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Marcus Samuelsson: On Becoming A Top Chef

James Beard award-winning chef Marcus Samuelsson has been a judge on <em>Top Chef</em>, <em>Iron Chef America</em> and <em>Chopped</em>.
Courtesy of Marcus Samuelsson
James Beard award-winning chef Marcus Samuelsson has been a judge on Top Chef, Iron Chef America and Chopped.

A longer version of this interview was originally broadcast on June 28, 2012.

Marcus Samuelsson owns two restaurants in New York City and two restaurants in Sweden. He's cooked for President Obama and prime ministers, served as a judge on Top Chef and Chopped, and recently competed against 21 other chefs on Top Chef Masters. (He won.) He's the youngest chef ever to receive two three-star ratings from The New York Times.

Samuelsson's journey to some of the most celebrated restaurants in the U.S. was a long one — and started several thousand miles away. He was born in rural Ethiopia, where he contracted tuberculosis when he was 3 years old. His mother, who was also battling the disease, walked with Samuelsson and his sister 75 miles to a hospital in Addis Ababa. Though Samuelsson and his sister recovered, their mother did not. After her death, both Samuelsson children were adopted by a family in Sweden.

Samuelsson details his path from Sweden, where he learned to cook from his grandmother Helga, to New York City and the Food Network in his memoir, Yes, Chef — in which he pays homage to his Swedish family and to food.

"Food has always been in my life," he tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies. "Being born in Ethiopia, where there was a lack of food, and then really cooking with my grandmother Helga in Sweden. And my grandmother Helga was a cook's cook."

Helga's roasted chicken, pan-fried herring and black bread captivated Samuelsson, who spent many afternoons watching and helping his grandmother cook.

"We were jarring, pickling, there was always a bowl of chicken soup ready to be served, there was always sausage ready to be made," he says. "She was incessant all year round with cooking. ... It was really in those rituals that my love for food was built."

Samuelsson went to the top cooking schools in Sweden and then apprenticed in Switzerland and Austria. From there, he traveled to the U.S., where he started working at Aquavit, an award-winning Scandinavian restaurant in New York City. Shortly thereafter, Aquavit's head chef died, and Samuelsson was asked to take over the position — at 24 years old.

"I was nervous," he admits. "I didn't want to be the one to take a famous restaurant like Aquavit down. All my buddies in Sweden would know about that. But I also knew that if I worked really hard, I could do it. ... And we just kept cooking and hiring cooks. ... Eventually our tribe of misfits became our strongest weapon, and we developed this crew, and one day we got three stars from The New York Times."

Samuelsson went on to open the Japanese-influenced Riingo and later Red Rooster, which is located in Harlem. He also packed up and moved to be close to his restaurant.

"I thought, 'Why should food options be lowered once we cross 96th Street? That's unacceptable," he says. "We have to have better options today in terms of food. ... When you walk into a store in certain parts of Harlem, and they never have corn in corn season or apples in apple season — and that's unacceptable. Ethiopia has fresher food options. ... I wanted to be in Harlem and inspire other people to do the same."

Interview Highlights

On difficult chefs

"I've got plates thrown at me, I've got scallop marks on my face that I've gotten thrown at me. But not for one second would I challenge the chef for that. In today's age, that might sound crazy, but when you're in that moment, you don't challenge the chef. I considered myself very lucky to be picked to work in those kitchens. That was just what happened. I saw guys being beat down in the walk-in fridge. I've had colleagues that didn't know a way out. One kid cut his finger off because he thought that was his way out. It was very, very tough. ... I was very clear with the commitment. You had to give a lot, but I felt like I got much more back. And I still feel like that when I'm learning something. There always a sense of fear. Some of my colleagues took a lot of drugs. Some of them got drunk. For me, I started to throw up. I got this knot in my stomach, and I would throw up."

On being an African chef

"The narrative of a black chef didn't exist. Black people have always cooked and been part of serving, but not from a chef perspective. Not in these establishments — the three-star, highest establishments. So when they say 'Marcus Samuelsson' coming in — that's a Swedish name, and then they saw me, it was a shock. I was not applying for the dishwashing job — I was applying for a chef job. So being able to, in a nonthreatening way, and getting the job just like anybody else — they were just not used to it. They had just never seen it, ever."

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.