A Chef’s Life

Reader's Digest (India) - - Contents - MAR­CUS SA­MUELS­SON

The culi­nary artist re­counts a life of su­gar and spice.

AS A YOUTH HE WAS DRIVEN BY NAKED AM­BI­TION, AS AN ADULT HE FI­NALLY RE­AL­IZED WHAT WAS RE­ALLY IM­POR­TANT

I was used to com­pe­ti­tion. But this was dif­fer­ent. I’d been nom­i­nated, along with four oth­ers, for the ti­tle of best chef in New York.

Per­haps my ner­vous­ness came from be­ing caught off guard. I’d been pre­oc­cu­pied with prob­lems at my restau­rant, Aqua­vit, and hadn’t stopped to think about this mo­ment. I’d had to rent a tux that af­ter­noon—a stiff polyester num­ber that moved with a mind of its own—and hus­tle to get there on time. Now I was in a room with my idols, and it fi­nally dawned on me that I was be­ing con­sid­ered one of them.

Yet I couldn’t help think­ing of who wasn’t in the room: my grand­mother, Helga, the first per­son to show me the pos­si­bil­i­ties of food, and my fa­ther, Len­nart. She’d been gone ten years and he’d been gone seven, but in ev­ery dish I cre­ated and ev­ery de­ci­sion I made, I was liv­ing out the lessons they taught me.

I had spo­ken to my mother ear­lier that af­ter­noon. She’d called from Gote­borg, Swe­den, be­cause she’d heard from my sis­ter Anna that I was up for, as she put it, “some kind of award.”

“What will you wear?” she asked. “Don’t worry,” I re­as­sured her. “No one cares. It’s all about the food.” “Just be com­fort­able, okay?” I was the far­thest thing from com­fort­able.

Lidia opened the en­ve­lope and an­nounced the win­ner. “Mar­cus Sa­muels­son. Aqua­vit.”

The win­ner’s medal­lion was solid brass, hung on a yel­low rib­bon. When Lidia draped it around my neck, I thought: It’s so heavy. And why wouldn’t it be? Its name­sake was the fa­ther of Amer­i­can gas­tron­omy, the man who in­tro­duced Amer­i­cans to fine French cui­sine in the 1950s.

As I looked out at the au­di­ence and heard the ap­plause, I felt a strong con­nec­tion to the past, a sense of the roots that had given life to the flavours I cre­ate in my cook­ing. I was born in Ethiopia, raised in Swe­den, trained in Europe. But now like Beard, I was Amer­i­can.

LIT­TLE HELPER

I have never seen a pic­ture of my bi­o­log­i­cal mother. In 1972, the year my

mother died, an Ethiopian could go her whole life with­out hav­ing her pic­ture taken.

I was two when a tu­ber­cu­lo­sis epi­demic hit Ethiopia. My mother was sick, I was sick. We were cough­ing up blood. So my mother put me on her back, and de­spite her fa­tigue and fever, she and my older sis­ter Fantaye walked more than 120 kilo­me­tres to the hos­pi­tal in Ad­dis Ababa.

Thou­sands of peo­ple stood on the street, sick and dy­ing, await­ing care. I do not know how my mother got us into the hos­pi­tal. I do know that she never left and that it was a mir­a­cle Fantaye and I got out alive.

At the time, Len­nart and Anne Marie Sa­muels­son of Gote­borg had a daugh­ter, a fos­ter child named Anna born to a Swedish woman and a Ja­maican man. Now they wanted a son. My fa­ther filled out adop­tion forms and waited for an or­phaned boy who was seek­ing a home.

I’d been hos­pi­tal­ized for months, and was on the mend when Anne Marie and Len­nart got the call say­ing I might be up for adop­tion. It wasn’t just me, though; I had my four-yearold sis­ter. Our Ethiopian so­cial worker didn’t want to sep­a­rate us. We had al­ready lost our mother, she told the Sa­muelssons; it would be best if we didn’t lose each other now. Yes, Anne Marie and Len­nart said. Yes, why not two?

