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Nathan Rawlinson

Making an Indelible Marc

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By Connie Gentry May 2014 Chef Profiles

Distinctive inflections from African and European cultures combine in a soft-spoken cadence that captures the heart and soul of Chef Marcus Samuelsson’s heritage, even as his every sentence is delivered with a sense of passionate urgency—a trait indigenous to the city he now calls home.

Born in Ethiopia, raised in Scandinavia, today Chef Samuelsson, 44, is every bit a New Yorker—and proud of it, relishing his newly planted roots in Harlem.

“I’ve lived in New York most of my adult life,” says the chef, “but obviously I have a lot of global influences. Being from Africa will always be a part of my food, being raised in Scandinavia was an incredible opportunity that I bring to my narrative. My grandma’s meatballs are in my restaurants in Gothenburg [Sweden] and in Harlem.”

Asked to describe his driving passion, Chef Samuelsson replies: “To do change … it’s not talking about change, it’s doing change.”

How does he “do change”? One way is by creating jobs in his acclaimed Harlem restaurants, Red Rooster and Ginny’s Supper Club. “I am proud we have restaurants with great food in Harlem, but the fact that we provide jobs in a community that’s at 18 percent* unemployment, that’s something I take a lot of pride in,” he says. “We hire 150 people [in Harlem] and this gives people aspiration and inspiration. In this way, we’re not just talking about change, we’re doing change—and it’s in the community where my wife and I live.”

Immigrant-Driven Cuisine

At Red Rooster, Chef Samuelsson homed in on American cuisine, and in particular Southern cuisine. Prodded to define his cooking style, he says it’s simply Americana, which by definition means there’s nothing simplistic about it.

“Americana—it’s an immigrant-driven cuisine,” he explains. “We have all been influenced by immigrants bringing major change to our palates, and Harlem is immigrant-driven as well. There are different types of migrations—people from the South coming up North, and now people from the North moving down South—it all affects our palate.”

Ironically, Chef Samuelsson’s Scandinavian upbringing in some ways mirrors the initial founding of Harlem as a Dutch community—but one that evolved over the centuries into a melting pot of multi-cultural dynamics.

“This great migration has always had an impact on Harlem as a place, and I want to capture that migration in terms of its food,” he continues. “I’m not Southern, but I’m inspired by the [Southern] culture, and when you look at a map of Harlem today, there is a great West African community that’s been a part of Harlem for 20 years. There are also great Irish, Jewish, and Italian communities in Harlem—and these combine with the African-American heritage.”

While Red Rooster is a traditional restaurant, its sister venue, Ginny’s Supper Club, is a spirited reincarnation of a 1920s speakeasy, even located in the space beneath Red Rooster—much like Prohibition Era speakeasies were camouflaged by more acceptable enterprises. The menus are quite similar, albeit more expansive at Red Rooster than at Ginny’s, but featuring many of the same dishes, priced the same in both venues: Coconut-Cauliflower Soup, with beech mushrooms, water chestnuts, and cilantro ($11); the Southern classic Chicken & Waffle, served with chicken liver butter and bourbon maple syrup ($16); Mac & Greens, with Gouda, New York Cheddar, and caramelized onions ($18); and the aforementioned Helga’s Meatballs, with lingonberries, braised green cabbage, and mashed potatoes ($23).

The difference is in the dining experiences. “Music is a major part of what we do at Ginny’s,” Chef Samuelsson says. “At Red Rooster we have music, but at Ginny’s the music is front and center.”

Quality Food in Casual Settings

In addition to Red Rooster Harlem and Ginny’s Supper Club, the Marcus Samuelsson Group includes fast-casual concepts strategically located in landmark venues: American Table Café and Bar in New York’s Lincoln Center, Uptown Brasserie in the JFK Airport, and Marc Burger inside Macy’s stores in Chicago and Costa Mesa, California. Chef Samuelsson also owns and operates three upscale full-service restaurants in Sweden: Kitchen and Table in Uppsala, American Table Brasserie and Bar in Stockholm, and Norda Bar & Grill in Gothenburg.

Far from thinking the geographically diverse portfolio has spread his talents thin, Chef Samuelsson says, “For a chef to have the opportunity to have a broad conversation with the public is a privilege. Sometimes it’s in Harlem and you sit down, and sometimes it’s at the airport, where you still want quality food. For me, quality dining can happen in so many different parts of our life, especially today when we live in a fast pace. Sometimes when you’re going to see a great show at Lincoln Center, having a soup and sandwich can be perfect.”

“My point is this,” he continues, “Food with great thought and value for the money is something I’ve always been excited about, and it is something that inspires me.”

