Meet Marcus Samuelsson The Swedish-Ethiopian Chef Who Cooked for Obama

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If you haven’t heard about Marcus Samuelsson yet, it’s about time you get to know this world-class chef. In the U.S. he’s a regular on TV, whether it’s cooking with late-night television hosts like Steven Colbert, Jimmy Fallon, and Seth Meyers, or judging and competing in cooking shows like Top Chef and Chopped. Samuelsson has published multiple cookbooks and hosted or participated in several food-related productions. Among them, he showed Anthony Bourdain around his country of origin, Ethiopia, in an episode of Parts Unknown. Marcus’ latest food and travel show on PBS is called No Passport Required where he explores immigrant food in the States.

Believe it or not, the American chef is actually from Sweden! He already has restaurants all over Scandinavia, and just opened his first two in Oslo this year – Norda at Clarion Hotel the Hub and Kitchen & Table Fishery at Clarion Hotel Oslo. Kaitlin and I met up for a chat with Marcus in New York City (NYC) this winter, before the Oslo openings, and had lunch at his restaurant Red Rooster on the corner of Malcolm X Avenue and West 126th Street.

We met Marcus for lunch at his restaurant Red Rooster in Harlem
We met Marcus for lunch at his restaurant Red Rooster in Harlem

Marcus Samuelsson’s Improbable Path to Celebrity Chef

Life wasn’t exactly set out for Marcus Samuelsson. At age 3, his mother tragically died of illness. When the civil war broke out in Ethiopia, little Marcus and his sister were separated from their family. Life took a dramatic turn, but luckily, they were both adopted by a Swedish family and grew up in the safe city of Gothenburg.

– The very first chef that inspired me was my grandmother, Marcus answers immediately when asked about his background.

He’s talking about his Swedish grandmother Helga from whom he first learned to cook. She would make simple things, like roasted chicken for dinner. The next day, chicken sandwiches would be on the menu, and then chicken soup on the third day.

– People don’t think about it, but if you talk to your grandparents, Sweden and Norway were very poor countries. That’s where all those dishes come from – like lefse and rye bread. It was food that could sustain for a long time. If you had a whole animal, you used it for two months. You broke it down, you smoked it, you pickled it. Today, sustainability has become not a sidebar conversation, but the conversation.

From Aquavit to Red Rooster

Samuelsson’s multifaceted background has shaped his relationship with food. As a teenager, he would travel the world and work as a chef in different countries. He learned classical cooking in France but was even more intrigued by the unique style in Japan, which, unlike a lot of other cuisines, he found was not Eurocentric at all.

At age 24, Marcus had been promoted to executive chef at restaurant Aquavit in NYC and became the youngest chef ever to receive three out of three stars from the New York Times. In 2003, he was even named the best chef in NYC by the respected James Beard Foundation.

– I always had a vision that I wanted to open something that was opposite of what I was doing at Aquavit. Incorporating music and identities of African American culture.

In 2010, Marcus opened the first restaurant of his own, the now-famous Red Rooster in Harlem. He wanted to give something back to the community of which he was a part. Red Rooster is a neighborhood restaurant in the truest sense. The interior reflects the people and the culture of this Manhattan district, and all chefs here are locally recruited. Chef Samuelsson is passionate about diversity in the workforce and knows from his own experience that a great chef can come from any background. While Grandma Helga’s famous Swedish meatballs are actually on the menu at Red Rooster, the food is more rooted in African and American cultures than Scandinavian.

However, two years after opening Red Rooster, Marcus followed his dream of opening a restaurant in the Swedish city where he grew up. Restaurant Norda opened in the then-new Clarion Hotel Post in Gothenburg and marked the beginning of Samuelsson’s cooperation with Petter Stordalen and the Clarion group.

