Marcus Samuelsson is a serious guy. And a serious talent. Born in Ethiopia and raised in Sweden, he has achieved success and fame in America as a chef, restaurateur, and television personality. Nilou Motamed, global food, travel, and lifestyle expert, says: “Marcus brims with the kind of unbridled enthusiasm that you don’t often see. When you combine talent, charm, style, and genuine kindness — as Marcus does inimitably — you’re bound for greatness.”
On the occasion of his latest restaurant opening in Bermuda, we sat down to talk.
The Daily Meal: What are we doing in Bermuda?
Marcus Samuelsson: This is an incredible property with an incredible history, so when the Greens [the family funding the $90 million renovation of the historic Hamilton Princess hotel] came to me about two and half years ago, I wanted to learn more about it. And when they showed me their vision and plan, I wanted to be a part of it right away. I always wanted to have a seafood restaurant. I came up through seafood at Aquavit. And when I looked at that building there [pointing] I said, “I would love to have a restaurant right there, with a big grill, and just cook fresh fish.” And that’s pretty much what we’re doing. Twice a day, two fishermen come up with about 35 pounds of fish, each delivery, and that’s what we put on that grill.
So we’re here because you felt the energy of the place and the space?
And also the history of the Hamilton Princess, too, is the most exciting of any hotel. Even more so, the new history that the hotel and the island are about to make with the America’s Cup. And the renovation. For us to be a tiny part at all of that journey is amazing.
You know, it’s very rare you meet people who say “this is what we’re going to do” and they actually put their big dream up and they do it. Everything that this family told me, and beyond, they have done. They have really been supportive of enhancing our vision. So when someone gives you those tools, for me, it’s like, just go to work.
What is the concept of the restaurant?
It’s dominated by the daily catch and seafood that the island gives us. And we have this incredible wood-burning grill that I’ve always wanted to have. So it’s really fish-based, but then we’ll also have things like a T-bone of veal we glaze with a little bit of jerk spices. We will definitely have the DNA of the island. We use a lot of local. There’s an organic farm here where we get all of our vegetables, from carrots to Bermuda onions to fresh herbs. So it’s really this idea of using the land and using the water as much as possible.
It was important for us to do something real. We want to build a real cosmopolitan experience. Some people are dressed up, some are not. Some people are hanging out at the bar, some are having full dinner. That energy of going into a real restaurant matters. You know, in New York, you walk into that room, it’s like “yes, I’m at the restaurant.” That energy is unique. It’s like, “I want to be in there… I want to go.”
You’ve achieved an enormous amount. You’re a young guy. What else do you aspire to? What else are you looking forward to accomplishing?
I love cooking, but I also love people on both sides of our industry: the guests and the young people coming up. And when you can find a space where you belong in that, I enjoy going to work whether it’s Bermuda, New York City, or Stockholm. It’s the same experience of making someone happy. Or being part of realizing a young cook’s dream or a young server’s dream who didn’t even have a passport before we met… or were on the wrong side of the law before we met, and now has an incredible importance in our space in the restaurant. So being on all of those sides for me I can start measuring where I belong. I have a role there. I was a 19-year-old cook and somebody opened the doors that allowed me to go abroad. When I see a 20-something kid who has no idea how to get out and I say “come to Stockholm, come to Bermuda,” that part I enjoy a lot. And food is the way that I can communicate that.
You know, I look at people like Daniel (Boulud) who are senior to me… his energy… I don’t know a 19-year-old kid who has energy like Daniel. Because he brings so much joy to people and he gets joy from doing that. So I admire Jean-Georges (Vongerichten), Daniel, those people who you can easily say 10 years ago “what are you doing, you can just stop.” I feel part of their tribe. I enjoy, I aspire to, and I’m inspired by them.
There’s a place for everybody in this industry. And chefs are really oddballs in many ways. But we figure out a way to actually make it work.
Thinking about your restaurants in Bermuda, Stockholm, and Harlem, does it take balls to open in those places or is it more about being a visionary?
I think it’s both. I mean, for me, it’s always balls to start a business in New York City when there’s always a changing landscape and you get tested. But Harlem is about a vision that I truly, firmly believe in. I tripled down: I moved there, I opened Red Rooster with 150 employees, and also Street Bird with 40 employees. That’s a triple-down bet. But it’s also because I believe in Harlem, and also because I love New York City, and why wouldn’t I (re)discover an incredible place like Harlem? And if I can guide that, crack that door open, through food and experiences beyond food, and bring people together… we have that opportunity.
What has it been like working on The Taste?
First of all, hanging with Ludo [Lefebvre], Tony [Bourdain] and Nigella [Lawson]… it’s fun. I mean, we’re on each other constantly. Constantly. We’re so different. Ludo and I are competitive. Tony’s not that competitive. So it’s fun. And Tony takes us to dinner every night to the coolest place in LA. So we’re having a blast. That’s on the personal side.
Again, it’s helping chefs, helping young students, within the concept of the show. And I’ve hired a lot of cooks from The Taste. The upside is obviously that more people know who we are and know the restaurant and come through New York. It builds the brand. The downside is that when I started cooking, there was one way to be a chef, and that was to go work in a restaurant. Everyone who came into our industry was a cook. Today there are people coming into the industry who just want to get into TV. And that’s not the way to start.
Do you cook at home? And what’s your go-to dish?
My wife and I cook a lot. I like when she cooks Ethiopian food and I sort of riff on that. So maybe she cooks some Ethiopian stew and then I do an Ethiopian pasta the next day. It’s a lot about lentils and spices and healthy breads, and the next day I do something out of that.
Speaking of healthy, you’re surrounded by food. What is your regimen?
I do work out a lot, but I also eat fish four days a week. I would say I’m a “two-mealer a day.”
And for working out?
Mostly running. I can bring that with me anywhere.
What are your earliest food memories from Ethiopia?
Eating chicken stews. Eating with my hands. Eating the injera bread with chickpea stews. Stuff like that I still enjoy eating.
And from Sweden?
Herring. Herring. Only the fish. Herring. Mackerel. Salmon. Cod. We smoked it. We pickled it. We preserved it.
What can I make with the most taste, the fewest ingredients, and the least effort?
I would just take fresh fish, slice it, put lemon and berbere on it. Ethiopian spice, lemon juice and a fresh piece of fish.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
Work hard, play hard.