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.
And he uttered — and murmured and shouted — “Yes, chef,” more times than he can count, even after having a plate of scallops thrown at him by a chef who, it goes without saying, wasn’t happy.
But one never challenges the chef. Marcus, instead, vomited regularly, then went back to work. No one knew, he says. And he emerged the committed, disciplined chef he is today.
But Samuelsson says the phrase is much more than one spoken by abused line cooks in fear or shame. It’s not just the part of the scripted drama of “reality” TV and chefs from hell.
“ ‘Yes, chef’ — it’s the identity of my life. I’ve been saying it longer than anything else — ‘Oui, chef,’ ‘Yes, chef.’ People now say it to me,” Samuelsson says.
“It’s also a sense of belonging. I feel comfortable in the kitchen — my study, my lab, my church. ‘Yes, chef’ looks very harsh to people outside looking in, but it’s a tone issue. It can be said in the kindest way, with honor and respect.”
Nice guys don’t always finish last. Samuelsson has been in command of his own kitchens in New York for years now (He has two restaurants in Sweden.) And he refuses to make the super-heated atmosphere of abuse one of the ingredients of his success. Pot-throwing genius maniac, no; firm and resolute in the face of displeasure, yes.
“I don’t get abusive. It’s all how you inspire and lead.
“There were a lot of things that happened to me, as you see in Yes, Chef,” Samuelsson says.
“I condense the good things from the journey, not the bad stuff. When I was coming up, there were no women in the kitchen. I make sure that there are 50 percent women and 50 percent men in the kitchen.
“There were no blacks, no people of color in the kitchen when I was coming up. I will make sure it’s very diverse.
“All those people screaming and yelling, I make sure that I lead in a different way.
He writes in Yes, Chef about kitchen drama at the Red Rooster: “Tammy, my lead runner, walked out. “She said, ‘I feel like I’m being disrespected by some of my male co-workers.’ And I couldn’t argue with her, she was being disrespected, I just wish she had stayed and helped me fight it out.
“The Muslim brother didn’t want to take orders from a woman and he threw a racial slur at our white general manager, so he’s out. We couldn’t educate him, so we had to fire him.”
But there’s another reason some chefs can be over the top: “Kitchens are a dangerous place. You can get hurt. There’s hot food, knives, slippery floors, you have fast speed. The strictness comes from protecting the staff. You can’t fool around. That’s why you have to be firm.”
Samuelsson is using his considerable voice, talent, sense of history — and dreams of the future — to do more than serve good food. He’s nurturing a diverse generation of food professionals. He knows he’s a rare bird: “I’m sensitive to the fact that black people worked hard to get out of the kitchen. Now they have to work hard to get into the kitchen” — especially in positions of authority.
He’s taking on what he calls the “food chasm” in an increasingly affluent but still poor Harlem; and he’s making sure that kids see him in action and taste the results. In his own apartment kitchen in Harlem, he recreated for kids the meal he made for President Obama’s first state dinner, for the Indian prime minister.
He lived in Harlem for more than five years before opening the Red Rooster, which pays homage to a legendary speakeasy and is filled with the work of local artists, huge chalk-scribbled blackboards and dark wooden shelves crammed with books, preserves, knick-knacks, you name it. He walked the streets, talked to people, gave them cooking classes.
The menu is a mash-up of flavors — chimichurri on the chicken sandwich; pikliz, the spicy Haitian vinegar, with the jerk bacon and eggs; “Helga’s meatballs” with lingonberries and braised green cabbage.
His patrons make up that “gorgeous mosaic” former New York Mayor David Dinkins touted so long ago. “It’s about having people in the inner city say, ‘We can eat at a great restaurant,’ Samuelsson says, “not about building the best tasting menu.”