The fried chicken at the Red Rooster in Harlem, N.Y., says it all — or, at least, speaks volumes: Chef Marcus Samuelsson cures the bird in lemon water and salt, because that’s what he learned from his Swedish grandmother Helga. It’s tenderized in buttermilk, because that’s how the black Southern cooks did it — still do. But the chicken is also bathed in coconut milk, as many African cooks would do. Then there’s the berbere, a spicy-hot blend of ground chiles, allspice, ginger, cardamom, coriander, fenugreek and whatever else the cook fancies. Ethiopian cooks rely on it every bit as much as their counterparts in America hew to salt and pepper.
These are the flavors of Samuelsson’s journey, of his tributes to the past, his respect, gratitude and love for history and, most important, family.
“My family’s always been with me on my journey, behind me, next to me in all my endeavors,” Samuelsson says in a telephone interview.
“We talked a lot about how I wanted to create a place that was more than just a restaurant and have more interaction in the community. They knew the challenge that that would be.”
Samuelsson, 41, writes with humor, thought and honesty about his journey of a lifetime in his memoir, Yes, Chef. He’ll be in Miami making two book-tour appearances Thursday. He’ll hook up with old buddies, like Hedy Goldsmith, award-winning pastry chef at Michael’s Genuine; and perhaps Alfred Portale, who’s running Gotham Steak at the Fontainebleau Hotel.
Born in a hut in Meki, Ethiopia, Samuelsson was baby Kassahun when he, his older sister, Fantaye, and his mother contracted tuberculosis. It was 1972. His mother hoisted baby Kassahun, took Fantaye by the hand and walked 75 miles — dodging wild, hungry animals and men of ill intent — to a hospital in Addis Ababa.
Her children survived. She did not.
A nurse took them home and registered them with an adoption agency. Eventually, brother and sister were adopted by a couple in Goteberg, Sweden. Lennart and Anne Marie Samuelsson could not have children and cast a wide net to adopt.
When they got off the plane in Stockholm, Kassahun and Fantaye became Marcus and Linda.
The outlines of Samuelsson’s story are widely known, but in his book he takes charge like the chef he is, adding meat and a delicious sauciness to the bones, giving it his “authorship.” As an adult, he found that he and his sister were not orphans, and he was reunited with his birth father, who he had been told was killed in the war with Eritrea. He is devoted to his wife, Ethiopian model Maya Haile; he has a Swedish daughter fathered years before he landed in the United States; he helped her financially, but did not raise her. They, too, have recently reentered each other’s lives.
His grandmother Helga was a meticulous cook, his mom, not so much. As a child, he adored the pickling, peeling, stirring, chopping and jarring with which Helga tasked him as she went out to kill chicken. His father, an academic, fished during the summers.
Samuelsson trained at fine European culinary institutions. But his work in a cruise-ship galley took him to Mexico, Singapore and South American countries, where he saw that flavors and techniques of brown and black peoples were every bit as valid as those of Europe. On to New York, where he landed, through a friend’s recommendation, at the vaunted Aquavit. He took over the kitchen at 24 and became the youngest chef ever to receive three stars from The New York Times.