Marcus Samuelsson is the name on every foodie’s tongue these days, and not just because he has more than two dozen restaurants in three countries. The Ethiopian-born, Swedish-American culinary star and creator of the Red Rooster Harlem restaurant in New York City is shifting back into reality TV mode. He’s previously appeared on Iron Chef, Chopped All-Stars, Top Chef Masters, 24 Hour Restaurant Battle and his own show, The Inner Chef, and starting June 15 he’s appearing on Netflix’s reimagined revival Iron Chef: Quest for an Iron Legend series.
How do chefs train for cooking competitions?
Cook and eat a lot? That’s my life, anyway. It definitely has an athletic component to it. You’re under time pressure, and that moment is indescribable because the clock is ticking. You want to do your absolute, utmost best. It is like being an athlete in many ways. I grew up around sports all my life, and you're in the zone and you have that inner voice that keeps pushing you and motivating you, but at same time you got to taste, taste, taste, and cook, cook, cook.
When was the moment you realized that you wanted to be a chef when you grew up?
I grew up cooking with my grandmother and did not know that these were skills that would take me all around the world. Probably the excitement for me around cooking came when I was a teenager working a weekend job and I heard the chef say, “Hey, I just came back from Paris.” I was like, “What? You can go to France and do this?” That was the moment for me when I felt like, Wow, I got a chance to travel and see the world and do something that I love. I’ve been on that mission ever since.
At any given day or time, what’s in your refrigerator?
My family, we’re from Ethiopia and Sweden, so there will always be some herring; there will always be some Ethiopian berbere, which is a spice blend I use a lot, and there will always be some champagne, because you don’t know who’s coming. Anyone could show up.
If you’re going to a potluck dinner, what’s your go-to dish?
It’s really a moment to share. I try to always bring something from my heritage and really highlight that. It could be as simple as a dish called Kolo, which is just roasted barley and peanuts together. It's very simple, but it’s a perfect little snack to kick off the party with. Or maybe some fresh cheese that we make ourselves.
Divulge your food guilty pleasure.
I love the whole idea of commercial candy, how it’s made. I eat it very differently. I break it apart; I smell it; I look at it. I try to understand the textures and layers with one purpose: Is this something I should re-create in the restaurant? My wife, she’s like, “Can’t you just eat or not eat it? You don't have to analyze it.”
How can someone go from takeout regular to home cook?
Go to a local farmers market and just get inspired. Start there. See food and talk to the people who work around the farmers market, because they will tell you what's coming in season. Buying vegetables in season is life-changing. It also saves you money. Eating an apple at the right time of year and eating a corn at the right time of year, versus just buying it and having no clue or idea.
COVID-19 wreaked havoc on the restaurant industry. What was your experience like?
We came together as a community. We started the Independent Restaurant Coalition. We were able to push the government to support restaurants in a different way. We started to, if not before, really realize that each neighborhood is not a neighborhood without restaurants. It's the heart of the community. It was humbling for all of us. It teaches you empathy; it teaches you work ethic; it teaches you community. I thought a lot about my grandparents’ generation and the Second World War and how they navigated through it. It was a way to reflect about their journey.
Did you have a birthday bash when you turned 50, last October?
I did not. I always celebrate my son’s birthday, in July, so there are many celebrations in our house around the kids and around the family, but mine is not a big one. Celebrating was being part of Iron Chef, because you’re working, competing with these icons and legends in the industry. I celebrate the fact that something my grandmother taught me, I'm doing it 40 years later. I celebrate that.
You’ve talked previously about writing down your goals to make them happen. What’s on the top of the list?
Opening a restaurant in New York City this late summer, early fall. I’m in the middle of really planning and thinking through the dishes. I come from an island, so a lot of seafood, definitely. And thinking about sustainability.
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