His inspirational story has become legendary in the culinary community. Marcus Samuelsson was born in Ethiopia and lost both parents to tuberculosis. Lennart and Ann Marie Samuelsson adopted young Marcus and his sister, and they moved to Gothenburg, Sweden. Samuelsson trained at the Culinary Institute in Gothenburg and worked in Europe before vaulting on to the Manhattan dining scene at a high-end Swedish restaurant called Aquavit. In his early twenties, he scored a coveted three-star review from The New York Times. Since then, he’s earned two James Beard awards and launched several additional restaurant concepts, including C-House fish and chophouse in Chicago, Streetfood in Stockholm and two branches of Marc Burger. On January 20, Samuelsson was at South Coast Plaza Home Store to perform a cooking demo adjacent to Marc Burger and to publicize his latest cookbook, New American Table. We chatted beforehand, covering the Southern California food scene, New York and his future plans.
Considering all you achieved at such a young age, was it difficult to stay motivated?
No, there’s always new food. Finding motivation is easy. I’m a food fan before anything, which is why I wrote the book, New American Table. First of all, it’s why I came to America, because of the diversity. I asked where did it come from, and where is it today? When I look at it today, I so want to be part of the future. The journey we’ve taken is incredible, so I want to part of it. I’ve traveled from French food to foam to this. It’s exciting.
What are some other things you’re still interested in accomplishing?
I want to get better as a chef. When you get better as a person, you also get better as a cook.
I’m working on figuring out how to get good food to schools. I’m from a very poor country, yet that economy doesn’t mean you have to eat bad…I live in Harlem and you have good stores and bad stores. Finding tomatoes in August, it’s impossible sometimes. I was telling my wife, we can’t just buy from Whole Foods and Fairway. We have to go to the regular stores because that’s where people buy their stuff. With the vegetables, it’s not saurkraut. They’re sour because they’re old. It requires a huge step. My family in Ethiopia, even in their economy, they eat organic, seasonal, there’s less trans fat. It’s basic stuff. You go to school, a meal should be cooked. I grew up in Sweden with regular food. That’s important to me. I cook for a school in Harlem. I bring them to my apartment, and I’m not cooking steak au poivre or rack of lamb. So it can go high and low…I have influence, and I use it. I can encourage José, I can encourage Charlie Palmer.
How often do you get out to Southern California these days?
I’m here four times a year. I’m a huge of the L.A. food scene. I would never bet against New York, but L.A. has some damn good food.
What are the restaurants you’ve really enjoyed?
One of the best places in America is Grand Central Market in downtown L.A. I just like that place. Every time I’m in L.A., I always go there. For me, downtown L.A., you shouldn’t sleep on places like that. It has history. It has immigrants. It’s like a forgotten city, but it’s coming back, and it’s nice to see that. At Grand Central Market, you can have two tacos and a beer for seven bucks. Value for money, what can beat that? It’s immigrant food, but it’s very sophisticated from a chef side. It’s whole roasted fish, shrimp soup with the shell on, tacos made from neck, pig ears. It’s been there forever, and I think it’s a magical place. Of course, I love things like Street. It’s great, it’s fun. I love places like Church & State, it’s hip, it’s fun. It’s not so serious. Closer, the Mozzas with Nancy. You walk in there, there’s a cool bar. Wow. It can be on that level as well. Obviously, what Thomas is doing at Bouchon. It’s a range of food. Also, Korean food is incredible.
New York has myriad industries. Fashion, food, finance and real estate. Everybody knows how to play nice together. Obviously L.A. is essentially one industry. It’s a movie industry city, so it’s hard for food to rise up to #1, but it doesn’t mean the food is not incredible.
What are some places you’re looking to try?
Animal was the last new place that I didn’t know about, and I checked it out. Church & State was another one I didn’t know about. Two doors from Animal there’s this old Jewish deli that I just fell in love with, a big classic.
Beautiful, just a work of art. And there’s a bar right next to Animal, right in between. You can go to Canter’s from the bar.
The Kibitz Room?
It’s genius. For me, that’s brilliant. I’ve seen the $14 million restaurant, so that’s what I’m into. I haven’t been to The Bazaar yet. I work, so I get an hour-and-a-half. For me, I need two-and-a-half or three hours to do it right, so I haven’t been there yet. I’m excited for José.
Any chance we can see a branch of C-House or Streetfood in Los Angeles?
Streetfood would be perfect, but it’s hard because the street food here is so damn good. I would love to do something with food here, I’d love to have a presence here, but it just has to be the right thing. Not necessarily high end because it’s so competitive in that space. That’s what I love about Marc Burger because it’s relaxed and it’s better than the average. We buy from some of the same places we buy from in fine dining. I know where the meat comes from. I’ve never done something like this and I love it. Kids come and they can eat with their friends. It’s a good meal.
Do you have any other plans for California?
I feel like coming here and cooking because it’s interactive. San Francisco has its scene, but for me the key city is Los Angeles because of the things I mentioned.
What are some restaurants that really have you excited in New York at the moment?
I’m excited. We’ve reached far but still have a ways to go. One thing I would like to change is the footprint. Brooklyn started coming up with good restaurants. Great. It changed the footprint. That’s great. Now people from Manhattan go to Brooklyn. That’s great. In any other city that would be a weird thing. Just jump in the car and go for 20 minutes in the car, but in New York, to leave Manhattan is a big thing. Now Harlem might be that next spot.
Would you open a restaurant in Harlem?
If it would be the right opportunity. I live in Harlem. That was the first way for me to connect. I’ve lived here for six years. Now I’m a part of the community. What excites me specifically in New York, it’s not always new. David Chang, when he opened [Momofuku] on the Lower East Side, I thought it was brilliant. Even if it’s not a new restaurant anymore, it changed our view. It’s a very important restaurant. Marlow & Sons in Brooklyn is a very important restaurant. That excites me. Going on the subway out there, it’s a trip and you do it. It stretches the imagination.
How did you become so interested in burgers?
I’ve always been interested in burgers. In Sweden, you work with a lot of fish, and the opposite of that is burgers. The burger traveled from Mongolia to Russia to Germany. Every country in the world had a burger relationship, but Americans made it more iconic. When I moved to America, I wanted burgers. As a chef, where do you end up late night? In a diner eating a burger. As a chef, you also think, how can I change this? How can I make it better? That’s when you start thinking about the potato bun, the pickles, the meat ratio to the bun. Then you start chopping your own burgers. It’s been an evolution. When the Macy’s Culinary Council asked me, I said, “Let’s do burgers.” That was five years ago. We started with Marc Burger in Chicago. I always thought it was unique. As a writer, I’m sure you’re not just reading Shakespeare. You’re reading everything in between, right? I’m into food on multiple levels, and on each one, you want to make sure it’s good.