With the opening of his Scandinavian eateries, Chef Samuelsson was also inspired to take American hospitality to the Swedish communities where his culinary career began—sharing not only the Americana cuisine he’s known for in Harlem, but also a more relaxed approach to service.

“The sensibilities and how way we serve is very American, [which is very different] from the way it’s typically done in Europe,” says Chef Samuelsson. “I love American hospitality—it is fun, uplifting, and inclusive. Yes, I absolutely want to bring that to Scandinavia, because in Europe service is more strict: You serve from the left, you pay from the right. In America, it’s more family-driven, and I want families to come to my restaurants in Scandinavia. We want to be part of celebrating a 5-year-old’s birthday just as much as an 85-year-old’s birthday—and that sets the tone for a very inclusive experience. In Europe, dining out is a little more traditional, more business- or social-driven, and I like that in America it’s more family-driven. It’s definitely a more diverse [atmosphere] in America, and I bring that diversity and the casual aspect of fine dining to Europe.”

While he admires the casual nature of American hospitality, there is nothing casual in Chef Samuelsson’s business strategy. “We are very cautious about our growth,” he says, “because we know it’s not about growing as fast as we can, it’s about having the right conversation and having impact with what we touch. Lincoln Center is the greatest cultural center in the world, but it took years to plan [our restaurant]. I carefully pick my partners. I respect opportunity, and we grow carefully.”

The Next Chapter

Each property he develops—from his restaurants to his cookbooks—is an opportunity to engage in conversation with the world, to add another chapter to the narrative that is Marcus. Although he says writing a cookbook is not an easy feat, often taking him three to four years to complete, the chef is hard at work on his latest endeavor: a cookbook that will share his passions for home cooking, slated to publish in November.

“When I did the Scandinavian cookbook [Aquavit and the New Scandinavian Cuisine], no one knew about Scandinavian dining so I wanted to open that conversation,” Chef Samuelsson says. “For the African cookbook [The Soul of a New Cuisine], I wanted something that would inspire African families to know what other cultures in Africa are doing. But also, I wanted to start a conversation in America in terms of what the food scene is like in Africa.”

In his estimation, it’s time for the conversation about his homeland to expand from one focused only on aid, to one that explores and celebrates the culture of Africa. There needs to be “a clear shifting from aid to culture,” he suggests, “and food is one of the great ways to do that.”

Make no mistake, the chef’s intention is to broaden the understanding of Africa—not diminish the importance of relief efforts for his native land. In fact, he and his wife, Maya Gate Haile, who also claims Ethiopian heritage, recently founded the Three Goats Organization—a nonprofit committed to providing Ethiopia with sustainable access to vital resources.

“We go to very challenging environments to give them clean water and access to food and education,” says Chef Samuelsson. “That’s something we take for granted here in this country, but many places they don’t—and young girls should not have to wake up at three o’clock in the morning and walk three hours to get clean water.”

Reconciling the misperceptions and prejudices that surround diverse cultures is a theme throughout the conversation, and Chef Samuelsson even draws parallels between his role and that of his biological father: “My father is a tribal leader in Africa and I am the leader of the Marcus Samuelsson Group, and also have a lot of people behind me,” he says.

The Marcus Samuelsson Group employs 600–700 people, and meets the challenges of diversity in the restaurant industry head on: “Racism is very real; whether you are black or Asian or a woman, racism stares us in the eyes,” states Chef Samuelsson. Dealing with prejudices in his own life strengthened his resolve to make change happen in the workplace. “I knew when I was in the driver’s seat and ready to hire people, I would have a 50/50 kitchen [50 percent women and 50 percent men]. I knew I would hire people regardless of their backgrounds, and that sets a clear goal for how to work in a modern way.”

Today’s workplace should be defined by balance, he asserts, insisting, “You are going to have a better organization [when the business is] based on diversity. That’s not a provocative thought, that’s reality. Something that is fun in one culture can be very offensive to another culture, but how would I know that if I’m not surrounded by diverse people?”

Chef Samuelsson is also committed to working with the Careers through Culinary Arts Program (C-CAP), which provides education to under-served youth and young women from challenging inner-city backgrounds. “C-CAP is about giving them life skills through cooking, and that is a great way to help them get into this industry,” he says.

“It’s something I care about a lot because I had mentors who believed in me—mentors like Leah Chase at Dooky Chase’s in New Orleans and Charlie Trotter were very helpful to me when I came to this country—and that’s why I can have this conversation today.”

*According to the New York State Department of Labor, the New York City unemployment rate was 9.7 percent in January 2013, and an estimated 8.1 percent in January 2014. Historically, Harlem’s unemployment has been double the New York City unemployment rate.