Air Canada enRoute
Ethiopia-born, Sweden-raised chef Marcus Samuelsson moved to New York in 1994, and after leading the kitchen at Aquavit and receiving two James Beard Awards, he launched his Harlem hot spot Red Rooster in 2010. Thirty-four restaurants and seven books later, he’s gearing up for his Canadian debut, opening Marcus in Montreal’s new Four Seasons Hotel this spring. We caught up with him on his culinary heritage, diversity in the restaurant industry and that time he cooked for President Obama.
WHERE DOES YOUR LOVE OF COOKING COME FROM?
My family always cooked – I learned from my grandmother, and my father’s side were fishermen, so food and nature were valued and celebrated. Anything that was on our table, whether it was bread or soup, we made it, down to the stock.
HOW DO YOU INCORPORATE CULINARY TRADITIONS FROM ETHIOPIA AND SWEDEN IN YOUR FOOD?
I use a lot of techniques from both cultures, like Swedish pickling, as well as Ethiopian processes like preserving with spices, smoking and fermenting butter.
YOU SOMETIMES HOST GOSPEL BRUNCHES IN YOUR RESTAURANTS – HOW IMPORTANT IS MUSIC TO YOUR COOKING?
In Ethiopia, meals don’t happen without music. It’s not just a backdrop in our restaurants, it’s part of our character, it’s like we’re welcoming guests into our home. When I started out, there weren’t a lot of chefs who looked like me, so I wanted to listen to black musicians, like A Tribe Called Quest and
HOW HAS THAT LACK OF DIVERSITY IN THE FOOD INDUSTRY AFFECTED YOUR CAREER?
In my early days, the food world was far less diverse. But that was the path in my journey – every generation has its own. I stand on the shoulders of people who fought for civil rights, and the next generation will stand on the shoulders of people fighting for change now. The best thing I can do is set the table for the next generation, for more women and people of colour to feel engaged in the industry.
WHAT DREW YOU TO THE CULINARY SCENE IN MONTREAL?
In the last 15 years, chefs have done a great job of putting the city on the map, like the guys at Joe Beef, but also restaurants like Provisions that use hyperlocal ingredients. I’m looking forward to working with Canadian oysters, walleye and scallops, as well as root vegetables from Quebec.
WHAT EXCITES YOU ABOUT THE CITY?
Elements other than food inspire me, like the architecture of Habitat 67. I also love how people enjoy eating – they’re not sitting there on their phones, they’re dining together and that experience falls under entertainment, which is an important part of the city’s character.
WHAT’S THE MOST MEMORABLE MEAL YOU HAVE COOKED?
It would have to be the one I made for President Obama. His guest was the Prime Minister of India and the meal acted as a meeting of their cultures. It started with salad with lots of local vegetables – I got to use some from Michelle
Obama’s garden – followed by lentil soup, cornbread and chapatis, and pumpkin pie made with Indian spices.
DO YOU HAVE A FAVOURITE FOOD SOUVENIR?
I love pickles because they’re like a postcard of a place. Shopping for miso-cured pickles in a Tokyo department store is an amazing experience. ♦