The SELEDA Profile
Ö On Chef Marcus Samuelsson.
We at SELEDA finally feel vindicated! Remember when we thought tuna dirqosh fir-fir could be a very respectable hors d'oeuvre? What did the "whatever!" choir say? "What-e-e-va!" (and in that very hissy tone of voice too. )Ha, we rejoined, our feelings in tatters, one day you will realize how so ahead of our time we are.
Well, one day is now and if only we knew how to gloat gracefullyÖ Well, we donít! So, "da-de-da-da-da!"
Eshi. Esti sine sírat.
SELEDA is proud to profile Chef Marcus Samuelsson, the James Beard Award winning Executive Chef and part owner of Restaurant Aquavit in New York, the three star dining establishment on every "my home in the Hamptons" A-Plus list gourmand. Letís not EVEN talk about the OTHER Aquavit in Minneapolis Ė so fabulous itís ALMOST enough compensation for those silly enough to live in the land of a thousand frozen lakes.
Born in Ethiopia and raised in Sweden, Chef Marcus has come full circle revolutionizing fusion cuisine and tapping into his Swedish background and, lately, his Ethiopian heritage. (Berbere encrusted lamb served with awazť and beurre blanc. Need we say more?)
At only 30, he is well on his way to dominating the industry, and we at SELEDA are delighted he paused to talk to us.
Are you part owner of Aquavit?
Yes, for the past 5 years. I came in as the executive chef and nine months later I became partner. I have always wanted to own my own business, so there was no question I was heading that way anyway
Do you know the Amharic word for "sautť"?
[Laughs] No, I donít. What is it?
Marcus: Oh, ok. Thanks. My Amharic is not good.
You went back to Ethiopia recently after 20-some odd years. What was it like?
It was great. I always wanted to go back because I have a passion for Ethiopia. I like the food, and I went to learn the basics from an eighty-year-old woman who taught me the old fashioned ways (my friend Werke owns Ghenet Restaurant in New York, and she is her mother). It was amazing to learn about berberť and Teff, killing chickens, etc. I was amazed at how long it takes to cook Doro WeT. It gives you a different perspective on food.
Itís fantastic to go back to your homeland with your profession.
In other interviews youíve mentioned the similarities between Swedish and Japanese cuisine. Can you elaborate on that? How do they compare to Ethiopian cuisine?
The essence of any food is passion...everyone takes pride in what they serve, and all people are passionate about their food. Sweden and Japan are similar because they are both relatively isolated geographically, have large coastal areas, and have a minimalist approach linked to the Church in Sweden and the monarchy in Japan. In Ethiopia, fish is not a major contributor to the diet, as it is in both Sweden and Japan; instead, meat and vegetables are very important.
There is also another major difference. Chefs in Ethiopia are better Ė while Swedish and Japanese cuisine depends on phenomenal ingredients, Ethiopian chefs focus on flavor and spices, and even with lower quality ingredients they are able to produce wonderful dishes.
What kinds of business skills are needed to run a restaurant effectively?
First and foremost you need to have pride in your company. Second you have to take care of your employees. We have about 200 employees who are the heart and soul of the business, so we canít operate just like a Mom and Pop restaurant, but as a business Ö just like IBM or any other big operation. You have to create an environment that competes with IBM so that people want to for you instead of them.
There are 30 people working in the kitchen here [New York], and about 20 in Minneapolis, so teamwork is paramount. A leader should be a motivator, which ultimately defines the end product. I believe in leading by example and in good work ethics. Management in cooking is not taught. You have to just know how to motivate people in different ways. Thatís why it is important for me to have partners Ė we each bring different skills to the business.
Youíve mentioned your grandmother, once also a cook, as a strong influence in your life. Which of your skills come from her, and how have you incorporated them into your life?
The most important thing I learned from her was common sense, treating people well, and the core ethic of hard work. Now I find myself having this golden opportunity to merge and maximize the effects of the three cultures that Iíve been exposed to: Ethiopian, Swedish and now American. My approach is to ignore the negatives and take on the positive aspects of these cultures.
Have you ever thrown your clogs at waiters who mess up orders?
No, I donít think so. I think there would be a major lawsuit there. Aquavit is an $11-million dollar company so we canít treat it like a Mom and Pop operation.
Good idea or bad: serving berberť paste with Mahi Mahi?
I donít think it is a bad idea. Think about it, what is the flavor of berberť? Mostly dried peppers. Well, that would be great with tuna tartar.
The amazing thing about Ethiopian food and culture is that it is one of the few places where the poor and rich eat relatively the same food and ingredients. Very few cultures have that. If you look at the French, there are different foods served in restaurants, bistros, brasseries etc.
Essentially, the flavors and essence of Ethiopian foods are great, they are just undeveloped. There are still many ways to push it into the global market.
You have to start deconstructing food and the way it fits into certain niches. Take for example, injera. It has a little sourness to it, which is makes it a great accompaniment to smoked salmon or caviar. There is a great market for it. But we wait until outsiders tell us our food culture is ok before we accept it. That has to start changing.
So, how do you come up with the food combinations?