My new par­ents had al­ready cho­sen our Swedish names. I was born Kas­sahun but would be called Mar­cus. Fantaye would be­come Linda. On the way home from the air­port, I sat in the front seat of our par­ents’ car, sleep­ing on our new mother’s lap.

For Mom, putting din­ner on the ta­ble was just another thing to get done in the course of a busy day. But my mother’s par­ents were a dif­fer­ent story. We called Helga and Ed­vin Jon­s­son Mor­mor and Mor­far— mean­ing mother’s mother and mother’s fa­ther—and loved them like the ador­ing set of bonus par­ents that they were.

At Mor­mor’s house the aroma of freshly baked bread hit you as soon as you walked in. She would be chop­ping veg­eta­bles for din­ner,

stir­ring a pot of chicken stock or grind­ing pork for sausages. If I had to pin­point my ear­li­est food mem­ory it would not be a sin­gle taste, but a smell—my grand­mother’s house.

My grand­mother had worked as a maid for up­per­class Swedish fam­i­lies, and from them she learnt how to make restau­rant-wor­thy meals. She treated her house like it was her own food fac­tory. She made ev­ery­thing her­self: jams, pick­les, breads. She bought whole chick­ens and game an­i­mals from the butcher and broke them down into chops and roasts at home.

I loved Satur­days as a kid. Satur­days meant foot­ball prac­tice for me and ice skat­ing and horse­back rid­ing for my sis­ters—and din­ner at my grand­mother’s house. As soon as I got home from foot­ball I’d jump on my bike and speed over to Mor­mor’s house. She’d greet me: “Come, I have a job for you.” And she would set me to string rhubarb or shell peas.

Her sig­na­ture dish was roast chicken. Af­ter we plucked the bird, my grand­mother would salt it gen­tly, then put it in the base­ment where it’s cold and dry. As a chef you leave the chicken by the air con­di­tioner and the skin gets dry, which helps you when you roast it. Same ba­sic prin­ci­ple.

When she was ready to cook, she showed me how to add spices that we’d rub all over the skin. We’d put car­rots in the roast­ing dish, mak­ing a bed for the chicken. She’d stuff the bird with in­gre­di­ents that came from her gar­den, then sew up the chicken and put it in the oven. Ev­ery­thing that was left over—the ex­tra skin, the neck, the gi­blets—went into the pot for soup.

Later that night, she’d serve the meal, al­ways giv­ing credit to “my lit­tle helper,” and I was al­ways ex­cited to see the meal pre­sented on her sil­ver tray. The roast chicken I make to­day is a ho­mage to hers. I use a few dif­fer­ent in­gre­di­ents, but the lay­er­ing of flavour and the tech­niques? They’re all hers.

CUT THAT HURTS

It wasn’t un­til we got to school that the ques­tion of race be­came real for me and my sis­ter Linda, in part be­cause Anna had al­ready in­te­grated the Sa­muels­son house­hold. One time the class bully threw a bas­ket­ball at me and called, “Hey Mar­cus, teach

us how to play negerball.” There is a Swedish cookie called negerboll, made from co­coa pow­der, but that boy wasn’t call­ing me a cookie.

My best friend Mats picked up the ball and stood in front of me. “Leave him alone,” Mats growled, look­ing like he might shove the bas­ket­ball down the boy’s throat.

Sports was the great equal­izer. Mats and I jumped on the skate­board craze, and later we fell in love with foot­ball. When we were 11, Mats and I both be­gan to play for the Gote­borg Ath­let­ics & Sports As­so­ci­a­tion ( GAIS), our city’s pre­mier foot­ball team.

For the next four years Mats and I prac­tised ev­ery day. I made friends from Yu­goslavia, Tur­key, Latvia— friends with darker skin and darker hair. We called our­selves blatte— a his­tor­i­cally deroga­tory term for im­mi­grants that my gen­er­a­tion claimed with pride. Blatte means some­one who is dark, but more, some­one who’s an out­sider—and I liked that blatte cov­ered ev­ery­one.

