Since his restaurant Red Rooster Harlem transformed New York’s dining landscape by luring adventurous eaters uptown, Marcus Samuelsson has been using the spotlight to build a global brand.
His cuisine can be sampled at New York’s Alice Tully Hall, at his Marc Burger outlets in Chicago and Costa Mesa, California and at several spots in Sweden, where his adoptive mother lives. By next year, he’ll open two restaurants at John F. Kennedy International Airport’s Delta Airlines terminal -- one focusing on classic American cuisine and the other on international street foods.
Samuelsson, who spends many nights cooking for charities around the country for free, recently started the nonprofit Three Goats with his wife, Maya Haile. Draped in hues of amber and gold, the fashion-savvy Samuelsson -- who posed for Vogue with his wife last year -- recently had lunch at Bloomberg world headquarters.
Cole: I like those pants and your scarf. Who’s your stylist?
Samuelsson: Ha! I dress myself.
Cole: What’s the first meal you remember as a child?
Samuelsson: I remember eating mackerel with my family in Sweden. We had to go out and fish the mackerel, smoke it, cure it with salt and sear it, and then we ate it with lemon. I had to go out and pick fresh chives.
We gave 10 mackerel to the elderly in the community and then if you were lucky you would take five and sell them. There was a sense of spirituality about giving to somebody who didn’t have.
Cole: Few people thought of going to Harlem for jerk chicken or Swedish meatballs and a cocktail until you opened Red Rooster. What has it done for dining in New York?
Samuelsson: The idea was to change the footprint of dining in the city. We want to enjoy more of the city, not just 50 or 60 blocks. It addresses unemployment and it holds up a mirror to a fabulous community that we don’t know enough about.
Cole: You were born in Ethiopia, adopted by a Swedish family, and now you live in Harlem. Do you think of yourself as an American or is part of your soul and identity still in Ethiopia or Sweden?
Samuelsson: The greatest part about being an American is that you can always refer back to other points in your life. I always notice that people in America don’t care about accents and whether you speak English perfectly. They care about intellect.
The beauty of being American is that it doesn’t shut down my relationship with my other two home countries.
Cole: Why did you choose Harlem over Brooklyn, where there are a lot of trendy restaurants popping up?
Samuelsson: I chose Harlem because that’s where I live. I chose Harlem long before I opened the restaurant. You should have a restaurant in the neighborhood where you live.
It goes back to the relationship with my mother. She always had to travel to all my restaurant experiences. Now I have a restaurant in the neighborhood where I lived in Sweden, so she can walk or take a train.
Cole: You’re opening two restaurants at the Delta Airlines terminal at JFK Airport.
Samuelsson: You should be able to have a good meal when you come to an airport. We’ve all been there -- stranded and the food is horrible. As we’re getting smarter in society we’re getting further away from basic things. I can eat very well on a train in India because there’s someone serving home-cooked food. But if I’m in the U.S.?
Cole: You’re often busy cooking for charity. What prompted you to start your own, Three Goats?
Samuelsson: My wife, Maya, and I both said we’re challenged by this country, Ethiopia. When I met my birth family, I hadn’t realized that I had eight brothers and sisters, and seeing that the sisters could not go to school and had to get up and walk two to three hours to get water, we asked what can we do? We now focus on girls, education, food and clean water.
(Patrick Cole is a reporter for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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