The chicken sandwich is a stable dish at Red Rooster
The chicken sandwich is a staple dish at Red Rooster

Marcus Samuelsson’s First Restaurants in Oslo

Today, Marcus has a second Red Rooster restaurant in Shoreditch, London, with plans of opening two more in USA (Miami and Detroit). There are over twenty Kitchen & Table (K&T) restaurants in Clarion hotels around the Nordics, mainly in Sweden and Norway, but up until now, Marcus has never had a place in the capital of Oslo. 2019 changed that. In March, he opened Norda on the 13th floor of the newly renovated and relaunched hotel Clarion the Hub complete with an urban garden (GrowHub) on the roof and a Nordic menu with American influences. Last month, he completed his Oslo infiltration by opening Kitchen & Table Fishery in the brand new Clarion Hotel Oslo. A young female chef, Lene Kjøde from Ålesund, is in charge of the seafood-focused Bjørvika restaurant.

– Kitchen & Table is an everyday restaurant where we are thinking about the hotel guests, the locals, as well as the tourists. They should all be able to meet at the same place.

Samuelsson explains how half the menu is the same across all the K&T restaurants, while the last 50% is locally driven. For the travelers, there’s a familiarity, but at the same time, they can experience something unique. Marcus’ philosophy is that every restaurant, regardless of being in a hotel or not, should cater to the neighborhood and become a gathering point.

– Red Rooster is beyond a restaurant. If you look at Clarion Post, it’s more than a hotel in Gothenburg. When that post office that was closed for 30 years reopened, it became a gathering point in the city that goes beyond rooms and tables.

Kitchen & Table Fishery
Dronning Eufemias gate 15
0191 Oslo Google
+47 21 95 97 50
[email protected]

Opening Hours:
Monday – Friday: 11.00 – 23.00
Saturday: 12.00 – 23.00
Sunday: 13.00 – 21.00

Marus Samuelsson visited Oslo this year to open two new restaurants
Marcus Samuelsson visited Oslo this year to open two new restaurants

Cooking for President Barack Obama

President Barack Obama asked Samuelsson to be in charge of the very first state dinner of his presidency, in honor of India’s prime minister Manmohan Singh. During the preparations, which took months, Samuelsson was too busy, working night and day, to think about what big of a responsibility he had been handed. In hindsight, once he got some distance from it, he realized he had been part of something special. At one point, his Swedish mom reminded him that their family name was at stake if he messed it up. Fortunately, Marcus had some training already, cooking for the Swedish royal family. On November 24th, 2009, he presented a modern and vegetable-focused menu for the Obamas and their distinguished guests.

– Previously, state dinners had always been rooted in French cuisine. That would have made sense for the French president, but these were visitors from India. Prime minister Singh happened to be vegetarian, and Michelle Obama had just started her great garden program, so this was the right opportunity and it was well-received.

Marcus Samuelsson’s Favorite New York City Spots

Marcus’ passion for his hometown and the neighborhood he lives in was evident when we asked him to recommend us some NYC favorites. His eyes lit up, he started talking faster, and we had a hard time keeping up with all the names and addresses.

– For music, down the street, Paris Blues on 121st and Adam Clayton. If you wanna see an iconic Italian-American restaurant in Harlem, go down to Rao’s. It’s on 114th and Pleasant Avenue. If you go to Marjorie’s on 160th and Edgecombe on a Sunday, there’s a lady that has her jazz pop-up every Sunday in her apartment. She’s an 85-year-old lady. Imagine, from three to five, every Sunday, in someone’s home! She might have cookies, she might have tea, but she will always have music. If you have money, you pay a little bit, if you don’t have money, you’re still welcome. What can be higher hospitality? That is New York for me.

When Kaitlin revealed that she was showing me her hometown of Los Angeles next and planned to take me to San Gabriel Valley, it prompted Marcus to tell us about another New York borough he loves.

– I love to take people to Queens! Queens is like the way you eat in L.A. It’s Thai next to Mexican next to Greek. You can go from neighborhood to neighborhood. I think it’s one of those underbellies of New York City. Chinatown there is better than Chinatown on Canal Street.

Next time we’re in town, he promised to take us on a food crawl around Queens.


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Anders Husa

Anders Husa and Kaitlin Orr are food & travel bloggers and creative content creators. From their base in Copenhagen, they operate the largest and most influential restaurant-focused travel blog in Scandinavia.

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