Adversity has been the prerequisite for success for many in history. That holds true for Marcus Samuelsson who is one of the most celebrated chefs today. Samuelsson has worked at some of the most prestigious restaurants in the world before opening one of Harlem’s landmark restaurants, Red Rooster Harlem, which sits right on the corner of 125th street. The journey hasn’t been easy, but it looks to be worth it.
At age 3, Samuelsson and his sister were adopted after their mother fell ill to tuberculosis. Her death would take them from Ethiopia to Sweden to live with their new family. Though Samuelsson admits his adopted mom was horrible in the kitchen, it was his grandmother who exposed him to good cooking. “Her cooking came out of poverty,” he said. He had short dreams to play soccer professionally, and soon changed his focus to cooking. From age 16 to his early 20s he traveled the world to learn the art of cooking. “Cooking on the line is brutal. It’s a young woman and young man’s game,” Samuelsson said.
After finally making his way to France, Samuelsson worked at Restaurant Georges Blanc where people travel from all over the world to dine there. This served to be a very important training ground for Samuelsson.
Samuelsson made his next stop in New York. “When I came to New York, being the only black person in a room was something I was trained for,” he said regarding the lack of black chefs.
“I was trained to be the only one in my room. I was trained by my parents,” he added. Aquavit, a Scandinavian restaurant nestled in lower Manhattan, would be his home for some time. When he was offered the job to be the head chef, he was a little nervous. “It’s a famous restaurant. I didn’t want to be the guy to close it,” he said jokingly. Well he did take the job, and became the youngest chef to ever receive a 3 star review in the New York Times.
The tragic events of 911 left many devastated. Samuelsson knew a lot of chefs, servers and cooks who worked in those buildings. He began to think of what he truly wanted in life. “I started to think about what am I doing? Is this going to be my life to cook for the richest people in the world every night? I started to think what is it that I can do next,” he said. He then decided to move to Harlem. He set his eyes on opening a restaurant, but he took 7 years to learn the culture of the community.
“The most emerging markets are inner city America,” Samuelsson said. He wanted to bring aspirations to the Harlem community. “The purpose was to create something to inspire and aspire. The purpose was to create jobs of the trade. We hire from the community,” he said. “I don’t measure a restaurant on how busy it is. I measure it on the reason and the goals I put the restaurant there,” he said.
Samuelsson offered advice to those looking to make their mark in the restaurant industry. “The value of being a chef is because you want to express something,” he said. “To be a chef you have to have a good sense of ambition and aspiration to always push forward. You have to know yourself, where your roots are and your strengths,” said Samuelsson.