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An Interview with Marcus Samuelsson

by Matt DeLucia

From Ethiopia, to Sweden, then France, and now New York. Mr. Samuelsson shows us how he juggles several restaurants, a wave of media appearances, and a soccer ball.

As the sound of subdued jazz music echoed through the elegant hallway of Aquavit Restaurant and the last stream of mid-afternoon diners inched curiously past the bright camera lights set up in the cafe, Marcus Samuelsson revealed why he admired pop star David Bowie. And as the young chef spoke of his idol, an entertainer whose Ziggy Stardust persona was unleashed on the world just one year before Samuelsson's birth, the parallels between the careers of these two disparate artists leaped out faster than a culinary agent's press release.

"His makeup and his hair were all over the place, and people were like, 'What the hell is this?'" he says of Bowie. "Then he builds up into a pop phenomenon. And then he changes to this completely styled-down kind of guy. He's always been in a constant creative evolvement, not afraid of taking it to the limit, and then completely breaking it down again."

While Mr. Bowie took 30 years to evolve from "The Spiders From Mars" to today's polished "styled-down kind of guy", Mr. Samuelsson has transformed himself into one of the top chefs in New York City in a fraction of that time. But while the pop star might very well have his best years behind him, this young 34-year-old chef/restaurateur from Sweden is just getting started. But don't think that Aquavit's chef and co-owner can't show his born-to-be wild instincts when given the chance. A brand-new soccer ball, placed as a strategic icebreaker on a black leather café chair just before our interview started, instantly became a beloved toy and the Aquavit his playground. In a flash he artfully dribbled around two chairs, transforming the Swedish furniture into inferior defenders, frozen by his head fake, and then pretended to line up a Beckham-like line drive directly toward the top shelf of the well-stocked bar. I spotted several customers behind him looking on in delight, perhaps wondering if this was some sort of Scandinavian spectacle that was included with the price of the meal. With more skill than the star struck customers could have anticipated from a famous chef, he leaped into the air with the ball between his feet and flipped it gracefully upward, just inches from the towering camera lights, where it then fell harmlessly back into his hands after a single bounce. It was a move that would make Swedish football star Henrik Larsson proud, and I instantly saw the commercial possibilities of an all-New-York celebrity-chef soccer match. The inspiration vanished as I tried to imagine Daniel Boulud or Christian Delouvrier body-blocking a sprinting Samuelsson. After some polite clapping, I nudged the photographer to get an action shot, but with the quickness of a midfield striker, the show was over. What remained for quite some time however, was the broad smile this playfulness brought to his tired face.

"I'm a soccer fanatic," he exclaimed, to nobody's surprise. But even after living in New York for over 10 years, one could still forgive him for not being a converted Yankee fan. "I don't care about baseball, I'm not an American!" He says, shaking his head. "Baseball????"

For most children growing up in America, baseball is a ceremonious bonding between generations, a connection that often lasts a lifetime. But for Mr. Samuelsson, his most striking memory of family bonding was the culinary tutoring that his grandmother shared with him, which began at the age of six. We discussed the similarities between the master chef and the master musician or the star athlete, and the advantages of beginning their crafts at a young age, which inevitably stimulates and nurtures their creativity in later life. But he made sure I understood that while starting young is certainly a tremendous advantage in learning any skill, it is far from being the sole prerequisite to success. Having the passion for what you do, along with a focused and consistent mind and attitude, are the essential ingredients of a successful chef.

"You hear stories of Agassi starting early, of Tiger Woods hitting the ball when he could barely walk," he said thoughtfully. "No matter what creative field that you're in, the earlier you start the better. It helps to start early, but then life sets in. You have to stay healthy, you have to have stamina; you have to do what others do, and what they don't do. All of these things combine to make you an individual."

He went on to explain that if he hadn't started cooking at a young age, he might have easily become a musician, a painter, or even a soccer player - all trades that demand passion, creativity, and the necessity to regularly re-educate yourself in the skills and techniques of your peers.

When the subject switched from the delights of his upbringing to the difficulties of being a New York restaurateur, his response embodied the endearing humility and gratitude of a man who is still very conscious of how much he has already achieved, and a youthful confidence that seamlessly illuminates the bright side of every situation.

"I don't look at it from a difficult angle. I've never thought about that. New York is the most challenging, competitive market in the world. No matter what business you're in, that inspires you. If I would wake up with the mindset about how difficult something is, hey man, I'm an immigrant from Sweden, I shouldn't have done this in the first place!"

His hunger to expand his knowledge of new flavors is at the heart of his latest project, an African cookbook, due out in 2006. While his matter-of-fact descriptions might have suggested a somewhat muted enthusiasm for the new book, this was more a reflection of his modesty than any lack of passion he had for the project. While some artists who master their artistic craft early in life get bored and never reach their full potential, there are also those who feel the need to be challenged by pushing the limits of their art's particular boundaries. Mr. Samuelsson certainly falls into the latter category in a profession where completely new ideas do not come easily.

"I'm constantly looking for different sources of information. France is one, Japan is one, American cooking is one, Latin cooking is one. All of us do that. But we don't go to Africa! As a chef, you're always asking, 'Where are the most interesting flavors coming from?' And if nobody else is going there, I'm going! And I did, and I learned a lot." Trying to prompt him for a glimpse into his future, I asked if the forthcoming African cookbook might be a precursor to a new restaurant venture next year. He deflected the question as deftly as his feet had handled the soccer ball, with his signature smile and a remark that "anything is possible".

