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One On 1: Marcus Samuelsson – From Ethiopia, To Sweden, To America

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New York has long been home to people who've come to make a brand new start. The journey is nothing less than an integral part of the story of one of the city’s most successful chefs, Marcus Samuelsson, who was born in Ethiopia, raised in Sweden, and now owns restaurants around the city and the world. He’s the subject of this week’s One on 1 with Budd Mishkin.

When Marcus Samuelsson prepares a dish at his restaurant, nothing is by chance. There is a plan, an equation.

"Flavor is number one and then we create the flavor by having a contrast of temperature and texture and aesthetic,” says Samuelsson.

Samuelsson says one dish at his restaurant Aquavit symbolizes that approach. Two textures, the smoked salmon and the salad. The Scandinavian influence of his youth and a minimalist aesthetic. Not that the customer needs to understand any of these nuances.

"Just enjoy. This is our job to figure out,” says Samuelsson. “I don't know the logistics behind sending an email for example or a Google search or something like that. I just don't know the logistic behind it, but I'm so appreciate it that is there and I can do it right?”

Samuelsson is a young man on the go. He has a television show on the Learning Channel. He's written two cookbooks, one on Sweden, one on Africa. And he's the executive chef and co-owner of three restaurants in Manhattan, where the room's aesthetic is also part of the experience.

“We use wood, because from Scandinavia; we are in America so we use warmer wood when we design it,” says Samuelsson. “In Sweden it would be birch, but for America it’s walnut.”

When Samuelsson is at home in his Harlem townhouse, he often paints.

But this too is part of his restaurant world. Many of his pieces helped create the feel of his new pan-African restaurant in the Meatpacking District, Mercato.

"I started to draw down, visually, how I wanted the restaurant to look, and when we started to work with the architect, I had a very clear picture of how I wanted Africa to look like or taste like or not,” says Samuelsson.

Samuelsson arrived in New York in the early '90s, and quickly became the executive chef at Aquavit.

In 1995, the New York Times made him the youngest chef to earn a three-star review. But he received even more attention for the story of his life. Born in Ethiopia, his mother died of tuberculosis. He was living in an orphanage when a Swedish couple adopted him and his sister and raised them in Sweden.

Samuelsson says retelling the story frequently is not a burden.

“It's never a direct journey. Myself, whenever I read about other people, you always read about he did this and that's what makes him different or her different,” says Samuelsson. “My thing is food, and I'm so happy that we have created great interest in what we do in terms of food and the restaurants are busy."

Samuelsson treated me to a nice beef stew over couscous. But usually, when he's off, he's off, even when friends invite him over.

"People always think, 'Oh you're going to come. Can you cook something?' I’m like, 'No. Do you want me to come? I come there and I hang out.’ But people always want you to,” says Samuelsson. “I always wondered do lawyers always get asked, 'Could you look over this paper for me?’ And police officers get asked, 'Could you watch my kids,' whatever? Chefs? Always, can Marcus bring something? I'm like, no."

Samuelsson didn't have to come to New York to experience a melting pot.

“My aunt is Jewish and my cousins are Korean, my parents are white, my other sister is mixed. We come from very multi culture,” says Samuelsson. “When you sit at the dinner table, or at family reunions and stuff, and everybody is mixed, you can't really toss certain comments around, because it doesn't fit, because everyone in your family looks like that guy you’re gonna talk about."

Samuelsson was three when he and his sister were adopted in Ethiopia and taken to Sweden. He describes an enjoyable childhood, thanks largely to his parents.

“Being a black kid in Sweden, predominant white country, you get attention right away, positive or negative, and my mom always was like well, you know you guys are rock stars,” says Samuelsson. “She treated us with enormous amount of confidence."

His grandmother's dishes first piqued his interest in food and the chefs he worked with at the local culinary institute stoked his desire to see the world.

After studying in Europe, he came here. Among the lessons he learned, the role of race in New York.

“Not until I came here did I realize that until I tell everybody about my story about Sweden, people look at me as an African man,” says Samuelsson. “As obvious as it is to you and everybody else and it wasn't that obvious to me because you know, my story, my upbringing is very Swedish."

As he was gaining renown throughout the '90s, Samuelsson says he was occasionally embarrassed by his lack of knowledge of the cuisine of his native country.

“When I'm doing cooking class and people ask me, 'What about Ethiopian food, what about African food?’ it annoyed me not to give them a good answer,” says Samuelsson.

So he went to Africa to learn about its food, culminating in "The Soul Of A New Cuisine."

Thanks largely to the work of his sister and the encouragement of his parents, Samuelsson met his biological father, who'd endured the death of a wife and child, and the adoption of Marcus and his sister.

“He lost his family and so he was depressed and down, so he became a priest and came back and started a new family and new energy and you know stayed alive and was very happy to see us. I think that his journey and his energy and his spirit is really inspirational,” says Samuelsson.

He now travels to Africa frequently, as a United Nations goodwill ambassador.

Mishkin: Are there any feeling, there but for fortune, that might be me here?

Samuelsson: All the time. When I go down there and work with UNICEF or when I see kids from the street, all the time I mean, you cannot come from the background that I come from and not think about that. It's just impossible.

He also participates in the Careers Through Culinary Arts Program, which provides local high school students with training, scholarships and jobs in the restaurant and food service industry.

New York has been home for 15 years. Samuelsson has thrived here and yet he's not immune to the occasional painful reminder about life for a black man in the city.

"If I walk out of the restaurant tonight and I don't get a cab, it hurts just as much now as it did when I got here,” says Samuelsson. “But it’s good, too. It keeps me grounded. It's not good, but it does keep me grounded.”

With new projects here, and in cities across the country and around the world, and books and a television show, Samuelsson is too busy, too much of an optimist, a dreamer, to dwell on the negative.

“I've been able to work in New York City and do this, gives me a level of wow I'm just a beginner. I still feel like I'm a beginner,” says Samuelsson. “It’s a dialogue with the public, with the press, with the cooks, with the dish washers, with the servers. It's a dialogue. When it’s all of those clicking at the same time, you have a wonderful restaurant. It takes a while and it takes a lot of work, but it's a lot of fun."

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