Ev­ery­thing about GAIS was a per­fect fit for me, even the greenand-black jer­seys that earned us the nick­name “the Mack­erels.” By our sec­ond year scouts had be­gan to ap­pear on the side­lines, look­ing for tal­ent. When a Fin­nish boy got scooped up for a pro team, we all dreamed of fol­low­ing his lead.

By the time I turned 16, I spent the ma­jor­ity of my time think­ing about foot­ball and prac­tis­ing my moves. At the start of the fifth sea­son, Mats and I went to see the new team ros­ter. We looked at the list, but when we got to the let­ter S there was no Sa­muels­son. Where was I?

The coach called me into his of­fice. “Mar­cus,” he said. “You’re a great player, but you’re too small. You should keep play­ing. But not with us. Sorry.”

I’d worked hard. I was dili­gent and dis­ci­plined. But I was out.

Al­though I’d con­tinue to play foot­ball in a smaller league, in my heart I gave up foot­ball, and when I did, food took its place. Maybe one of the rea­sons I now work so hard is be­cause I’ve been cut once be­fore. I know what it’s like to see your name on the list, and the heart­break that comes the day you look and your name is no longer there.

SUR­PRISE MEET­ING

I de­cided to go to vo­ca­tional school, the only place with a cur­ricu­lum I could get ex­cited about. I stud­ied Swedish and English, played foot­ball in the phys­i­cal ed­u­ca­tion pro­gram, and spent the rest of the day cook­ing. I al­ready knew how to hold a knife and how to fil­let a fish.

Half­way through the first term, my class started work­ing in the school restau­rant, cook­ing for cus­tomers. We learnt the kitchen hi­er­ar­chy: as part of a brigade, when­ever any­one above you asked for some­thing, you said yes, and dou­ble-timed it to meet his de­mands.

Af­ter grad­u­at­ing in 1989 I be­came the new kitchen boy at Belle Av­enue, a top restau­rant in Swe­den. In the be­gin­ning I cleaned shelves, scrubbed the floor, iced the fish and filled the trol­leys. But I also tasted the food and saved the menus and no­ticed when the servers were es­pe­cially ex­cited about a par­tic­u­lar dish. Even­tu­ally I got more ef­fi­cient and learnt the tricks.

Suc­cess at a restau­rant is re­warded in sev­eral ways. You get a raise, or move up in the brigade, or best of all, you’re sent away on a stage, an un­paid ap­pren­tice­ship at another restau­rant where you learn new tech­niques and im­prove your skills. Af­ter a year at Belle Av­enue I was on my way to In­ter­laken, Switzer­land, to stage for six months at a re­sort called Vic­to­ri­aJungfrau.

I met its fa­mous chef, Herrn Stocker, and was as­signed to the gar­den. I was lit­er­ally in the weeds, pick­ing fruit in­stead of cook­ing. It was not where I wanted to be, but that didn’t keep me from en­joy­ing the work. I dug pota­toes and car­rots, picked rhubarb and beans, and I must have done well enough be­cause af­ter one week I switched to the en­tremetier sta­tion where we pre­pared veg­eta­bles, soups, eggs. I was fi­nally on the front lines.

I worked hard, but I wasn’t a Boy Scout. I went out at night and had my share of fun. But no mat­ter how late I’d been out, I showed up at work the next morn­ing an hour early. My re­ward was to be moved fre­quently to a new sta­tion, learn­ing to make soups and meats. Fi­nally I joined the garde manger. The sous-chefwas a can­tan­ker­ous, ex­act­ing Brit named Paul Giggs.

Work­ing garde manger was part fi­nesse and part butcher shop. The first time I vol­un­teered to break down a whole lamb, Giggs laughed at me. But no one else had vol­un­teered, and on the next meat de­liv­ery, I got to help out. When I wasn’t be­ing called an idiot I learnt how to re­move the kid­neys and sweet­breads, and how to saw down the bones for stock.

