When chef-trainee Marcus Samuelsson was looking to move on from a position in France, he wrote letters to David Letterman and Oprah Winfrey, suggesting they branch out into restaurants.
Fortunately, he also wrote to Hakan Swahn, founder of the Manhattan restaurant Aquavit and the only one who wrote back.
In his just-published memoir, “Yes, Chef” (Random House), Samuelsson recounts his rapid rise. Orphaned at an early age in Ethiopia, he was adopted by a young Swedish couple and began learning his trade from his grandmother, a professional cook.
The “Top Chef Masters” winner was only 24 when he was taken on at the Swedish restaurant Aquavit. He quickly became executive chef and earned a three-star review from the New York Times. He was the youngest chef to achieve that rating from the paper.
He left the restaurant after a dispute with his business partners over his TV earnings, and for a while he was broke.
The memoir’s narrative ends at New York’s Red Rooster in Harlem, which he opened in 2010 to present his international twist on soul food and change the face of dining in the area.
We spoke over lunch at a table outside the restaurant on a blazing hot day while Samuelsson ate the special, ramen noodles.
Cole: The book’s first sentence says, “I have never seen a picture of my mother.” Was it painful to recall those years?
Samuelsson: I felt torn as a child, but I realized that I got out of Ethiopia. I was saved.
Cole: How were you able to connect to Harlem and African-American culture as an Ethiopian and a person raised in Sweden?
Samuelsson: African-Americans have no idea how important they are to other people of color around the world. If you look at any type of minority movement, it was pegged to African-Americans. There was Miles Davis and Marvin Gaye and Aretha Franklin and Condoleezza Rice and then Colin Powell and eventually Barack Obama. They were images seen throughout the world.
Cole: Are you still bitter about being forced to leave Aquavit?
Samuelsson: There is no bitterness. I feel extremely appreciative. But I believe you create your own chances.
My (biological) father is a tribal leader in Ethiopia. He’s 80-plus years old in a country where the average age of men is 42. When I see him, I see where that sense of push-through comes from.
Cole: You had a daughter with a woman in Austria while you were working there as a young chef.
Samuelsson: I was a child then, but I had adult people help me deal with it as an adult. I was completely embarrassed. I didn’t want to be that black man that left his child behind, and I wanted to hold myself up to a standard that I wouldn’t fail in any way. I had to be perfect.
Cole: What was the biggest game changer for your career?
Samuelsson: Having the honor to cook for the Obamas was definitely the highlight of my career, but also to serve the community of Harlem through Red Rooster.
Harlem was excluded from the conversation about dining. My biggest job is to interrupt the conversation and offer what fine dining can look like. As a black person, I have to engage in a different way than Thomas Keller or Daniel Boulud.
Cole: For the Obamas’ first state dinner, you made a vegetarian cornbread with chutney, potato and eggplant salad, and green curry prawns. Why that menu?
Samuelsson: The guest of honor, the prime minister of India, was a vegetarian. I looked at the White House as a home. Once you have the narrative of a home, it’s easier to figure out what the meal should be.
(Patrick Cole is a reporter for Muse, the arts and culture team of Bloomberg News. Any opinions expressed are his own.)
Muse highlights include Richard Vines on dining.