Before Marcus Samuelsson turned 40, he had a three-star restaurant from the New York Times, was named Rising Star Chef of the Year and Best Chef in New York City by the James Beard Foundation and was asked to serve President Obama and his family at the State Dinner.
Not too bad.
You might assume a chef like that would have a huge ego, thanks to his many accomplishments, but Chef Samuelsson is about as humble as they come.
In his new memoir, “Yes, Chef,” he writes about the struggles he’s faced to get to this point and how each step has made him who he is today.
The story of Samuelsson’s life begins with perhaps one of the most heartbreaking statements to ever comprehend — “I have never seen a picture of my mother.”
When Samuelsson was 3 years old, he, his mother and his sister — all suffering from tuberculosis — walked 75 miles to a hospital in Ethiopia, where his mother later died. A year later, he and his sister were adopted into a Swedish middle-class home, where Samuelsson would first learn how to cook.
On Tuesday, Samuelsson came back to what was once the home of his restaurant, Aquavit, to perform a cooking demonstration and sign copies of his new book. Before he got cooking at the downtown Minneapolis Macy’s, we had a chance to chat with the chef about his journey.
Q: You’re back in Minneapolis, the city that was an earlier notch on your culinary timeline. What are you looking forward to in being back?
A: First of all, it’ll be great to see the tight community of people who supported and came out to Aquavit, as well as some former colleagues of mine. I’m also excited to see the evolution of the restaurant scene in Minneapolis that I’ve only read about.
Q: When you opened Aquavit here at the IDS, what were your initial thoughts of the area? How has that changed today?
A: It’s the largest Scandinavian population in the country and it was the perfect time to open Aquavit. In retrospect I think we did it too big and then after 9/11, people stopped going out on a higher level. But I look at it as a great success — it gave me the opportunity to learn about American food culture outside of NYC. I wouldn’t have had that kind of exposure without my time in Minneapolis.
Q: Your memoir is deeply moving and incredibly open. Why did you feel that now was the time to release this book?
A: I’m constantly evolving and trying to get better and “Yes, Chef” was a time for me to reflect on where I am, at the moment. It was five years in the making and I didn’t get it on the first try — writing a book is like composing a dish. At first you put things on a plate, then afterwards you decide what you want to add or take away from it. In the end it has to be yummy and delicious.
Q: Five years from start to finish? Wow. What was it like for you to see it come to fruition and hear the feedback that it’s been getting?
A: It’s obviously a humbling but great experience to go through. I’m a chef first so learning about the writing process was a whole new challenge for me. But the feedback has been incredible and I’m thrilled to be on the New York Times bestselling list. Most of all, it’s been great to tour the country and meet all the people that it has touched.
Q: I love that you named your book, “Yes, Chef,” and through your cooking and your celebrity judging, you’ve always seemed to remain so humble, even though your resume would certainly give you reason to be otherwise. Why is that important to you?
A: To remain humble? I think no matter how much success or failure you’ve had, it’s important to stay curious and keep striving to do better. I don’t ever think that something is “done” or “complete.” I look at every scenario and try to determine how I can do it better or differently the next time around.
Q: What advice would you give to young chefs looking to make it in the culinary world?
A: Love your craft, work hard and make sure you get a chef mentor.
Q: I’m a huge fan of “Chopped.” Having been both a judge and a competitor, how has the show inspired your own cooking?
A: I bring back what I learn on “Chopped” into the kitchen of Red Rooster and Ginny’s. I might have used an ingredient before, like Korean melon, but using it in competition inspires me to use it in new ways. I’ve brought back dishes I’ve made on “Chopped” to the restaurant and we might serve it as a lunch special one day to see if it works.
Q: What was it like cooking for the President and his family?
A: Well, it was an honor and a privilege to be invited to cook that State Dinner. Of course, the pressure was on to get it right and while plates were dropped, it only added to the experience of cooking mere feet away from the Oval Office. I was especially happy that President Obama liked the corn bread the best!
Q: To date, what has been your favorite meal/dinner to serve? And who were the recipients?
A: Definitely the State Dinner was my favorite meal to serve because it was a big task and a big honor and I think we executed it well.
Q: I’m curious. When you’re home with family or friends, what do you like to make?
A: If I’m home with my wife, we love to take time to make doro watt, the traditional Ethiopian chicken stew. It takes all day and we preserve the ritual of cutting up the chicken, boiling the eggs and making sure we enjoy the process. When my friends are over, it’s something easier like throwing a couple of great steaks on the grill, making some salads and popping open some ice cold beers.
Q: Any chance you’ll open up another restaurant in Minneapolis some day?
A: I have no idea. Right now I’m focusing on Rooster, Ginny’s and FoodRepublic.com and meeting all the folks on the “Yes, Chef” tour. Why would I ever say never ever? I like to think about the good that’s happening now and I’ll think about tomorrow, tomorrow.
Marcus Samuelsson’s memoir, “Yes, Chef” is available now. For more information, check out Samuelsson’s website. The chef will also make an appearance at the American Swedish Institute Tuesday afternoon and at Cooks of Crocus Hill in St. Paul for a book signing at 5:30 p.m., followed by a cooking demo and dinner at 6:30 p.m. For more information, head to www.cooksofcrocushill.com.