Sunday, June 22, 2014

Kicking Back With Chef Marcus Samuelsson - A Macy's Culinary Council Great

Having the opportunity to meet great chefs and sit down to talk to them is always an exciting experience. I always wonder how they are away from the kitchen and the culinary spotlight. This past Saturday, June 14th, I sat down with Celebrity Chef Marcus Samuelsson, most widely known for being a judge on ABC's The Taste, winning Top Chef Masters in 2010 and for his popular restaurant Red Rooster in Harlem, right before he engaged in a Macy's Culinary Council cooking demo at Dadeland Mall. I walked away totally smitten with his personality and laid-back demeanor, and looking forward to a trip to NYC in the near future to visit Red Rooster for myself.

With Chef, Author and Restaurateur Marcus Samuelsson

Marcus Samuelsson's life is a fascinating celebration of overcoming adversity. Born in Ethiopia, he contracted tuberculosis at the age of three, along with his mother and elder sister, and sadly, lost his mother to the disease. Both he and his sister were adopted by a Swedish couple, Lennar and Anne-Marie Samuelsson, and his life into a multi-cultural, supportive and love-filled new family began. It only takes a second to talk to Marcus and feel like you've known him all your life. He is in tune with people, compassionate in his demeanor, and humble to the core.

Marcus Samuelsson getting ready to start his demo
Shortly after Marcus arrived to the interview room, he walked outside where a couple of us were waiting for our scheduled time to chat, and invited us in to share some food and beverages that had been provided for him. As he poured our drinks into a glass, he engaged in everyday conversation with us and made us feel comfortable and at ease. It was refreshing to see his step-away-from-the-norm personality up close and personal and catch a preview into the compelling story of the man who became the youngest chef to ever receive two three-star ratings from The New York Times.

By the time I sat down with Marcus to talk, I was excited. I had so many questions I wanted to ask him before the cooking demo began, and judging from his laid back persona, I knew it was going to be fun. We comfortably sat opposite from each other on the couches and just chatted.

The Foodaholic:  I know your passion for cooking began with your grandmother in Sweden and developed even further with your father in Ethiopia. How do you combine these two very different uses of ingredients and spices to make your own flavors and style?

Marcus Samuelsson: We ate natural foods in Sweden, and preserved them for upcoming seasons. I experienced fresh blueberries and apples in the Fall, and my grandmother would prepare mackerel, cod and salmon often. They were real flavors I identified with. Then, I began incorporating the spices I tasted in Ethiopia through my father, and it added a layer of heat to my dishes. I listened to and observed my audience in the restaurants and what they liked, and this is how I developed my style.

T.F.: With such an interesting combination of flavors, what does a typical dinner at home look like for your family?

M.S.: If I was making dinner at home, I'd probably cook Ethiopian food. To me, elevated comfort food is a staple. There would definitely be roasted fried chicken and greens, and perhaps some cured salmon.

T.F.: You come from two very different worlds. How would you say that has shaped you into who you are today - both in life as well as in the kitchen?

M.S.: I identify very closely with three places: Harlem, Ethiopia and Sweden. They are like the north star for me. My African roots give me a love for spicy food. My Swedish upbringing has given me an appreciation for seafood and pickling. Harlem brings a lively element to my life. The three together create warmth and passion, which is what cooking is all about. It is about aa mixture of ingredients and traditions.

T.F.: You've written three cookbooks, you have an app, and you're now promoting your memoir, "Yes, Chef". What gave you the inspiration to write this book?

M.S.: Because of the things I have experienced in my life, I have always been approached about complex issues such as adoption, interracial relationships, and growing up as a black child with a white family. Although I wanted to share my story, I felt I wasn't ready to when I was 25 or 26 years old. However, now was the time. "Yes Chef" is a celebration of life and overcoming obstacles, through my passion for cooking.  

T.F.: Your journey so far includes cooking for President Barrack Obama's first state dinner, and winning numerous recognitions, including multiple James Beard awards. What is the single most important piece of advice you would give someone just starting out as a chef in their culinary career?

M.S.: I would tell them that they must always remain passionate and curious. Cooking is about evolving. You get the opportunity to be invited into the community, to people's hearts, through your food, and that is a big deal. If you stop growing and changing, then your time is up.

T.F.: You currently own restaurants in New York City, Sweden, Costa Mesa and Chicago. They all have their distinct personalities. Which one would you say personifies you and your life the most?

M.S.:  While all of them personify me in some way, I would have to say the Red Rooster in Harlem resembles my life the most. There is a certain magic in that neighborhood that makes it unique from anywhere else. I feel proud of representing Harlem in my restaurant.

T.F.: What are your upcoming plans? Anything new on the horizon you'd like to share with my readers?

M.S.: I have a new cookbook coming out soon entitled "Off Duty", where I share over 150 of the recipes I cook at home. I also have a new show I will be cohosting starting in July, called The Feed. It will feature an adventurous look into the food culture in America. Of course, we have a new season of The Taste coming up, and I look forward to continuing to be a part of it.

I've been to several of Macy's cooking demos, and always enjoy them. As usual, everyone got a taste of Marcus' delicious recipes to sample, but some guests got to try them straight from his skillet. He was extremely engaging with the audience, with an honest wit and entertaining personality.

His natural affinity with kids lit up the room. Marcus called up the daughter of a fellow blogger to the kitchen and had her help him with the first dish. Everyone was laughing and enjoying the demonstration, and the time honestly just flew by.

He prepared three of his favorite comfort foods for us. The first was the Roof - Garden Tacos with Salmon. It was delicious, topped with a mildly spicy salsa verde that elevated the dish to new heights. As he cooked, he explained how comfort food changes with the decades, always meaning something different for everyone. He also gave the crowd some tips on transforming leftovers into something special by adding new ingredients and talked about the importance this has on the environment.

Roof - Garden Tacos with Salmon

Next up, we sampled his Peanut Noodles, mixed with fresh vegetables and drizzled with a tangy Peanut Vinaigrette. It was a light, refreshing dish, perfect for summer. Marcus stressed how the key is to slightly undercook the vegetables so that they retain a crunchy texture. This is a great meal when on the go since vegetables give us a boost of energy.

Peanut Noodles

The last dish we tried was the Coconut - Lime Curry Chicken with Coconut Rice. The seasoning on the chicken was fantastic, and the hint of coconut did not overwhelm the dish but rather complemented it. I can't wait to try it at home.

Coconut - Lime Curry Chicken with Coconut Rice

The cooking demo was a lot of fun. Marcus wowed us with details from when he cooked for the President at his first state dinner with the Prime Minister of India and described the courses he made and the inspiration behind them. We could also sense his pride and passion for Red Rooster, his Harlem restaurant, and the gratification he gets from interacting with his guests.

Want to know more about Marcus Samuelsson? Pick up a copy of his memoir,  "Yes Chef", and curl up for the summer reading about his amazing life. In the meantime, stay tuned for details on the next cooking demo taking place at a local Macy's so that you can savor the fun too.

I am a member of the Everywhere Society and Everywhere has provided me with compensation for this post about Macy's Culinary Council and Marcus Samuelsson. However, all thoughts and opinions expressed herein are my own.

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