It is a long process. First you think about it, analyze it and then you have trial and error. The basic way is to understand the similarities and contrast of food. For example, carrots are generally served as vegetables. But there is a sweet quality to them, so why not a sorbet? As dessert? Tej is perfect with duck or foie gras and to marinate fish in. Then you go into the kitchen and start experimenting with taste and ascetics.
What ties you to the Ethiopian community, and do you interact with Ethiopians?
Oh yes, some of my closest friends are Ethiopian. Letís face it, when you are an ethnic person you always want to learn more about your country. The United States, more than any other country, allows you to do that. Unlike Sweden where there isnít a thriving Ethiopian community, cities such as DC and New York make it easier for us to reconnect.
I am more of a public figure now so more people know about my background, and the Ethiopian community has embraced me in a way I could not have imagined. ItĎs has been fantastic.
Ok, truth time: is there a special place in hell for people who order steaks well done?
[Long pause] Well, Iíll say that most of the time people eat what they are used to. If they donít say, "Iíll try something different today" they ultimately miss out on a lot of different possibilities. They are usually people who donít like to challenge themselves in other aspects of their lives.
[We at SELEDA will hereby take the liberty of interpreting that as a "yes!"]
What is a typical day like for you?
Well, I usually come in about 9 or 9:30. We do a cooking show in Sweden so I usually catch up with what happened there the night before.
Shortly I will be heading off to London, so I spend time preparing for that trip. Then I send out recipes to different newspapers. We are doing something with the New York Times now. After that I go over the day with the Sous-ChefÖwe have a big party today so we go over strategy, decide the menu, etc.
Then I cook lunch with the staff. After that comes planning the evening and paper work, and discussions with our public relations person about upcoming events, good/bad past experiences, etc. We have another restaurant in Minneapolis so I also catch up on that and SOS Food Services, our catering branch. We are also discussing introducing a product line.
We have plans to open a small cafť on Park Avenue in the fall, so I am also busy trying to find the perfect set up and finalizing details. By then itís evening and itís time to cook dinner. On an average night we serve 120 people in the dining room and 80 people downstairs.
By about 10:00 p.m. I am done and I head out to meet friends at either Meskerem or Ghenet restaurants. Or go to my favorite sushi bar, or eat Korean.
Whatís in your fridge right now?
There isnít very muchÖa bottle of Veuve Cliquot champagne and milk [one interviewer swoons in rapture over just the mention of Veuve Cliquot]. I donít have much time to cook at home, although one of the things Iím planning is to redo my kitchen.
How do you sustain loyal customers?
Repeat business is our bread and butter. It is very important to understand that. This is an extremely volatile business. We are under scrutiny every time a customer sits in the dining room. If customers love your food nine times, and then you mess up on the tenth, thatís it! They have severed their ties. So you have to treat all customers as if they have never been to your place, and plan to blow them away every single time. It is a lot of pressure, but itís all about your mindset -- you can either treat it as an asset or a burden. If you connect with customers they will come back.
Youíve won the James Beard award, given to the most promising chef under 30. Once you move out of this age group, whom do you see as your greatest competition?
I donít think of this as a competitive issue -- my so-called competitors are also my colleagues. My challenge is to be the best I can be; everything else will come as long as you have a great staff and you serve great food. I personally would like very much to have a restaurant like Charlie Trotters [Chicago], Jean-Georges Vongerichten, or Thomas Keller ÖI think those are all great restaurants.
If a reviewer gives you a bad review, do you think about drop kicking him/her?
If you go to war against a reviewer the restaurant always loses. One way to cope with a bad review is to read it and distribute it to the staff. If you see a trend, then you know you are doing something wrong. Besides, you canít have all reviewers on your side. They themselves compete with each other, so sometimes their insider fights can affect you. But undoubtedly, reviews are crucial in order to improve ourselves. Everyone knows how to cook in NY. The question is what details push you over the edge: that means dťcor (flowers, setting, do you have paper towels in the bathroom or real towels), do you have approachable waiters etc. Reviewers bring those details to light.
Are you involved in any charity work?
Yes. I work with E-CAP an organization which helps high school students go to culinary schools. I also work with "Taste of the Nation" the big charity that feeds the homeless. Also, we give away seats at the restaurant for several charities.
Do you have any plans of going back to Ethiopia?
Actually, I am going back in January with a TV crew to tape in Merkato. It is one of the most unique places on Earth. Very raw and real.
Do you have plans to open up an Ethiopian restaurant?
No, not right now. I need to learn a lot more before I do. But eventually I want to own an upscale Ethiopian restaurant. Complete with French service.
Did you weep like the rest of us when Restaurant Bouley closed?
That was a New York institution. Yes, it was sad, but it is amazing how David keeps coming back and reinventing himself.
So, have you ever spied an Ethiopian among the Aquavit dining crowd?
Oh, sure! Anytime I see that there is an Ethiopian in my restaurant, I make sure they get the "hook up". Itís my duty and obligation.
Are you sure you want us to print that? You may just have a throng of Ethiopians lined up outside as soon as this issue hits the cyberworld!
Absolutely! That is exactly what I would love to seeÖ I would hook up any Ethiopian who came, and any Swede Ė you have to take care of your own, right?
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