Q&A With Marcus Samuelsson

The famed chef and cookbook author tells us about his history as a cook, his worst and best health habits, and his latest book, 'Yes, Chef.'

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on April 12, 2012
5 min read

Ethiopian-born chef Marcus Samuelsson grew up in Sweden, attended the Culinary Institute in Gothenburg, and then came to New York City to apprentice at the famed restaurant Aquavit. When he was only 24, The New York Times gave him a three-star review (making him the youngest chef to ever receive that designation); at just 33 he won the Best Chef: New York City award from the James Beard Foundation. Samuelsson now owns three restaurants. He also has written a number of acclaimed cookbooks, including The Soul of a New Cuisine, Aquavit and the New Scandinavian Cuisine, En Smakresa, and Street Food, and has hosted two televised cooking shows: Inner Chef and Urban Cuisine. Recently WebMD the Magazine caught up with the ever-busy Samuelsson and asked him about his latest book, his food philosophy, how he stays in shape, and his best and worst health habits.

Born in Ethiopia and raised by adoptive parents in Sweden, you arrived in this country as a restaurant apprentice, and have been one of the hottest chefs in New York City for nearly two decades. Now, at 42, you own several restaurants, including Red Rooster, the celebrated Harlem flagship eatery you opened in 2010. On top of that, your memoir, Yes, Chef, is due out this month. What inspired you to write your own story?

I just felt that it was a great time to look back over my life so far, from where I am now to where I came from on the way here, and to document that journey. I realized that my story might be different. After all, not everyone is born in Ethiopia and grows up learning to cook from his Swedish grandmother! Now, at this point in my life, with my restaurant Red Rooster, with Twitter and Facebook, I have a very big audience. I thought that maybe there is something that I can share about my journey that will mean something to readers.

What is your food philosophy and how does Red Rooster reflect that?

I am always asking myself questions, and my food answers them. When I'm thinking about food, I focus my thoughts on diversity, on social responsibility, on farmers' markets and local ingredients. That's what you find at Red Rooster.

You like to teach kids and parents how to cook healthy foods -- in your restaurant, in the iPad app Big Fork Little Fork, and elsewhere. What do you emphasize in your classes?

We focus on how to prepare vegetables and on how to cook things simply. I like to teach kids, but it's truly a matter of getting the parents interested. When it comes to healthy eating, parents are the gatekeepers. Most kids don't eat enough vegetables, but that's not their fault. That's on their parents, so I try to get to them first.

With several restaurants around the country and in Sweden, you are always on the go. How do you like to relax?

Relaxing is very different for different people. I do it by playing soccer, by keeping really active. That's relaxing for me. I also paint; I document my food and tell the story of my journey through painting. 9 to 5 is just not what I am doing. I don't have a job, I have a lifestyle. It's not for everyone, but it's for me.

Working around food, is it hard to keep from overindulging?

I eat with spirit. Some days I fast and eat nothing at all. Some days I eat only vegetables. The way I eat helps me keep a spiritual compass.

But you must have a guilty pleasure food that you can't resist?

The sweet potato doughnuts at Red Rooster at the end of the night.

Do you stick to a regular exercise routine?

It's hard, especially when I travel, but I try to run six miles once a week, and three days a week, I play soccer with my buddies or I hit the gym. If I can do that, I feel pretty good. And I've always gotten exercise from working, from being so active all the time.

What's your best health habit?

I try to get enough sleep. I try to keep balanced. I don't do too much of any one thing. That's important to me. Sleeping, working out regularly, and drinking enough water are essential, especially if you work as much as I do.

What role does nutrition play when you are planning a recipe for Red Rooster?

I think that healthy cooking has so many different angles. At Red Rooster, our menu reflects that. We always offer a big seasonal salad, a very light fish dish, and a different take on macaroni and cheese that we call mac and greens. There are numerous ways to think about healthy cooking and to balance the food that you eat.

You are involved in several charities, including UNICEF and C-Cap (Careers through Culinary Arts Program), which helps pair disadvantaged high school grads with the restaurant and hospitality industry. Why is this work so important to you?

It's my obligation. We are a successful restaurant. At the end of the day, I think to myself, I came to this country and I was treated fairly, so I have an obligation to give something back. I'm a firm believer in "inspire/aspire," in inspiring someone to aspire to be something, and I feel like I can carry that message to young people.

Out of all the different types of cuisine you have cooked, do you have one favorite food?

I am a big fan of Japanese food. It's such a diverse cuisine and culture. For a Western chef, sushi is the hardest cuisine to learn and to understand. It's very cerebral and very challenging.

What do you like to cook at home for yourself and your wife?

Lots of vegetables. I like to cook ramen noodles with lots of fresh vegetables. I also like to do Ethiopian chickpea puree, and grilled fennel, and Swedish meatballs with roasted potatoes.

What five ingredients do you always stock in your pantry at home?

Good olive oil, rice wine vinegar, Ethiopian berbere spice mix, Ethiopian chickpea puree, and couscous.

What's for dinner tonight?

Jerked veal tongue buns. We're very excited about that.

After two decades or more in the kitchen, how do you maintain your passion for your work?

My work leads me into passion through its challenges. Opening Red Rooster in Harlem, putting a restaurant in a food desert and helping to turn this neighborhood around is a big part of that. It's very exciting.

How do you manage to juggle your professional life with married life?

My wife and I try to find pockets of time to see each other. Sometimes we do, but sometimes we aren't able to, and that's hard. One day, I would like to find a better balance, but with my work and my lifestyle, there are so many hurdles. That is very taxing for my family life.

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