Celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson had a traditional road to the kitchen, training in Michelin-star-rated restaurants from France to Switzerland. But his influences – his homeland of Ethiopia, his childhood in Sweden, his adopted home of Harlem in New York City – were anything but typical, and they created the wide array of flavors that inspire his cuisine.
Adopted as a young boy by a Swedish family after his mother died of tuberculosis, the 45-year-old Samuelsson says he developed his love for food while watching his grandmother, Helga, make her famous roasted chicken, pan-fried herring and black bread.
He says his greatest influences are "from just living – growing up, what me and family and my grandmother ate, but also when I started to travel."
He’s had quite a vantage point. After training in Europe he was drawn to New York, and at 24 he became the youngest chef to receive a three-star review from the New York Times for his restaurant, Aquavit. He soon became a household name with stints on shows like "Top Chef Masters" (which he won), "The Next Iron Chef," "Chopped" and later ABC's "The Taste."
In 2010 he moved to Harlem, where he opened Red Rooster and, more recently, Streetbird. He says his food has found its home in the diversity of his neighborhood.
"You think about Harlem," he says, and "it's really a community that is based on post-migration and also immigration. So when I look at Streetbird and Red Rooster's menus, they are both reflections of migration and immigration. That's why we can have tacos and fried yardbird (a type of fried chicken seasoned with Ethiopian spices) on the menu."
The success of those restaurants allowed him to dig deeper into his community by hosting an event called Harlem EatUp, a four-day festival that celebrates the neighborhood's food and culture and brings in chefs from all over the country. His 2012 memoir, “Yes Chef,” helped instill him as a household name, and now he's opening restaurants not just in the U.S., but also in Bermuda.
He’s got a lot on his plate, but Samuelsson says his love of food and his dedication to his adopted home will keep him moving forward.
"Keep dreaming," he says. "You never know how your story is going to be told, and food is a way for me to communicate my passion for my community, but also my passion for food."