A Chef’s Life
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.
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.
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.