Last Sunday morning, Florence Fabricant and Marcus Samuelsson took to the stage of the John Drew Theater in East Hampton, N.Y., for Guild Hall’s series "Stirring the Pot: Conversations with Culinary Celebrities." The discussion centered on Samuelsson’s life and career as a chef, which he has chronicled in his new memoir Yes, Chef.
Samuelsson was thoughtful, funny, and charming as he discussed a wide range of topics with Fabricant, a writer and longtime contributor to The New York Times, who was an able and unobtrusive interviewer. Samuelsson is the owner and chef of Red Rooster Harlem in New York City. He first gained praise when he took over the kitchen of Manhattan’s Aquavit and subsequently earned three stars from The New York Times. He was only 23 at the time.
Samuelsson was born in Ethiopia. He and his sister were adopted by a Swedish couple when their mother died of tuberculosis so he moved to Sweden, where he discovered his passion for cooking in the kitchen of his maternal grandmother. Samuelsson studied at the Culinary Institute in Gothenburg, Sweden, and cooked in Swedish kitchens until he moved to France to apprentice in some of the world’s most renowned restaurants. Then it was on to New York and Aquavit.
The discussion lasted 45 minutes with a Q&A period for the audience at the end. Samuelsson touched on the most important appliance for a home cook (a good stove, or "cooktop"), portion sizes, and the focus on serving proteins in the U.S., and gave his advice for how to execute a successful dinner party at home (plan and prepare ahead, and cook from your heritage.) Here are a few highlights:
On how to cook: "Cook with your spiritual compass. Use both your feminine side and your masculine side when you are cooking. This is most important for men, because we are all basically 8-year-olds."
On cooking with seasonal ingredients and the foraging movement in Scandinavia: "Seasonality is important. Cooking and eating what is in season makes a big difference. In France, when asparagus is in season, it will appear in seven different dishes on a menu. They celebrate it. Still, every kid in Sweden has gone out and picked lingonberries — you just didn’t announce 'I am foraging.'"
On what inspired him to open Red Rooster Harlem: "Harlem gave us our cues for what we should do with the restaurant. We just looked to our neighborhood. And Roberta’s in Bushwick, Brooklyn, really inspired us. I think Roberta’s is the most important restaurant in the country. They did not aspire to Manhattan. They welcomed everyone, but they cooked for their neighborhood. They got people to go to Bushwick."
On Sylvia Woods, founder of the Harlem landmark Sylvia’s, who died in July: "She was a local hero and a big influence on us. We realized we could hire locally for Red Rooster because of her."
On women in the culinary world: "Women have had the most influence in American food. Just look at Julia Child."
On the Japan and the next big issue in food: "Japan has been a huge influence in the world of food. From their focus on ingredients to how we treat, cook, and eat fish. Their last influence will be how we view protein. The proper size for a piece of sushi is not enormous. We need to move away from 10-ounce steaks. Changing the views on protein will be a 20-year effort."
On executing a successful dinner party at home: "If you spend the night in the kitchen, it will be a disaster and no one will have any fun. Plan ahead. Start thinking about it a week in advance. And cook based on your heritage. Your friends have been around the world and they will appreciate it more. Really go back to yourself."