Blessed with an artistic flair
for cooking, Marcus Samuelsson achieved culinary stardom
at a very young age. Amy Van talks to the Ethiopian-born
and Swedish-bred chef who has carved a niche for himself
and galvanizing American's food scene.
"Aquavit's food is awesome!"
one American food critic puts it simply, delighted with
the opportunity to dine twice at this award-winning
Swedish restaurant in the heart of Manhattan. Showered
with such praise from critics and clients alike, one
wonders what the secret of success is behind this beloved
upscale restaurant named after Sweden's famed flavoured
Renowned for holding diners spellbound with his creations,
the unassuming Chef Marcus Samuelsson sums up the reason
behind Aquavit's consistent standards: "It's because
of our daily training on the job and lots of hard work.
We constantly update our staff, stick to our concept,
set high standards of food and service and try to achieve
let's not forget the chef's immense talent and innate
artistic streak. At only 31 years of age, Samuelsson
has been outshining his peers and garnering accolades
such as a four-star rating in Forbes, the 1999 Rising
Star Chef by the James Beard Foundation, a renowned
non-profit culinary organisation in New York and named
as one of "The Great Chefs of America" by
The Culinary Institute of America. And that's not all.
The energetic chef has prepared meals for Sweden's royal
family, and even graced the cover of People's magazine
together with George Clooney and Matt Damon as one of
America's 100 Most Eligible Bachelors in 2000
However, it wasn't all fame and glory from the outset.
Orphaned when he was just three years old during a tuberculosis
epidemic that struck his native Ethiopia, Samuelsson
and his sister were adopted by a young Swedish couple.
His refers to his childhood as "an idyllic time
spent with family and close friends on the West Coast
of Sweden". At the age of six, he had his first
cooking lesson, guided by his grandmother (and mentor),
a professional cook who spurred his interest in traditional
Swedish cuisine as well as taught him the importance
of respecting ingredients.
Armed with grandma's teachings, Samuelsson was accepted
to study at the Culinary Institute in Gotenborg and
trained at various places in Switzerland and Austria
before securing an eight-month apprenticeship at Aquavit.
After his New York stint, he learnt the ropes of French
cooking techniques at Georges Blanc in Lyon, France,
a three-star Michelin restaurant. But the lure of New
York was too strong. In 1995, the then 24-year-old chef
returned to the Big Apple and was soon appointed as
Executive Chef of Aquavit (then an eight-year old, one-star
restaurant) after the unexpected death of the former
Founding partner Hakan Swahn gave Samuelsson the task
of establishing an identity for Scandinavian cuisine
in America, entrusting him to elevate the unique cuisine
to another level. Sammuelsson did just that, and only
three months later, the restaurant received a rare three-star
rating from the New York Times for creative flavour
combinations and plate presentations. And to show it
wasn't a one-off occurrence, Aquavit also received a
further standing ovation from the newspaper's restaurant
critic in May 2001.
With his profound understanding of Scandinavia and
global food knowledge, Samuelsson who is also Aquavit's
co-owner, managed to entice American diners to a cuisine
that most assumed consisted of meatballs and pickled
fish. On top of that, Aquavit has been dubbed the "grandest
of New York's Scandinavian restaurants", duly astounding
its audience from near and far. Samuelsson tells: "I
work in a global city, where people from all over the
world come everyday. It's all about memorable experience.
People come here for a memorable experience, take it
back to their home country, and put us in connection
with New York and I think we are very proud of that."
From those days of carving out a niche for Scandinavian
food, Samuelsson has since trail-blazed his way internationally,
undertaking to some extent, the role as ambassador of
Swedish food. When asked why Swedish food is not as
well known as say French or Italian cuisines in other
parts of the world, he answers: "Sweden is a small
country, located north in a peninsula, with low population
and few tourists. All these elements go against how
food culture travels." However, he swiftly adds:
"That doesn't mean we don't have good ingredients
and great food." Generally, cold weather food is
tougher to quickly enjoy than warm weather food. For
instance, he points out, hawker food from Singapore
or Thailand has flavours that are easier to enjoy than
game meat or salted fish from Sweden.
