Ruth Reichl Interviews Chef Marcus Samuelsson
The pair discusses his new memoir, his troubled past, his restaurant in Harlem, and the modern chef
Chef Marcus Samuelsson hopped onto the stage at Barnes and Noble in Union Square wearing a colorful plaid shirt under a pinstripe vest, bright red pants, and best of all, a huge smile. He certainly has a lot to be happy about — Samuelsson just released his memoir Yes, Chef, recently opened his restaurant Red Rooster in Harlem, and is climbing the ladder to worldwide success for his cooking and cheery personality. Samuelsson joined longtime friend and food writer Ruth Reichl at Barnes and Noble for an interview about the recent launch of his book.
Reichl first prompted Samuelsson to discuss the first line of his book. It begins with a powerful statement — "I’ve never seen a picture of my mother" — which speaks to an emotional childhood in Ethiopia and subsequent adoption by a Swedish family. Despite the fact that his Swedish parents were academics, Samuelsson followed his heart and pursued cooking.
This path would lead him through grueling experiences in the kitchen, oftentimes compromising his physical and psychological well-being. In his interview with Reichl, he described cooking as tribal; either you belong to the tribe or you don’t, and those who don’t never make it in the food world. He told the audience that he finds joy in giving service and hospitality, which is what led him to want to cook. First, however, he had to prove that a chef of color was worthy of being in the kitchen. This racial obstacle, he said, has been very difficult over the years.
Samuelsson then discussed cooking in the modern world. Many people today question the value of recipe creation, since one Google search can produce thousands of recipes. But Samuelsson explained that although "the value of recipes is diminished," the true power is in the process. Without knowledge of how to cook, you are bound to fail. This distinction is what sets amateur chefs apart from professional ones. "Practice, practice, practice," he preached.
Finally, the question on everyone’s mind: Why did Samuelsson choose Harlem to open his restaurant, instead of lower down in Manhattan like many other famous chefs? Samuelsson answered that his goal is to "change the footprint of dining" and make positive relationships and associations with Harlem. He opened Red Rooster in Harlem to create an aspiration for that community. According to Samuelsson, if New York City is the best place in the world, every part of the city must be at its best.