“My first language wasn’t English, it wasn’t Swedish, it was cooking,” explained Marcus Samuelsson to a crowd of over 250 at the New York Public Library last night. In conversation with the NYPL’s director of programs Paul Holdengräber, Marcus detailed how much of his life and success can be attributed simply to his passion for in the kitchen.
Literally breaking (corn)bread and curried oatmeal cookies from the Red Rooster Nook with the audience, Samuelsson described his personal journey as one dedicated to “Chasing Flavors.” From his Swedish upbringing, filled with memories of his grandmother Helga’s meatballs and pickled beets, to his experiences meeting international chefs in kitchens across the globe (“who came up with the lie that French was the greatest cuisine in the world?”), to his later return to his birth country of Ethiopia, resulting in a reunion with his father and his discovery of the Berbere spice blend, the Chef’s captivating story was indeed full of dramatic spice and even more bold flavors.
While starting abroad, the conversation concluded with questions on the Chef’s experiences in Harlem. Inspired by its rich history and contemporary vibrancy, Samuelsson said the decision to live and work in the neighborhood was an easy one. In opening Red Rooster, the Chef hoped to capture some of the community’s essence in each meal. “It’s about curation,” explained Samuelsson, who wants his establishment to be a place to showcase the best flavors Harlem has to offer and also bringing together the local, the New Yorker, and the visitor to one shared table. Ending with an excerpt of his book, Samuelsson made it clear that despite the difficult race, class, and opportunity issues he must continue to confront, in Harlem this child of the world has finally found a home.