By 1010 WINS’ Larry Mullins
I had heard about Chef Marcus Samuelson on TV shows and from general chatter about the great chefs of the world.
I’m a foodie, so I get excited when I hear about a cook who’s doing amazing things right here in our community. That’s how I met Cheryl Smith, who started Cheryl’s Global Soul Food in Brooklyn. So when my producer Sharon told me about Chef Marcus, I thought “this’ll be great.” I expected some big old jolly guy, about 100 years old, steeped in the tradition of great cooking and culinary etiquette.
Well he is all those things, except jolly, old or 100.We’re sitting there inside his Red Rooster Restaurant in Harlem, and some little guy comes out dressed like a cross between Andre Benjamin (Outkast singer), and Justin Bieber. It’s him! And I’m thinking, where’s your apron, where’s the sauce spilled down the middle of your rotund belly, where’s your tall chef’s hat?
Chef Marcus was as cool as the other side of the pillow (as Stu Scott would say on ESPN). And by the time he finished telling me his roots, I thought he was the coolest guy on the planet. Get this, he was born in Ethiopia, raised in Sweden, and transplanted to Harlem.
And through it all, cooking has been his common denominator. His mom died when he was a little boy. Marcus told me that he and his mom and sister walked for 75 miles to find medical help. She eventually died of TB. He had the same affliction and it was taking its toll on his frail body as well. But then, he says he was adopted by a Swedish couple, and was quickly whisked (no pun intended) into the world of cooking. His Swedish grandmother turned him on to it. In fact I teased him about ripping off his granny, putting her Swedish meatballs on his menu. But sitting with this guy, and hearing all that he endured, makes you feel like you can do anything.
We’re sitting here in this restaurant, and I don’t think (aside from our production equipment and microphones drawing attention), that anybody really knew who he was. Yet he’s one of the most celebrated chefs in the country. In fact, one of the big papers here gave him a coveted 3-star rating…the youngest chef “ever” to get that. And then in 2003, he gets the James beard Award for best chef in New York City. And I’m sitting with this guy! (Can you tell I’m a chef groupie? Don’t hate). He also won the 2010 “Top Chef Masters” on that Bravo TV show. And the restaurant looks as eclectic as the chef; with pictures of old Harlem, with some Ethiopian and Swedish-inspired pieces adorning the walls, and wait staff meticulously zipping around serving people with a 5-star “umph” to their swagger. I love Chef Marcus. And apparently, so do the last few presidents. He says one of his crowning achievements was to cook one of the state dinners for President Obama.
You know I had to “go there” with this question: Marcus, please tell me you all didn’t make chicken. Hah! WINS family, I’m just keeping it real. We’re all adults, and you know how people always figure that banquets always get served the cheapest fare known to man (not just for black people either)..and that’s “chicken”. He says President Obama and President Clinton (whose office is right around the corner from the Red Rooster) still pop in every now and then for his world famous cornbread.
I didn’t get to try it because I had to leave the interview to make it to WINS to do the 7 o’clock news. But I’m going back. But you’re going to love the Black History pieces I got to do with Chef Marcus. I’d love to just hang out with him, because he’s fun. A good hang-out buddy. Okay…I’m busted…the brother’s got free food.
Update: I did manage to sneak back into the Red Rooster in Harlem, for a nice meal. And no, it wasn’t free (we don’t try to schmooze freebies out of our interview subjects, although I really did want to sing a duet with Patti Austin from a previous Black History series). But my personal review of Chef Marcus’s cooking at the Red Rooster? This lil’ New Year’s resolution (cutting back on eating out, backing off of rich foods, easy on the bread etc.)………..*crickets*.
I’m jus’ sayin.