants, cooking for the First Lady . . . you a celebrity chef or something?"
"Nah," Samuelsson says, without skipping a beat. "Just a guy having a chat."
Cassandra Landry can be reached at email@example.com.