Swedish Flair/ SC May - July 2002
By Amy Van

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 vodkas.

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 them."

And 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 head chef.

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 one day.

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 and researched.

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 it stands…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.

(Photos courtesy of Aquavit)

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