Chatting with Marcus Samuelsson, Author of Marcus Off Duty: The Recipes I Cook At Home
Celebrity chef and restaurateur Marcus Samuelsson always has a way of getting our attention. At 23, an executive chef at Aquavit, he received a three-star review from The New York Times. At the time, he was the youngest to earn that accolade. But it's not just that he was a culinary prodigy or an expert at Scandinavian cookery long before we’d ever heard of “new Nordic” cuisine. It's that he provides us with a new way to look at food, interpreting it through a lens influenced by his being born in Ethiopia, raised in Sweden and trained in the kitchens of Europe. When he’s not introducing us to less familiar cuisines, he's taking the more familiar ones and feeding them to us better than those before him, just as he does at his restaurant Red Rooster.
In his new cookbook, Marcus Off Duty: The Recipes I Cook at Home, Samuelsson steps out of his restaurant and invites us into his Harlem brownstone. It is there in his home kitchen where he blends near and dear cultures and cuisines with the multiethnic neighborhood in which he now lives and works. The 150 colorful and feel-good recipes are ones he hopes create lasting memories for those he shares them with.
Marcus Samuelsson: Like most people, I got into cooking obviously from home. Some of these narratives and stories are from my home cooking from all of my different homes: Sweden, Ethiopia or, where I feel home now, in Harlem. It was communicating a sense of home. For the first time ever my cooking in my restaurant is inspired by my cooking at home. That’s a big change for me.
All of these things I wanted to echo. There are two palates we're now eating more of in America: Latin and more Asian. We've been ordering Latin and Asian food out for a long time, but we haven’t started cooking them at home. Unless, of course, you are from that ethnicity. Really hitting on the idea you can make this food and you can make it yummy and delicious.
MS: They had to speak to me. I've cooked it. I've eaten it — numerous times. Also, it had to make sense for the next day. Like the day-after-pasta frittata. It makes so much sense for a brunch dish, being a smart cook. The “how” and the “why” became important to me. If it didn’t have a clear “how” and “why,” it didn’t make it in the book.
MS: We are living in one of the few countries in the world that doesn’t cook with a spiritual conscious, with the exception of on Thanksgiving. We eat on convenience and what we like. When you think of Jewish or Muslim food, it is very clear as to what you eat and why. It's not about living a harsh life, but you can be inspired by a culture. It’s asking yourself, "Do I really need a steak for lunch after a heavy breakfast?" We can't go on eating like that. A cookbook has to have a lot of pleasure in it, but it also should guide the reader to become a smarter and better cook.
MS: When you go to Ethiopia, there isn't a meal without music. People clap their hands and music is part of that. When my wife, Maya, and I cook, the first thing we do when getting food out of the fridge is to put music on. I also talk about cooking with kids, and one way is to play music so they are engaged. What could be better than “Push It” with Salt-N-Pepa? Put your favorite music on, have a glass of wine, then cooking doesn’t become work. It helps set a mood and a happy cook makes happier food.
MS: From my grandma I learned: taste, taste, taste. You can never taste food enough. It's very simple: Tasting your food constantly throughout cooking is going to get you closer to the food. And it will change as it is simmering around. Also when you stock your first kitchen, don’t only buy expensive equipment. A Chinese steamer could be gold. Your grandmother’s pressure cooker could be gold. Your cast-iron skillet is incredible for fried chicken. It's not always the latest and greatest. Look back at the old and new, and make that kitchen how you want it.
Leah Chase has something she always says, "Still I cook." Her restaurant was one of the first integrated restaurants in America. When you think about Katrina and you think about everything that has happened in that restaurant, and she says, "Still I cook." In many ways it is good to talk about race and food — in a soft way, in a conversational way. Not as a headline. America has changed and that is good. Food was a major part of driving that change. I love that. Food has brought people together.
MS: When I did the Aquavit cookbook, no one talked about Nordic cuisine. When I think about African cuisine, I didn't invent it, but I wanted to highlight that. I think about my restaurant in Harlem and how it was important to change dining there and have people come to the community. To stay and dine and not just get off the bus. Those are the things that are at the core of what drives me. It's what gets me up. I will continue to really look at food almost as a 21st century civil rights. How can you make it more affordable — or bring it to communities that don’t have full kitchens? That dialogue is really important to me.
People often say a project was a labor of love, but this really seems to be the case.
MS: I had a blast with the book. The illustrations come from Rebecca, my neighbor. Every shot was taken in my house; that’s why the book took four years. It is a celebration. It is a celebration of my wife allowing us to be in the kitchen every day. It is really a labor of my extended family and immediate family, which I am really happy about.
Put the chicken in a large stockpot and add just enough water to cover. Add the red chile and garlic. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer for 20 minutes. Turn off the heat and let the chicken sit until the broth is lukewarm. Transfer the chicken to a carving board (reserve the broth for another use). Pat the chicken dry with paper towels and rub it lightly all over with the sesame oil. Cut the chicken into 8 serving pieces, arrange on a serving platter, and keep warm.
Heat the peanut oil in a small saucepan over high heat. When it shimmers, add the scallion strips. Sauté for 30 seconds, stirring constantly. Remove with a slotted spoon, drain on paper towels, and set aside for the garnish. Add the ginger to the pan and sauté for 30 seconds. Add the soy sauce, sherry, brown sugar, and lemongrass and bring to a boil. Remove the sauce from the heat and discard the lemongrass.
Garnish the Chicken. Scatter the sliced scallions, cucumber, cilantro, and sesame seeds around the chicken. Top with the fried scallions and drizzle the sauce over all. Serve warm.
Excerpted from MARCUS OFF DUTY: THE RECIPES I COOK AT HOME © 2014 by Marcus Samuelsson. Reproduced by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved. Photo: Paul Brissman.
Kiri Tannenbaum is a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu Paris and holds an M.A. in food studies from New York University where she is currently an adjunct professor. When her schedule allows, she leads culinary walking tours in New York City and is currently at work on her first book.