If New York City is a melting pot, Harlem native Marcus Samuelsson could be its poster chef. Ethiopian-born, Swedish-raised, and now the owner of 11 restaurants throughout the US and Sweden, he lets his food tell his story. At his flagship restaurant, Red Rooster, he serves roasted asparagus topped with cornbread crumble alongside romesco spiked with berbere, an Ethiopian spice. Meanwhile, his jerk pork and shrimp fried rice has kimchi in it.
How does a storyteller of flavor serve his narrative so skillfully? His training started early—very early!—not at culinary school, but at his Swedish grandmother’s knee: “Helga would gather us in the kitchen to teach us how to pickle fresh vegetables, and make meatballs, ginger snaps, cookies, and apple jam," he recalls. "These experiences taught me to love and appreciate fresh and local food.”
That love of cooking brought him to the United States in 1991 as an apprentice at Aquavit, a Michelin-starred NYC restaurant that has showcased a number of talented chefs (such as Emma Bengtsson, also featured on Panna). Preparing the Nordic food that ran in his blood, Samuelsson rose to the role of executive chef when he was just 24 years old. Soon after, he became the youngest ever to receive a three-star restaurant review from The New York Times. In 2003, he was named "Best Chef: New York City" by the James Beard Foundation.
All these laurels could easily clutter a chef’s head, but Samuelsson kept it clear by moving forward. He opened Red Rooster in Harlem because "we have to have better options today in terms of food," he says. "I wanted to be in Harlem and inspire other people to do the same." One of the many people who noticed and appreciated his efforts? President Obama, who asked Samuelsson to cook the first state dinner served at the White House.
As an adept cultural chameleon, Samuelsson can just as easily cook for a gala on the South Lawn as he can for a block party in Harlem. The signature "Q Sauce" for his Block-Party Ribs pulls ingredients from all over the world—coffee, poblanos, ginger, and ketchup, just to name a few. The tangy, sticky glaze is irresistible. Whether you’re coming from Ethiopia, Sweden, Harlem, the White House, or anywhere in between, Samuelsson’s food is going to speak your language.