Marcus Samuelsson: Behind Every Good Man
Interview: Megan Smith & Photography: Michael Guenther
How do we do justice to describing a man whose fashion tastes are impeccable, whose swagger is more than noteworthy, who loves bringing his 5’11” model wife Maya along on casual interviews as well as swanky soirées, and who more than knows his way around a kitchen? All we know is, Marcus Samuelsson is certainly swoon-worthy in our book. To boot, this Ethiopian-born, Swedish-raised, James Beard Foundation honoree, Food Network chef truly believes that women are tougher than men. (His words, not ours [swoon]). Keep reading and you’ll see why Maya is such a lucky gal…
You wrote an incredible piece for the Huffington Post about your life as an adopted child and it’s evident how important the role of family is in your life. What attributes have the women in your life’s journey possessed that helped shape and mold who you are today?
All the important women in my life have showed me what love means–in their own way. My Ethiopian mother sacrificed her own life so that my sister and I could live our own; my Swedish mother loved me fiercely as if she had given birth to me herself; my Swedish grandmother showed her love by teaching me how to cook; and my wife teaches me to be patient and kind through her utmost grace and inner beauty.
Your career journey has been anything but easy over the years, including dozens of restaurant rejections early on. Where is your inner strength and tenacity to push forward and dream big drawn from?
I think it’s my commitment to doing what I love. At an early age I was intensely committed to becoming a soccer player, but was rejected from going pro. After soccer, my next great love was cooking and chasing flavors and it has served me well ever since. But I don’t take any of it for granted. I’ve had high highs and low lows, but staying committed to food has always made me the happiest, and this is what I want to do for the rest of my life.
You obviously have huge vision for your life and career and have found great success in recent years. Are you one to map out your goals and dreams and make things happen or do you allow things to evolve in their own time and step through doors as they open?
It’s a mix of both. Sometimes you’re in the right place at the right time, but, for me, I usually envision something I want to do and take my time to curate that idea. “Yes, Chef” was five years in the making and you could say the opening of Red Rooster was something I wanted to do for ten years.
What was the tipping point in your career? Was there a specific moment that catapulted you from chef status to celebrity chef status? Were you ready?
I don’t like to say what was the tipping point…who knows what else the future holds? But it was being awarded three stars from the New York Times that put my name on the culinary map. I’ve been trying to do better ever since…but don’t we all aspire to do better day by day?
This is a question from one of our readers: “You work with many chefs, restaurant staff and colleagues~ many of whom are women. What is the best approach you have found to not only working with women but giving critical feedback when needed?”
It’s ironic that there are many more men presiding over the most famous kitchens, but cooking has traditionally been a feminine role. I have such high regard to the great female chefs I’ve encountered–April Bloomfield, Gabrielle Hamilton, of course Julia Child–and women are actually tougher than men. Men will want to make a bigger fire and show you their sharpest knives, but women are more resilient and fierce in the kitchen. I’ve found that I can actually be more blunt and direct with women because they know what you need, and I admire that in my female staff.
What synergy do you find most rewarding between men and women collaborating in the workplace?
Our corporate team at the Marcus Samuelsson Group is pretty much split down the middle between men and women. I love to see them working hard on a project or sharing a beer after work. We have a good team who are there for the same cause and that is the most rewarding thing. You can say we have quite a mixed bag of talent, age and diversity, but we all have a great time. In the kitchen, the numbers between men and women are split, too–some of my toughest staff includes my pastry chef, Deborah Racicot–and seeing the staff come together night after night is a sight of beauty for me.
Have there been any female mentors or colleagues who provided important insight or support during your career? If so, what wisdom did they provide that was especially significant?
How can I not mention my mentors in all fields who have opened up such worlds to me? The great Leah Chase who just celebrated her 90th birthday is my culinary mentor, and the incomparable Thelma Golden, director of The Studio Museum in Harlem, are just some of my fairy godmothers. Then, of course, there are my two mothers and grandmother who showed me how to be a man in the family and in the kitchen. They have all taught me to be humble and always stay curious.
You’re definitely one of the most stylish chefs out there. Who or what inspires your look?
David Bowie, Marvin Gaye, Lana Turner, and all the Harlem Dandies who come into our restaurant. I am inspired by not just people in the fashion world but anyone who can hold their own style. And I’m not talking about flashy logos and shiny shoes. I just came back from Barcelona and I love how everybody there had their own sense of fashion. It didn’t matter if they were on their way to a fancy dinner or on their way to the market–they were well-groomed, yet nonchalant about how they carried themselves.
Let’s end with a couple of foodie questions, shall we? Guilty pleasure food?
I love a great hamburger.
What meal do you most enjoy making for your stunningly beautiful wife, Gate Maya Haile?
I love making doro wat with her, a traditional Ethiopian chicken stew that takes hours to make, but it’s very methodical and, in a way, spiritual. Nothing beats sitting down with her at our kitchen table and cracking open an ice cold Meta (Ethiopian beer) to wash it all down.