One night when I was done clean­ing up, I re­ported to Giggs so he could sign me out. “You’re done?” he asked. “Yes, Herrn Giggs.” “You’re ready, re­ally?” he kept ask­ing as he in­spected the walk-in re­frig­er­a­tor. When he got to a plas­tic tub of aspic that I’d care­fully wrapped, he stopped. “Are you sleep­ing, Sa­muels­son?” he asked. “Were you out too late last night?”

I’d put a date on the tub, as we did

with all per­ish­ables, but I got the day’s date wrong. A ten-minute rant en­sued, in which Giggs ac­cused me of want­ing to poi­son the guests. I spent the next hour rewrap­ping and re­dat­ing each con­tainer, then en­dur­ing a sec­ond thor­ough in­spec­tion, which ended in grudg­ing dis­missal.

To en­dure such hu­mil­i­a­tion didn’t get eas­ier, but I did learn to make fewer mis­takes. Giggs was ac­tu­ally my favourite boss, be­cause he pro­tected his own. If he had cho­sen you, and you held your own, he made sure you got pro­moted.

I was get­ting chewed out only about once a week, which was a huge im­prove­ment since some guys were get­ting be­rated hourly. I was fin­ish­ing lunch shift one af­ter­noon when I got a call from Mr Stocker’s of­fice. Now what? I won­dered.

I walked down to his of­fice the way peo­ple say the dy­ing watch their lives flash be­fore their eyes. I knocked. “Herrn Stocker?” I said. “Mr Sa­muels­son. How are you?” I said noth­ing. Mr Stocker had never asked me how I felt be­fore. He sat there with his tall pleated hat, his crisp pants and jacket. Fi­nally, he spoke. “Mr Sa­muels­son, sie sind ein guterer chef.”

I trans­lated and re­trans­lated what he’d just said. Was I get­ting it wrong? No. He’d told me that I was a good chef.

“Your ef­fort is good. When you come back from win­ter break, Vic­to­ria would like to hire you as a demi chef de par­tie. Go to hu­man re­sources and they will han­dle the de­tails.” He picked up his pen and looked down at the pa­pers on his desk.

I said noth­ing. Twenty sec­onds must have passed and he looked up at me.

“That is all. Why are you still here? Raus! Raus!” Out! Out!

I walked out in a daze, and knew I needed to dou­ble check with Giggs. I got back to the garde manger and found Giggs by the walk-in. “So what did chef say?” he asked.

“I think he wants me to be demi chef de par­tie.”

“Of course he does. I told him to give it to you. What? Do you think this stuff just hap­pens?”

BUMP IN THE ROAD

I had three months be­fore my Vic­to­ria con­tract started. If I didn’t fill my time with cook­ing, the guys at the Vic­to­ria would pull ahead of me. So I found a

ho­tel in Bad Gastein, Aus­tria. I worked six days a week, from 8am un­til 4pm, then at 5:30pm I was back in the kitchen un­til it closed at mid­night. When my shifts ended, I stag­gered back to my room and recorded the day’s menu in my jour­nal. If I learnt a new tech­nique, or a new recipe, I’d write it down.

Of course I was also a 20-year-old guy, not a monk, and I some­times went out with my friends to a bar. One night I met Brigitta, who worked as a cham­ber­maid at the ho­tel. She seemed in­trigued by the black Swede, and asked me, “Do you want to come over and lis­ten to some mu­sic?”

I fol­lowed her back to her apart­ment and spent the night with her—and the next day. We didn’t see each other af­ter that, though, and I spent my three months in Aus­tria learn­ing to ap­pre­ci­ate hard work and the power of re­gional cui­sine.

Then Brigitta left a note un­der my door, ask­ing me to meet her at a cof­fee­house. I ar­rived early and found a ta­ble. I didn’t see her come in, so I was star­tled when she put her hand on my shoul­der. She was not smil­ing. “I am preg­nant,” she told me.

