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Valerie Phillips: Chef Marcus Samuelsson has interesting rise to fame

Published: Tuesday, July 10 2012 4:22 p.m. MDT

Double cherry chocolate cookies.

Jana Stocks Brown

Because of TV food shows, we are often more familiar with celebrity chefs whose food we've never eaten than local chefs in the kitchens of our own favorite restaurants.

And because of their books, we've come to know more than we've ever wanted to about some of them — bad-boy Anthony Bourdain's "Kitchen Confidential" and "Medium Raw" memoirs come to mind. Marcus Samuelsson has become a familiar face on Food TV — he won Bravo's "Top Chef Masters Season 2," has competed on the Food Network's "The Next Iron Chef" and been a judge on "Chopped" and "Top Chef."

He also oversaw President Obama's first state dinner in the White House and has a thriving Harlem restaurant, Red Rooster.

His biography, "Yes, Chef," (Random House, $27) is a compelling read, even for those who have never seen him on TV, eaten at his restaurants or paid attention his many accolades.

In 2001, Samuelsson was a rising chef when he came to Utah to cook for a pre-Olympics party.

"How often does an Ethiopian kid from Sweden get to cook for an Olympics?" he told me, explaining that he was orphaned as a child, then adopted by a Swedish couple.

That piqued my interest, and I'm glad he's chosen to share his story of "chasing flavors," as he calls it. Some interesting tidbits:

His original name was Kassahun Tsegie. He was 3 years old when he, his mother and his sister — all sick with tuberculosis — walked 75 miles to an Ethiopian hospital to get help. His mother died soon after, and the two children were adopted by a Swedish Samuelsson family who named him Marcus .

Growing up in Gothenburg, Sweden, he often helped his grandmother prepare dishes such as roast chicken and pan-fried herring. This sparked a passion for cooking that burned brighter once he was cut from his soccer team and realized he wouldn't become a professional athlete.

His ambition and work ethic took him to top restaurants in Switzerland, Austria and France, where French culinary technique reigned supreme and where lower-ranked staff gave military-like respect to their superiors. "Yes, chef," was what Samuelsson learned to answer, "whether he or she asks for a side of beef or your head on a platter."

He became acquainted with flavors from all over the world while working on cruise ships. His descriptions of aromas and flavors are so compelling that you can almost taste and smell the food.

While working at a hotel in Austria, he became a father after a one-night affair with a hotel chambermaid. Although Samuelsson provided financial support, he didn't meet his daughter until she was a teenager and he was a successful chef in New York. He poignantly expresses his feelings about his fears of fatherhood, gratitude for the woman who lovingly raised his child on her own, and remorse when his daughter questioned his lack of involvement in her life.

Samuelsson experienced his own mixed emotions when he discovered that his own birth father was still alive, and traveled to Ethiopia to meet him.

He's known both spectacular ups and downs. While chef at the Swedish-American restaurant Aquavit, he was the youngest chef to earn a three-star review from the New York Times. But his pan-African restaurant, Merekato 55, bombed in what Samuelsson calls the biggest failure of his professional life.

"It's a good thing I don't drink much or do drugs; this would have been a perfect time for that to spin out of control," he observed. "I've never felt so low, or so humiliated."

He was called a racial slur by Gordon Ramsay, the foul-mouthed host of "Hell's Kitchen" and "Kitchen Nightmares." Ramsay was irked that when Samuelsson visited London, he didn't mention Ramsay's name when he was asked about some of top British chefs.

When he left Aquavit, he was in the bizarre situation of having to "buy back" his own name. The owner of Aquavit, Hakan Swahn, claimed that the only reason the name Marcus Samuelsson had any value was due to Aquavit, with its aggressive marketing and publicity. If he left Aquavit, or did any work outside of the partnership, he had to pay Swahn a percentage of his earnings. Samuelsson consulted attorneys who advised him to pay a financial settlement, and soon. Because the more well-known he became, the more expensive his name would be.

He thought of going back to his Ethiopian birth name, Kasahun Tsegie. "In the end I emptied my bank account to Hakan and I bought the rights back to 'Marcus Samuelsson' because it's the name that people know and it's a name people remember. And because it's part of my story."

It's definitely a story worth telling.

Valerie Phillips is the former Deseret News food editor. She blogs at www.chewandchat.blogspot.com.

Email: vphillips@desnews.com

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