Red Rooster chef Marcus Samuelsson and food festival guru Herb Karlitz are launching a major Harlem food festival. Details are still being worked out, but they’ll organize a series of events in Harlem for 2015. The fest could also incorporate music and art elements, and was being buzzed about at the recent James Beard Awards.
Supporters are expected to include heavy hitters such as Bill Clinton. Karlitz has been behind food and wine fests in New York, California, Miami and Las Vegas.
Also, Samuelsson, the celebrity chef and TV personality is writing a memoir. As The New York Times recently opined:
“Mr. Samuelsson, as it happens, possesses one of the great culinary stories of our time.”
Born in Ethiopia and adopted from a tuberculosis treatment center at age 3, Samuelsson moved to Sweden as a toddler with his sister, where he learned his early kitchen skills from a doting grandmother. Samuelsson's new memoir Yes, Chef follows him on his journey from Africa to Sweden, New York, France, Switzerland, and the many kitchens and restaurants that launched his career. On Wednesday, July 18, Samuelsson will barnstorm Austin for three appearances in eight hours at both La Condesa and Central Market.
Discussing the book, his future plans, and his experiences of Austin during his April food festival visit the chef said it took five years, and the whole idea was to respect the reader the way you respect a diner in a restaurant. Every word, every sentence did matter, and he wanted to do something tasteful and crafted, but also inspired. However long the journey was, there's just a lot to cover, whether it's race, whether it's adoption, whether it's family. “But, in order to do that you want it not just to be stuff, you want it to be meaningful.”
Samuellson explained that everyone has a different journey. “I just knew what it would take for me. I'm not from France, and many chefs come from really strong, cooking-traditional places. I didn't come from a cooking family, my grandmother cooked, but my father didn't have a restaurant or anything like that. I just felt for me, given everything that I had, and also being a person of color, I just knew I had a lower margin for error. So I just had to keep the knives sharpened and focus on it.”
The Swedish flavors and foods that he grew up with still aren’t common in the US so he mentioned going through the trials of finding the right balance at Aquavit over time. “I've been extremely lucky mainly because my restaurant Red Rooster, in Harlem is completely packed, and I'm very busy with the restaurant, so you come from a small country like Sweden, and it takes a really long time to find a food narrative. Now today there's explosive growth that's being made in the cooking scene, you know you see a restaurant like Copenhagen’s NoMa and so on, but back when I started it wasn't like that, so you had to plow on, you had to get endorsed, and now we're having big success.”
In the book, he talks about ‘keeping his head down’ as a younger chef, not being noticed, just trying to hang around and survive while the other people fell off which came back to him in a really big way while competing in “Top Chef: Masters”, “Chopped”, and “The Next Iron Chef”, because in the book he talks about each kitchen assignment in his career being a bit of a competition to get to the next level.
In his experience, he played soccer, he played sports. He definitely has a competitive side, and it serves him really well when doing a competition, and the adrenaline rush, it's fun! He did three shows so far, and won two of them, so that's not a bad record!
When crafting his story he also told about the less pleasant parts of his life experience, whether it was a business deal going bad with Merkato 55, or whether it was trying to rekindle a relationship with your daughter after all that time. “I mean, I couldn't leave it out. This is not a big deal, really – it was the journey of what I had to experience, and to be trailing off, it’s not honest. I felt like as the author, I felt like I had to put it all in there to do this properly and otherwise it wouldn't work – just like in a restaurant – your food needs to be honest.”
Samuellson also discussed 2001 in New York and 9/11’s aftermath from a business standpoint. “I lived in New York at that time and just remember how empty restaurants were and how empty sporting events were and how people just stopping leaving home.” It did give me more hope and love for New York than ever. It was the hardest thing that ever happened to this city, and it took a toll on everyone, not just New York, all of us, right? But I felt like, wow, this really confirmed more my love for this city and we worked together in a way and everyone stuck together even more. It was definitely a gut check and there were long days and we asked: “Will this ever come back?” And then after a while, you just get used to a new reality and then you make the best out of that.”
“I feel like we have a lot of work to do still on Red Rooster, but I'm excited about that work. Right now, this book is coming out, and Red Rooster, although it's 18 months old, I still feel it's a brand new restaurant in many ways. We're committed to be here in Harlem and hire kids from Harlem and serve the community here and it's new and fresh. Just because you've had 18 months of success doesn't give us the right…I don't feel that we're ready to consider what's next for that. We've set up a supper club called Ginny’s in the basement and we're working hard on that.”