I was stunned. For a sec­ond I con­sid­ered “do­ing the right thing”—mar­ry­ing Brigitta, this woman I hardly knew, and spend­ing the rest of my life in Aus­tria. But I knew I couldn’t do it, and she wasn’t ask­ing for my help any­way. She had a big fam­ily, and they would be sup­port­ive as she raised the child.

“I thought you should know,” was pretty much all she said.

I went home for a visit be­fore re­turn­ing to the Vic­to­ria. I said noth­ing about the preg­nancy to my par­ents, and noth­ing to any­one at the Vic­to­ria, where my job changed but ev­ery­thing else was just as I had left it. I dove back in; the kitchen was my refuge.

Then I got a let­ter from Brigitta, en­clos­ing a set of pa­ter­nity pa­pers. She asked no in­volve­ment from me, but she would not pre­tend that she didn’t know the fa­ther of her baby. I filed the pa­pers, and in Novem­ber the news came. A baby girl, born five days af­ter my 21st birth­day.

When I got home, I con­fessed to my par­ents. “I know a guy,” I be­gan, try­ing to show I’d been think­ing things through, “who doesn’t have to pay child sup­port based on eco­nomic hard­ship.”

“No, Mar­cus,” my mother said in a hard-edged tone. “You are go­ing to pay.”

“I don’t have any money—” “That’s okay,” she in­ter­rupted. “We will pay un­til you do, then you are go­ing to pay us back and start pay­ing your­self.”

Un­til now, earn­ing money had been last on my list of ca­reer con­sid­er­a­tions.

“You can still go back to Switzer­land and cook,” she said. “But this is your re­spon­si­bil­ity, and while we will help you now, that lit­tle girl is yours to take care of. Al­ways.”

DREAMS OF SUC­CESS

I got back to Switzer­land and was pro­moted to chef de par­tie, over­see­ing ten guys. But I still wanted to move for­ward, and I wrote let­ters to restau­rants all over the world look­ing for my next op­por­tu­nity. I landed a job in New York, thanks to an old friend from Belle Av­enue who was now a sous ch­eff at Aqua­vit, a Swedish restau­rant. He got the ex­ec­u­tive chef to give me a nine-month ap­pren­tice­ship. So I flew to New York and moved in with my friend.

When I was at work I gave ev­ery­thing to Aqua­vit, but when I was off the clock, I be­came a stu­dent of New York. I bought a pair of Rollerblades and skated all over town, ex­plor­ing Chi­na­town, stop­ping in the In­dian gro­ceries, nos­ing my way around Har­lem, the mainly African Amer­i­can neigh­bour­hood.

Mean­while, I was send­ing let­ters to three-star restau­rants in France, and in 1993 as my con­tract at Aqua­vit was fin­ish­ing up, one said yes. Then I chanced to meet my old boss, Paul Giggs, who signed me up for a stint on a cruise ship. That’s where I would fill the months be­tween New York and France, and where I would make enough money to start pay­ing child­sup­port for my daugh­ter, Zoe.

Any­one who wants to know great­ness has to go to France. But my heart was in New York, so af­ter my stint at Ge­orges Blanc, in the vil­lage of Von­nas, I re­turned to Aqua­vit. I promised the owner, Hakan Swahn, that I would help make Aqua­vit one of the top restau­rants in New York City.

Hakan had hired Jan Sen­del, a ta­lented young Swedish chef, to in­fuse Aqua­vit’s menu with en­ergy and fresh­ness. I was hired to join the kitchen staff. I liked where Jan was go­ing with his food, and we talked about the menus and the dishes. Jan in­vited me out af­ter work to party with him, and I went a cou­ple of times, but I wasn’t in­ter­ested in late-night es­capades to clubs and bars.

One Mon­day morn­ing as I headed into work, I said hello to my pal Joey, the door­man at the ho­tel across the street. “Yo, Mar­cus,” he said. “I heard there was an ac­ci­dent at Aqua­vit.”

