Imagine telling three-star chef Marcus Samuelsson that his espresso machine is dead on the day his memoir, Yes, Chef, is released. You don’t wanna be that guy. “Can you just figure out if we called the coffee company?” he firmly asks an apologetic server at his always-buzzing Harlem restaurant, Red Rooster. “Part of the information is that the machine is out. The full information is: when are we fixing it, and are we ready for tonight?” Samuelsson is always sweating the details, even on a day full of Today show appearances, multiple interviews, and a stellar book review down the pike from The New York Times.
The world is Samuelsson’s kitchen today, and he’s regulating nicely. Dressed identically to the author photo of Yes, Chef—madras shirt, grey pinstriped vest, handmade tie—the Ethiopian-born, Sweden-raised restauranteur metaphorically balances several different dishes at the moment. With two Internet platforms, four restaurants and a handful of books, Samuelsson is the first major chef-as-brand of color, and he’s handling it all in high style. (He’s married to top model Maya Gate Haile; Vanity Fair named him one of the best-dressed people of 2011.) The 42-year-old culinary phenom welcomed EBONY.com in for some questions amid a busy lunch shift to discuss his steady rise.
EBONY: Speak about the gap between your romanticized version of Harlem from when you first arrived to New York in the 1990s, and the reality.
MS: When I read about it in Scandinavia, I read about post-[Harlem] Renaissance, ’40s and ’50s. Y’know, Langston [Hughes], Romare [Bearden], Apollo, that type of thing. Some of those landmarks are still in the community: Sylvia’s, Schomburg [Center], Studio Museum. But when I got here, it was just post-Bensonhurst, Rodney King. Crack epidemic, just post- that. The city had that problem, it wasn’t just Harlem. But it had a particular feel and look in Harlem.
But you could also see greatness. Those brownstones, those churches, were still magical. These historical buildings showed signs of, there were great things here. My books taught me that. I see the people walk with a great pride and energy. I still came up to 1-2-5. I just didn’t feel like the landscape for fine dining was there yet. I loved it just as much. But I knew that I needed to understand New York better. I’ve lived about 14, 15 years in New York. Half my time, I’ve lived in Harlem. I needed that first part of the time to study about New York.
As people of color, it took a whole generation in many ways to get us out of the kitchen, and it’s gonna take us the same whole generation to get us back into the kitchen and have ownership of restaurants, hotels and stuff like that.
EBONY: How would you compare Harlem to Brooklyn? Cosmopolitan Blacks in the city tend to pick one neighborhood or the other.
MS: Many similarities, many differences. Brooklyn is a borough; Harlem is a neighborhood. Brooklyn has a population of three and a half million people. It would be a huge U.S. town if it would be by itself. And it operates sometimes like a town or a city within a city. Harlem is a neighborhood. And although we have pockets in our neighborhood that are a little bit different—from Spanish Harlem to the Mexican side, to all the way up to Washington Heights, down to the west side to Columbia—those would be the different things.
And then, Harlem to me is very central. You come to 1-2-5, Lenox, you’re central. You see iconic buildings like Apollo, the Schomburg and so on. Brooklyn’s much more spread out. You can go to the beach in Brooklyn. Downtown Brooklyn has one urban energy, and there’s so many things. But a lot of the journey is the same. I got inspired a lot by what was happening in Brooklyn. “Hey, we’re gonna make restaurants in Brooklyn for Brooklyn. If you guys wanna come from Manhattan, go ahead. But we’re gonna make our own things.” That’s what you see in Fort Greene and so on. And so I took a lot of inspiration from that and said, You know what? Create something in and of Harlem that is for everyone. But it’s gotta be “in and of.”
EBONY: How has reality TV and the creation of the celebrity chef been a good or bad thing for the food industry?
MS: It’s amazing in the sense that it opens up the space, and more people want to come to the space. It’s confusing in a way. Yes, you have more people. But not necessarily [who] want to be line cooks, and then eventually one day sous chefs, and then eventually one day chefs. Regardless of color, it’s a humbling journey. You learn for a long time, and then maybe maybe maybe you get a chance. Now people want to do 18 years in 18 months. Well, you can do that, but it’s also about learning a craft.
EBONY: One of your Internet platforms, FoodRepublic.com, has been described as a GQ for food. What was your inspiration for Food Republic, and