For two decades, Marcus Samuelsson has captivated food lovers with his brilliant culinary interpretations. It was a mere decade ago Samuelsson served as the opening exec of Stephen Starr’s Washington Square. Since 2004, Samuelsson has become an international superstar — the award-winning chef and cookbook author was the youngest chef to ever receive two three-star ratings from The New York Times while at Aquavit as executive chef. In 2010, Samuelsson was the winner of “Top Chef Masters Season 2” and also served as the guest chef for the first State Dinner of the Obama administration. His newest restaurant, Red Rooster, opened to rave reviews in Harlem, where he lives with his wife.
Born in Ethiopia, raised in Sweden and trained in European kitchens, he is a world citizen turned American success story. Next month, Samuelsson returns to Philly for a special dinner featuring treats straight from his new cookbook, “Marcus Off Duty (Rux Martin/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; $24.95; iBook, $16.99).”
In this book, the chef, who former President Bill Clinton said “has reinvigorated and reimagined what it means to be American,” serves up the dishes he makes at his Harlem home for his wife and friends. The recipes blend a rainbow of the flavors he experienced in his travels — Ethiopian, Swedish, Mexican, Caribbean, Italian and Southern soul.
“Learning how to cook is the most liberating thing you can do,” explained Samuelsson. “Learn about first day meals, second day meals, third day meals. If you know how to cook, it’s really like dancing — once you have the basic rhythm you know where to go from that, and it doesn’t become, ‘I gotta break the bank and buy all of these mixed ingredients.’ Have a pantry of what you really need and constantly build it up, and [incorporate] pickling, preserving and using less protein. Eating healthier without thinking about it all becomes a natural vocabulary if you know how to cook.”
Even during a casual interview, Samuelsson’s passion for sharing his signature blend of culinary traditions is evident. He fondly recalled his childhood days when he learned about food basics, and encouraged readers to go back to their roots.
“It goes for everybody, but specifically for us — our original cuisine comes from Africa, and it was not greasy; it was vegetable based, whether it was greens, rice, okra,” said Samuelsson. “I mean, you go back, all the way to the core and our food has a heritage where the protein was the smallest thing that we added in. We had, maybe a little bit of ham hock in the greens when we cooked them, but it wasn’t the main part; it was actually the greens and the black-eyed peas, etc. It’s about making food delicious, and how you make affordability in making food delicious is very much linked. You know, if you cook with greens, you still got to think about the acidity level, and what’s the spice. Spice can really jump in because we respond to that generally very, very well. So, if you add acidity, like lime juice just to finish off, say collard greens, and you squeeze that in at the very end and you add in some chili pepper, your adding heat and a flavor you can respond to that’s not bland.”
The 13th First Person Arts Festival presents “An Evening with Marcus Samuelsson” at Le Méridien Philadelphia, with the help of Philadelphia native Chef Jen Carroll, of Top Chef and Top Chef All-Stars, Nov 4. The VIP reception begins at 6 p.m., with dinner at 7 p.m. A book signing concludes the evening. This culinary event is part of the 13th Annual First Person Arts Festival, running Nov. 4-15, which shines a spotlight on powerful issues using personal stories from leading national artists and everyday people. Tickets are on sale now at firstpersonarts.org and (267) 402-2055.