I didn’t pay much at­ten­tion. I went in the front door as two cooks came out. “Jan died,” they told me. “The restau­rant’s closed.”

Died? The words didn’t sink in. I walked numbly through the din­ing room and saw the restau­rant man­ager sit­ting on a stool, tears run­ning down his cheeks. Then I got it. Jan was gone. He’d had a heart

at­tack, re­lated to drug use.

Hakan spent months search­ing for some­one to fill the chef po­si­tion, while Jan’s for­mer as­sis­tant took over on an in­terim ba­sis. When he left for another restau­rant, Hakan turned to me.

I ac­cepted the job and hired my own sous chef, a Swede named Nils Noren, who had once staged at Aqua­vit. I knew we’d be able to work to­gether, and I was right. We cooked at Aqua­vit for ten years, sat­is­fy­ing reg­u­lar cus­tomers with tra­di­tional Swedish food while con­stantly bring­ing new flavours to the restau­rant, try­ing new in­gre­di­ents, re-imag­in­ing the menu.

One day in Septem­ber 1995 we found out we were go­ing to be re­viewed by The New York Times. The minute we re­al­ized we’d been awarded three stars, Nils and I, and Hakan and the rest of our co-work­ers, jumped up and shouted. There were toasts, back­slap­ping, fist-pump­ing.

I had dreamed of suc­cess for so long. I had left restau­rant af­ter restau­rant from Belle Av­enue to Vic­to­ria to Ge­orges, be­cause I knew I could do bet­ter. Now, fi­nally, I was ac­cept­ing end­less con­grat­u­la­tions. The restau­rant got calls from cooks in Swe­den who wanted to come work for us. Wow, I thought, this is the way it’s sup­posed to be.

MAK­ING THINGS RIGHT

My sis­ter Linda was al­ways in­ter­ested in our Ethiopian roots, and she found out that our fa­ther had not died as we’d al­ways be­lieved. He was alive, at age 80, and liv­ing in a vil­lage south of Ad­dis Ababa. I sched­uled a trip to Ethiopia and brought along my girl­friend, the tall and beau­ti­ful Maya,

an Ethiopian ex­pat whom I’d met at a big party I threw for my­self when I moved to Har­lem.

When we ar­rived in Ad­dis, we drove through the city to meet my fa­ther. He was a farmer and a pri­est, and when we met, he prayed and I cried. I had many ques­tions. Was I aban­doned by my fa­ther all those years ago? He told us he had come for us, shortly af­ter our mother’s death, but he was told it was too late, we were al­ready gone. Did the per­son he spoke with de­cide we’d be bet­ter off where we were, or where we were headed? I’ll never know for sure.

Meet­ing my fa­ther, and know­ing that I had been loved by him de­spite a decades-long ab­sence, gave me the courage to meet my own daugh­ter. I re­al­ized all I needed to do was give Zoe what my fa­ther had given me: my own flawed self, with­out ex­cuses or prom­ises.

The sad fact is, for the first 14 years of Zoe’s life, I never sent her a card or gift, never had a con­ver­sa­tion with her. My ab­sence was a train I boarded when Brigitta told me she was preg­nant and I was free to go. So I went, on a train pow­ered by my am­bi­tion.

My mother never un­der­stood my am­bi­tion, what I have given to my ca­reer and what I have al­lowed it to take from me. Al­most from the mo­ment Zoe was born, my mother wrote to her, and once Zoe was old enough, she be­gan to write back. When Zoe was seven she spent two weeks in Swe­den. My mother also took charge of Zoe’s fi­nan­cial fu­ture. I funded a bank ac­count, but it was my mother who sent the cheque to Brigitta ev­ery month.

My mother never asked for my per­mis­sion; she just in­formed me when her plans were set. And thank good­ness for her moral com­pass. She loved Zoe and built a re­la­tion­ship with her that kept the lines open long enough for me to come around.