The foundation of Samuelsson's cooking comprises several
building blocks. He works with fish and seafood, game,
pickling and preserve techniques and merges them with
elements such as aesthetic, texture and temperature
to achieve a unique flavour combination. Besides traditional
Swedish cuisine like meatballs, herring and gravlax,
dashes of innovative interpretations can be seen in
Aquavit's signature dishes. Samuelsson amazes diners
with the likes of white chocolate and fennel, white
chocolate muffin with curry sabayon or sorbet, foie
gras ganache and tandoor smoked salmon.
Some of his pet ingredients include tuna, sea urchin,
venison and salted lemons, which he uses often to marry
contemporary influences with traditional cooking methods.
Yet another Scandinavian pièce de résistance
- coffee - is used as a solid base for many of his dishes.
Samuelsson explains that it adds depth and flavour.
"Besides using coffee for desserts, I use smoked
coffee and white coffee, cook duck with coffee and mix
coffee with Asian spices like cinnamon and cloves."
Samuelsson goal is to make food exciting - even if the
concoction is as strange as tomato-horseradish-wasabi
flavoured vodka shots.
As for sources of inspiration, Samuelsson cites top
chefs like George Blanc, Charlie Trotter and Jean Georges
plus, of course, his grandmother. Apart from those people,
he's also inspired by a lot of regular cooks and volunteers
who come to work in his kitchen.
But, he says, there is also much inspiration to be
gained beyond the gastronomic world, from the myriad
of art galleries, museums, music and culture that New
York offers. "I love modern art, paintings and
works by Jackson Pollock and Jasper Johns," enthuses
the culinary maestro. Although he doesn't have a private
art collection yet, he hopes to create his own masterpieces
In the meantime, this creative chef personalises his
cuisine and treats the plate as his canvas. He interlaces
his artistic flair by painting on plates, tiles or glass
bricks that he serves his dishes on. "Every chef
wants to bring his or her personality into the food."
But one might wonder what, having accomplished so much
at such a young age, Samuelsson has planned for the
future? "I hope to work on my cookbooks, develop
new concepts and continue working with charities - things
that I enjoy doing," he tells. Not one to forget
his heritage, Samuelsson devotes his time as official
spokesperson and ambassador for UNICEF as well as raising
funds and supporting tuberculosis initiatives in developing
countries. He is also actively involved with the Careers
Through Culinary Arts Program (C-CAP), a non-profit
organisation that provides inner-city high school students
with training, scholarships and jobs in the restaurant
and food service industry.
Would he perhaps start an Ethiopian restaurant in New
York? He ponders for a moment and says: "Maybe
one day". To him, Ethiopian food is a "completely
different chapter" with many elements to explore.
"Ethiopia is the only place in Africa that was
not colonised and hence does not have any European influence
in the food, unlike say Moroccan food which has French
influence. In Ethiopia, you get highland food as very
few things grow there. You get Injera bread - a sourdough
pancake that you eat with every meal and a ground spice
mix called berbere, mainly used in stews," he says.
Other than this, a typical Ethiopian meal often comprises
a lot of lentils, fish and vegetables.
For now, however, Samuelsson is focusing on Aquavit's
Minneapolis branch (a spot with a high concentration
of Americans of Swedish descent) and overseeing the
new AQ Café at Scandinavia House which serves
casual lunch meals. The expansion of Aquavit's business
has also seen the launch of a new line of traditional
Swedish prepared foods from recipes Samuelsson developed
Away from the frenetic kitchen scene, Samuelsson enjoys
relaxing with friends and watching jazz shows. When
he has time to entertain at home, he likes to serve
an assortment of three different things such as cured
salmon, Ethiopian dishes and sushi. Constantly in search
of gourmet trends, he also travels quite a fair bit
to various parts of the world including Africa. His
most recent trip was to Singapore to attend the annual
World Gourmet Summit where he captivated guests with
his culinary expertise at Hyatt's Mezza9 restaurant.
So where does his cooking style stand in America's
culinary scene? No stranger to praise by now, the modest
chef answers: "It's not really for me to say where
although we have achieved awards and
high standards, they only drive me to perform better
and carry out a respectable business that people enjoy
going to." With his savoir-faire, dexterous masterstroke
and perhaps a dash of pure luck, Samuelsson will no
doubt continue to compel audiences worldwide by creating
passionate Scandinavian cuisine that is worthy of applause.