Marcus Samuelsson was born in a hut in rural Ethiopia. The size of the hut, he describes, was like that of two combined restaurant tables and he lived in it with six other persons. When he was only three years, he and his sister survived tuberculosis but the disease claimed his mother’s life.
He was adopted by Swedish couple Ann Marie and Lennart Samuelsson and soon learned how to cook from his adopted grandmother Helga, Samuelsson says in his memoir, “Yes, Chef”, which pays a glowing tribute to his Swedish family.
“We were jarring, pickling, there was always a bowl of chicken soup ready to be served, there was always sausage ready to be made,” he says, according to NPR. “She [Helga] was incessant all year round with cooking. … It was really in those rituals that my love for food was built.”
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Samuelsson started working in a restaurant as a teenager and later enrolled in cooking schools in Sweden. Afterward, he apprenticed at restaurants in Switzerland and Austria. From there, he got a job offer in the U.S. at a popular Swedish restaurant called Aquavit as the second-in-command.
According to CNBC, Samuelsson arrived in the U.S. with only $300 in his wallet, a move he describes as risky but says he was later inspired by the diversity of food options in cities such as New York and the Bronx. This would later inspire his desire to establish his own restaurant.
Samuelsson was asked to take over as head of Aquavit following the demise of the restaurant’s head chef. “I was nervous,” he says. “I didn’t want to be the one to take a famous restaurant like Aquavit down. All my buddies in Sweden would know about that. But I also knew that if I worked really hard, I could do it. … And we just kept cooking and hiring cooks. … Eventually our tribe of misfits became our strongest weapon, and we developed this crew, and one day we got three stars from The New York Times.”
By 1997, he was made a partner of Aquavit and within a decade, he opened branches of the company in Stockholm, Tokyo and a Japanese-influenced restaurant called Riingo in New York. His restaurant, Red Rooster, which is located in Harlem, later followed in 2010. “It took me 25 years to build this and 10 days to break it down,” Samuelsson says of his restaurant empire which was hit by the coronavirus.
His restaurant empire was fetching him about $75 million in annual revenue, however, the coronavirus pandemic led to a drop in the company’s revenue by some 80%.
Like any other successful entrepreneur or businessman, Samuelsson had to navigate many obstacles before getting to where he is. He recalls how one of the restaurants he opened targeting the African-American community and the Caribbean failed. Merkato 55, which was located at Manhattan’s trendy Meatpacking District, closed a year after it was opened. “I didn’t know how much African [cuisine], how much Blackness to feature on the menu at Merkato 55,” he told CNBC.
Samuelsson is not only an internationally acclaimed chef but also an accomplished author of several cookbooks, including the James Beard award-winning “The Soul of a New Cuisine” and “Marcus Off Duty: The Recipes I Cook at Home.”
Other written titles by Samuelson are “Aquavit” and the “New Scandinavian Cuisine, “En Smakresa (A Journey of Tastes),” and “Street Food.” Samuelson is a visiting Professor of International Culinary Science at the Umea University School of Restaurant and Culinary Arts in Sweden. He is also the founder of the acclaimed website Food Republic.
Samuelsson was the winner of Bravo’s “Top Chef Masters Season Two” as well as the second season of “Chopped All-Stars.” He has also had a recurring role as a judge for “Chopped,” one of Food Network’s highest-rated series with a following of more than 20 million viewers a month, and was a mentor on ABC’s “The Taste,” guiding a team of new culinary talent through a series of challenges.
He has been featured on CNN, MSNBC’s “The Dylan Ratigan Show,” “Iron Chef USA,” Iron Chef America,” and “Today.” In 2009, he was selected as a guest chef at the White House under the Obama Administration, where he planned and executed the administration’s first state dinner honoring Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India.
Samuelsson has contributed immensely to philanthropic endeavors, including serving as a UNICEF Ambassador, serving as a member of the U.S. State Department’s Chef Corps, and serving as the co-chairman for the organization Careers Through Culinary Arts Program, which works with public schools across the country to prepare underserved high school students for college as well as provide career opportunities in the restaurant and hospitality industry.
As an international patron of the arts, Samuelsson is honored to be a board member for both the Apollo Theater and the Museum of Modern Art.
Samuelsson married Maya Haile in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and resides in Harlem, New York. Samuelsson partnered with Karilitz and Company, with the support of Mayor Bill De Blasio, former President Bill Clinton, and Tren’ness Woods-Black to co-produce Harlem EatUp!, a food and culture festival in Harlem in May 2015, which returned for a second year in May 2016.
Samuelsson was recently inducted into the James Beard Foundation’s “Who’s Who of Food and Beverage in America.”