By June 2005, I was ready. My mother and I flew to Graz, where Brigitta’s brother picked us up at the air­port. When I saw Zoe I saw the af­fec­tion in her eyes. She let me know that she was glad that I was there, and that she was not count­ing any­thing ex­cept the time it would take for me to em­brace her. So I put aside my shame and hugged my daugh­ter for the first time.

Brigitta was mar­ried now and had two kids in ad­di­tion to Zoe. That first evening I cooked for her fam­ily. I asked Zoe to walk with me into the

vil­lage so we could shop to­gether, and later as we peeled pota­toes to­gether and sauteed the onions, I started to take my first steps to­wards be­ing a fa­ther that Zoe could know and hope­fully one day love.

TAK­ING THE HEAT

In 2008, af­ter three years of dat­ing, I asked Maya to marry me, and she said yes. That sum­mer we flew to Smo­gen, Swe­den, for an in­for­mal celebration party. Friends drove up from Gote­borg. Zoe flew in from Aus­tria. And I hap­pily left most of the or­ga­niz­ing to my mother and my sis­ter Anna. Be­yond cur­ing a huge salmon, I sat back and watched the show.

Af­ter Christ­mas, we had the real church wed­ding in Ad­dis, with Maya’s brother as pre­sid­ing pri­est. We held a re­cep­tion at the Hil­ton, then in Maya’s vil­lage, and gath­ered to­gether with hun­dreds of peo­ple and one beau­ti­ful cof­fee cer­e­mony af­ter another.

While we were there I took my Swedish mother, Anne Marie, to meet my birth fa­ther. She sat in a wooden chair as my fa­ther read a pas­sage from the Bi­ble in the an­cient Ethiopian lan­guage of Ge’ez. One of my Ethiopian sis­ters—one of my eight sib­lings there—trans­lated for me, and I used the oc­ca­sion to per­suade my fa­ther to al­low one of my other sis­ters to leave the farm and go to school. When he agreed, the look on my sis­ter’s face was the best wed­ding present I could have ever re­ceived.

That same year I dis­solved my as­so­ci­a­tion with Hakan Swahn and left Aqua­vit. We opened a restau­rant in Har­lem called Red Rooster in De­cem­ber 2010. It was the restau­rant of my dreams, a place where we can pre­serve the his­tory of African Amer­i­can cui­sine, while pre­sent­ing it through my own unique Swedish-Ethiopian lens.

That next sum­mer, Zoe and her un­cle came to visit me in New York. I took her to Cen­tral Park and Chi­na­town and the Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art. She’s a teenager now, so she wanted to go shop­ping, and then we hung out to­gether at my new restau­rant.

One day she broke down and let me have it for all the years I’d been miss­ing. “Is it true you didn’t want me?” she said.

“No,” I kept telling her. “That couldn’t be fur­ther from the truth. I was young and scared, yes, and I’m sorry for the way I acted.” “Why didn’t you ever call?” “I wanted to, re­ally, but it was so hard to fig­ure out how.” “What­ever,” she said dis­mis­sively. It’s amaz­ing how uni­ver­sal the term what­ever is. But her what­ever had a lot of bite. Be­cause I owe her so much.

Now when we spend time to­gether I am, in one way or another, apol­o­giz­ing, and she is, in one way or another, giv­ing me hell. Part of me hopes that this is good ther­apy for her, to tell me how she feels, to let me have it, and in my head I’m think­ing, Zoe, go for it. Ask me any­thing, call me any­thing.

And while she’s still fig­ur­ing me out, I know, fi­nally, who I am. I’m a fa­ther and I’m a chef, and the one thing I can take is the heat.

Mar­cus Sa­muels­son in his New York restau­rant, Red Rooster.

Mar­cus in 1974 in Gote­borg, the sum­mer af­ter his adop­tion.

From left, Linda, Anna,

and Mar­cus on his mother’s lap, in 1976.

Mar­cus (bot­tom right) with Mats (kneel­ing next to him) and other friends in Gote­burg, 1983.

Maya and Mar­cus just be­fore their wed­ding cer­e­mony in 2009.

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