Marcus Samuelsson: A Man of Many Talents

Chef Marcus Samuelsson, the host of Dan’s Taste of Two Forks taking place on July 16 in Bridgehampton, is a man of many talents and many countries. He told me he’s looking forward to attending this event because “I like the fish, I like the wine. A perfect day for me in the Hamptons is early or late in the season. I love food so I find myself doing food things—cooking, visiting a winery. I was raised on the water so I go there for the water. I run on the beach and play some tennis or soccer.”

Born Kassahun Tsegie in Ethiopia in 1970, Samuelsson was raised by an adoptive Swedish family and educated at the Culinary Institute in Gothenburg, Sweden. After apprenticeships in Switzerland and Austria, Samuelsson’s career took him to New York, to apprentice at Restaurant Aquavit in 1991.

Aquavit” refers to a strong, clear Scandinavian liquor distilled from potato or grain mash and flavored with caraway seed. The restaurant offered, and still offers, high-end Scandinavian cuisine. [expand]

At 24, Samuelsson took over as the executive chef of Aquavit, and soon after became the youngest chef ever to receive a three-star restaurant review from The New York Times. Samuelsson went on to helm Riingo, Second, Marc Burger, C-House in Chicago, Street Food and his latest restaurant Red Rooster, which opened in December 2010 in Harlem. [expand]

In 1999, Samuelsson won the James Beard Foundation award for “Rising Star Chef” and in 2003 was named “Best Chef in New York City.”

You’d recognize Samuelsson from his many television appearances including, “24-Hour Restaurant Battle,” “Inner Chef,” “Iron Chef,” “The Today Show,” “Urban Cuisine” and “The View.” Samuelsson was a winner of “Top Chef Masters” and served as a judge on “Chopped.” In 2010, Samuelsson competed alongside 21 world-renowned chefs in Bravo’s hit series “Top Chef Masters.” At the end of 10 episodes, Samuelsson was crowned the winner, earning $115,000 for UNICEF’s grassroots effort, The Tap Project.

Most recently, Samuelsson has teamed up with AOL to produce “Kitchen Daily,” a web-based program, where Samuelsson will deliver bi-monthly culinary segments to millions of viewers online.

Samuelsson told me that these shows are about making knowledge accessible. He said, “I started cooking when chefs were not on TV, just fine dining and French cooking. Now kids see that it’s a profession. In Europe it’s different, food is more of a tradition. But Americans are finding their way—it’s fun, interactive and democratic.”

Samuelsson and his wife Maya Haile live in New York but often visit the East End over the summer months. The Marcus Samuelsson Group has an interest in East Hampton’s Blue Parrot restaurant. This hip, upbeat Tex-Mex revival eatery offers a menu of colorful and savory fare served in a fun East Hampton outpost. Killer tacos, the one-pound burrito, marinated meats and bold spices come together in a tasty menu. Their signature margaritas, served in mason jars, have become a local favorite. The Blue Parrot is owned in part by Oscar-winning actress Renee Zellweger, Grammy-award-winning musician Jon Bon Jovi and Ron Perlman, owner of Revlon.

On November 24, 2009, Samuelsson served as guest chef for the first state dinner of the Barack Obama presidency. The dinner, in honor of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the country of India, was served on the South Lawn and was largely vegetarian. Samuelsson sought to combine sustainable and regional foods, which reflect the best in American cuisine, yet evoke the flavors of India. Harvesting fresh vegetables and herbs from the White House Garden, Samuelsson’s menu for 400 included red lentil soup, roasted potato dumplings, and green curry prawns.

In March 2011, the Red Rooster hosted a fund-raising dinner for the Democratic National Committee. President Obama attended and the event raised $1.5 million.

In addition to his recognition as a world-class chef, Samuelsson is an award-winning cookbook author with titles in both English and Swedish. His 2006 African-inspired cookbook The Soul of a New Cuisine received the prize for Best International Cookbook from the James Beard Foundation. Other titles written by Samuelsson are Aquavit and The New Scandinavian Cuisine, En Smakresa (“A Journey of Tastes”), and Street Food. The book that makes Samuelsson a perfect fit for Taste of Two Forks is his 2009 release, New American Table. It’s all about the food that Americans, who hail from all over the world, cook in their homes, often using local ingredients.

When I spoke to Samuelsson recently, I secured a promise. He said, “I will sign your cookbooks!” while at Taste of Two Forks next week.

He also pointed out that, especially since Taste of Two Forks benefits local food pantries, it’s a good example of “Umbuntu.” It demonstrates in many ways the community of breaking bread with your brothers. As a classical African concept, the Ubuntu philosophy of focusing on people’s allegiances and relations with each other comes up a lot in Samuelsson’s, The Soul of a New Cuisine. The word has its origin in the Bantu languages of southern Africa. Samuelsson also lives out the tenets of Ubuntu in his daily work. He supports many charities and his Harlem restaurant’s staff is now over 60% local, “both in and of the community,” as he says.

Southern Vermont University awarded Samuelsson an Honorary degree in May. His acceptance speech was colorful and moving, you can see it on YouTube. Well-spoken and well educated, Samuelsson is a popular Visiting Professor of International Culinary Science at the Umeå University (Umeå University School of Restaurant and Culinary Arts) in Sweden. Samuelsson also serves as an advisor to The Institute of Culinary Education in New York City.

Since Samuelsson is so involved in his Harlem restaurant, I asked if he knew fellow Taste of Two Forks celebrity attendee, Sarabeth Levine. Levine and her husband Bill operate their jam factory (Sarabeth’s Legendary Fruit Spreads) in b. He said, “Of course, I know Sarabeth and Bill. They are true trailblazers—they’ve just been at it a long time.”

You can meet the Levines, Samuelsson, Master of Ceremonies Rosanna Scotto plus the Queen of East End Cuisine Silvia Lehrer and Dan’s Ambassadors of Good Taste Mark Feuerstein and Alex McCord next Saturday, July 16. With over 30 restaurants and over 30 wineries in one place, there has never been anything like Dan’s Taste of Two Forks before. Check out all the details at danstasteoftwoforks.com. [/expand]

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