Celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson‘s career is like a celebration of culinary diversity. Whether he’s wowing New York food critics at his Swedish restaurant Aquavit; promoting African cuisine in his award-winning cookbook, ‘The Soul of a New Cuisine’; or acting as guest chef at the Obamas‘ first White House state dinner, the Ethiopian-born, Swedish-raised chef shows his reverence for the tastes and flavors of the world’s diverse food culture. He’s bringing this food philosophy to the latest season of Bravo’s ‘Top Chef Masters.’ Samuelsson took some time to chat with Black Voices about being on the show, what it was like to cook at the White House and stress-free entertaining.
As a young chef starting out, did you ever see yourself competing on television?
The reality is that when I started out as an intern in the late ’80s, the cooking industry had different dimensions, and Internet and television weren’t as strong as they are now. Internet didn’t exist. So if you wanted to be a chef, you worked in a restaurant, and that was your way up. Today there are so many other platforms. So, no, I didn’t envision it, but I think it’s important that you are flexible enough and curious enough to change with the times.
As “masters,” you and your competitors are at the top of your field. But did being on ‘Top Chef Masters’ ever make you feel like a novice again?
Absolutely. It’s very humbling, because every situation is different. You’re cooking in front of judges, not in front of customers, and cooking in front of 25 different cameras. That’s new for anybody. But I think that’s great about the ‘Top Chef Masters’ contest. You’re putting yourself out there, and part of the experience is to learn. I learned a lot.
On ‘Top Chef Masters,’ you play for charity instead of cash prizes. What charity did you choose?
UNICEF’s Tap Project. It’s very personal to me. It’s clean water. Clean and clear water. For me, coming from Ethiopia, we did not have clean or clear water in the village where I’m from. So it was easy for me to find a charity I wanted to work for.
What food philosophy did you bring to the show?
America is the most diverse cooking country in the world, and me being an immigrant and loving diversity, you know I brought that to the challenge. I think that it’s important, when you’re not cooking in a restaurant setting, to be flexible and have a wide repertoire to go to. The diversity has helped me.
What’s next for you after the show?
This fall [after Labor Day], I’m opening the Red Rooster. It’s an exciting time in my life to open a restaurant in Harlem. I live in Harlem, and it’s something I’ve always wanted to do. Harlem is known for Sylvia’s, but I think it’s time for a new great restaurant in Harlem. It will be a speakeasy basement. A farm-to-table approach with the food. It’s going to be an affordable restaurant with a big bar. We’ll focus on some food dishes you might think about when you’re in Harlem and also some new dishes you might not think about. Some surprises.
Last fall, you were selected to be the guest chef at the first White House state dinner. What was that like?
It was fantastic, obviously, because it was their first state dinner, and there was a lot at stake. And it was also honoring the prime minister of India, which is a big food country, so that inspired me a lot. [I was inspired by] what the first lady had thought about in terms of her gardens and her vision of fresh food. She’s out there every day talking about food and freshness and moving for kids, and so my menu reflected India, reflected the first lady’s thoughts, reflected America, and those were all of the things I put into that state dinner. And I was very proud to carry that torch that was important for them.
From cooking for the president and other dignitaries to pleasing guests at your restaurants, you must know a bit about the art of entertaining. What can you share?
First, you have to think about how you would like to entertain yourself, whether it’s for a state dinner or not. You always want to think about who you’re entertaining. Is it their 50th birthday party? Is it their retirement party? You want to think about the guest of honor? And then what does he or she like? Once you establish that, you want to think about yourself. Am I going to be bogged down in the kitchen all day, or am I going to plan the dinner out so that I can participate in the party. As a host, it’s important that you’re also there talking to your guests, talking to your friends. Make yourself available.
Do you entertain a lot? What do you make for your guests?
Me and my wife [model Maya Haile] entertain a lot in Harlem. We have a big grill outdoors and a big patio, and we love cooking outside. Maybe we do fish burgers on the grill or maybe my wife does an Ethiopian chicken dish. I love just cooking outside and buying whatever is in season, getting a nice rub or marinade and just putting something on the grill — eating just really fresh. When you’re cooking outside, you don’t have to put that much labor into it because it’s all about getting together and eating fresh food.