Acclaimed celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson visited Berkeley's St. John's Presbyterian Church last night while on the road to promote his new memoir Yes, Chef.
Samuelsson — who's also a frequent judge on Food Network’s Iron Chef America and Chopped, as well as a former Top Chef Master’s winner — spoke of his journey from poverty to A-lister chef status. "I'm from that clay hut in Africa," he said, referring to the Ethiopian village where he was born. His mother died from tuberculosis when he was three; although Samuelsson and his sister were also infected, they survived, and were adopted into a Swedish family. It was in Europe that Samuelsson started the pursuit of a culinary career. He eventually moved to New York in 1991 to work as an apprentice at Aquavit, the noted Scandinavian restaurant that’s about as Midtown as Midtown gets. By 24, he was executive chef, and one of the youngest chefs to receive a three-star review from The New York Times.
He also discussed the necessities of "eating with a spiritual compass." In Ethiopia, this includes a deep-rooted understanding of the rituals and traditions of fasting and slaughter. As a child growing up in Sweden, Samuelsson said he found his spiritual food compass through his connections to the country's fishing culture and history of pickling and preserving. His adopteive family didn't have a lot of money, but they still felt physically and spiritually full from what they caught and ate. "Today, that's the hippest form of eating you can do," he said. "It's the greenest form of eating."
Samuelsson opened his most successful restaurant, Red Rooster, in 2010. It’s named after the famous Harlem speakeasy on 138th Street and 7th Avenue, and strives to reflect Harlem’s spirited past and the diversity of its present. It’s certainly worth noting that Samuelsson is actively involved with charity work and that more than 70 percent of his employees at Red Rooster actually live in Harlem. It also goes without saying that Harlem is a fixture in American history and one of the most world-renowned centers of African American culture, jazz, theatre, hip hop and revolution. Yet it also suffers from high rates of unemployment and mortality, and much of Harlem still lacks access to fresh, healthy and affordable food. Samuelsson said he doesn’t like to refer to such areas as food deserts, but rather as “food choices” that have evolved through generations of haves and have-nots.
Yet I can’t help but wonder if Red Rooster is one such choice. There’s no doubt that Samuelsson's life has been pretty remarkable thus far, and he admits that he’s lived it all: From desolate poverty in Ethiopia, to learning how to eat sustainably yet heartily in Sweden, to experiencing some of the world’s finest cuisines, and the struggles of finding an identity between his birth and adopted countries. There’s also merit in his claim that Red Rooster is generating more commerce and attention in Harlem, and not just “people who are hopping on and off the bus to take pictures anymore,” like Samuelsson likes to boast. But I find it hard to believe that charging $36 for steak frites or $18 for a dirty rice and shrimp appetizer stays completely true to Samuelsson’s doctrine that a restaurant has to be “of the place” and not just in it. “People want experiences they can attach to memories. The magic happens when you can sit next to the church lady from 4B, to Rick Ross,” he said, nodding to the restaurant’s smattering of clientele from the far reaches of the city. "We tell the story of Harlem — where it came from, where it’s going today."