My other prodding questions were met with a combination of PR-savvy elusiveness streaked with a natural optimism, especially when asked if there were any problems with being the proprietor of a restaurant that resides within a hotel, such as his luxurious year-old restaurant Riingo.

"I'm grateful to the Alex (Hotel). They gave me an opportunity to do something I might not have been able to do, and we're doing very well. Are there negative things that come with being in a hotel? Yes. But you know what, that one day when it snows outside and nobody goes to restaurants, people walk down to the lobby and go straight down into your place."

One of this chef's most obvious blessings is his eternal optimism. And although his career has been loaded with awards - in 1995 he was the youngest chef to ever receive a three-star restaurant review from The New York Times; In 1999, the James Beard Foundation named him the best "Rising Star Chef", and in 2003 he won Beard's prestigious "Best Chef In New York City" award - he has also experienced minor setbacks. The closure of the Minneapolis Aquavit in June 2003, and last March his Riingo restaurant was reviewed by the New York Times with two stars, describing it as "a three-star restaurant trying to get out."

But if one reads between the lines of these reviews, it's hard not to notice the respect and near-adoration that some writers bestow on the elite, most talented chefs, including Mr. Samuelsson. One can almost hear the reviewer begging to write, "It's all right, we know you'll keep getting better, and we'll give you the extra star next time".

Even the near-perfect career of Bowie had its creative missteps; his worst album was arguably 1984's "Tonight", yet he immediately followed that impassioned recording with "Let's Dance", an album which solidified his stature as one of the greatest pop stars in history. Although any one of Mr. Samuelsson's singular culinary awards might tempt the average young chef to rest on his laurels, good luck and positive change are often the inevitable consequences of hard work and a curious mind. Not long after he parted ways with Washington Square restaurant owner Steven Starr last December, he landed his own three-part PBS documentary called "The Meaning of Food", which explores food's role in culture and family, which aired in three parts in April. And in the midst of all these endeavors, he is always looking for the holy grail of new flavors.

"You have to stay open to any new knowledge. Other chefs are passionate, you're passionate. You have to have that extra curiosity to succeed. You never shut down where the source of information comes from. That is very, very, very important. It can come from new technology, or it can come from Africa. It doesn't matter. As long as you see the goal, then you have an opportunity to take it to a different level. And you have to be very clear about what it is that you want - aesthetically, texture-wise, flavor-wise; once you have that established, boom, then something happens."

There is no doubt that something will happen. It's difficult not to be swept up in his unbounded energetic thirst for culinary knowledge, and to be impressed with his uncanny ability to intuitively sense which direction his life should lead him. What is difficult to imagine is where this man finds time for the growing list of responsibilities that accompany his restaurants, his cookbooks, his multiple media requests and appearances, and still make time for this unwavering search for new dishes and flavors. Certainly it helps when you have someone like Nils Noren, Executive Chef at Aquavit, who among other things helps him to stay on top of the newer technologies. "Everything is a hybrid today," he explains, "a mixture between technology and creativity. We use computers for research here; it's a real tool. You can instantly find information on a powder in Japan for instance. That is the real difference. Nils does that; he is very good at that. He can find things you'd never be able to find."

As Mr. Samuelsson peers down at the vibrating display console of his cell phone for the umpteenth time during the interview and politely places it back inside his sleek navy chef jacket, it's becoming clear that our time is nearly up. Before I let him disappear into the Aquavit kitchen, I inquire about his work with the Careers Through Culinary Arts Program, and his dedication to New York's culinary schools. He is committed to helping new talented chefs, using his network to match them with New York restaurants. "I see it as an obligation. I got inspired when I saw chefs coming to my school. They said, 'this is a profession, it's not an extension of a maid, it's a profession'. I don't care who you are, you still remember the day when a chef tells you, hey - you can go to France. I still remember the day someone opened that door for me and said you can have this internship. That is what I want to provide." To aspiring chefs, those who are still in school and those who are lucky enough to be learning on the job, Marcus' best advice is to discover who you are, to find your roots, and to go where your heart tells you, even if that place is not (gasp) New York City. "I don't have the golden key. You have to know yourself; do you want to work in the country, at a farm, in a city? You don't have to do it in New York. You can go to New Orleans, you can go into the country. It's up to you."

Mr. Samuelsson says that the core of his personality has not changed, even after becoming the darling of the New York culinary world, and this is easy to believe. While talking about his younger days in Sweden, a distant look in his eyes revealed a man who dearly misses his homeland, even with his four visits each year - an amazing feat considering his schedule. Still, after venturing off into projects in Minneapolis and Philadelphia, one lesson he may have learned is that, although he is Ethiopian first and a Swede second, his heart is now firmly entwined in Manhattan, and New Yorkers are the better for it. As he stood up and graciously thanked everyone, he was back into his natural element within seconds; joking with the hostesses, greeting a few customers, and finally disappearing into the kitchen to make more magic with Mr. Noren. And as I sat down to gather my notes, I could have sworn I heard Bowie's theme song "Changes" playing somewhere in the room, but an auditory double-take confirmed that it was all in my mind... or perhaps in my heart.

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