Ethiopia-born, Sweden-raised chef Marcus Samuelsson moved to New York in 1994, and after leading the kitchen at Aquavit and receiving two James Beard Awards, he launched his Harlem hot spot Red Rooster in 2010. Thirty-four restaurants and seven books later, he opened Marcus in Montreal’s new Four Seasons Hotel this spring. We caught up with him on his culinary heritage, diversity in the restaurant industry and that time he cooked for President Obama.
enRoute Where does your love of cooking come from?
Marcus Samuelsson My family always cooked – I learned from my grandmother, and my father’s side were fishermen, so food and nature were valued and celebrated. Anything that was on our table, whether it was bread or soup, we made it, down to the stock.
ER How do you incorporate culinary traditions from Ethiopia and Sweden in your food?
MS I use a lot of techniques from both cultures, like Swedish pickling, as well as Ethiopian processes like preserving with spices, smoking and fermenting butter.
ER You sometimes host gospel brunches in your restaurants – how important is music to your cooking?
MS In Ethiopia, meals don’t happen without music. It’s not just a backdrop in our restaurants, it’s part of our character, it’s like we’re welcoming guests into our home. When I started out, there weren’t a lot of chefs who looked like me, so I wanted to listen to Black musicians, like A Tribe Called Quest and Nina Simone.
ER How has that lack of diversity in the food industry affected your career?
MS In my early days, the food world was far less diverse. But that was the path in my journey – every generation has its own. I stand on the shoulders of people who fought for civil rights, and the next generation will stand on the shoulders of people fighting for change now. The best thing I can do is set the table for the next generation, for more women and people of colour to feel engaged in the industry.
ER What drew you to the culinary scene in Montreal?
MS In the last 15 years, chefs have done a great job of putting the city on the map, like the guys at Joe Beef, but also restaurants like Provisions that use hyperlocal ingredients. I’m looking forward to working with Canadian oysters, walleye and scallops, as well as root vegetables from Quebec.
ER What excites you about the city?
MS Elements other than food inspire me, like the architecture of Habitat 67. I also love how people enjoy eating – they’re not sitting there on their phones, they’re dining together and that experience falls under entertainment, which is an important part of the city’s character.
ER What’s the most memorable meal you have cooked?
MS It would have to be the one I made for President Obama. His guest was the Prime Minister of India and the meal acted as a meeting of their cultures. It started with salad with lots of local vegetables – I got to use some from Michelle Obama’s garden – followed by lentil soup, cornbread and chapatis, and pumpkin pie made with Indian spices.
ER Where would you move for the food?
MS Mexico: You will get incredible aguachile in Baja and then, farther down the coast, amazing fresh fish tostada made by women who would never think of themselves as chefs. It reminds me of going to churches in Harlem and hearing the beautiful singing voices of people who don’t consider themselves musicians.
ER Which dish would you travel for?
MS When I’m on a 12-hour flight to Japan, seven of those are spent thinking about where I’ll get sushi and ramen. There are also meals that stick out in my memory, like the vegetarian tasting menu I had at Alain Ducasse’s Le Louis XV at the Hôtel de Paris Monte-Carlo in the 1990s. I was 22 and couldn’t afford wine, but the concept was so ahead of its time and it changed my life.
ER Do you have a favourite food souvenir?
MS I love pickles because they’re like a postcard of a place. Shopping for miso-cured pickles in a Tokyo department store is an amazing experience.