Target the Family

Profile: Marcus Samuelsson

Feast and famine

It’s 2:30 on a Thursday afternoon when Marcus Samuelsson, the executive chef of New York’s Restaurant Aquavit, slides into a booth and sits down for the first time that day.  In the background, the satisfied hum of diners lingering over lunch prepared by one of Manhattan’s youngest and brightest culinary stars mingles with soft jazz:  Alberta Hunter crooning “Nobody loves you when you’re down and out.” 

Everybody loves Marcus Samuelsson right now.  Fifteen months ago, Aquavit received three stars in a New York Times restaurant review that said, in part, “Mr. Samuelsson is cooking delicate and beautiful food, walking a tightrope between Swedish tradition and  modern taste.”  He’s been lionized in the press and on television, as much for his seared arctic char in a miso and mustard glaze and roasted venison in lingonberry and merlot sauce as for his personal story.  For Marcus Samuelsson knows only too well what it’s like to be down and out.

He was born in Ethiopia 27 years ago, and was orphaned at age three, his parents a casualty of war and a tuberculosis epidemic ravaging the country.  Marcus and his four-year-old sister, Linda, could have easily become one more sad statistic, but they were lucky.  Their dying mother managed to get them to a Swedish field hospital, where they were taken in by an Ethiopian nurse and ultimately adopted by Lennart and Ann Marie Samuelsson, a Swedish geologist and homemaker from the university town of Goteborg.

Suddenly, instead of starving in the desert, they were living in a comfortable home with a garden and, even more important, a refrigerator.  Although neither Marcus nor Linda had ever seen a refrigerator before, they quickly grasped its significance.  “We saw that food came out of the refrigerator,” Samuelsson recalls.  “So we stood and pounded on the door all day.”

Marcus was soon opening the refrigerator door himself and, under the tutelage of his maternal Swedish grandmother, learning to cook traditional Swedish dishes “She’d say, ‘Today we’re going to do blueberry bread.  Tomorrow, we’ll do pancakes,’” he recalled.  At age six, he was struggling to roll out gingersnap dough.  As a teenager, he moonlighted in local restaurants.  At 16, when Swedes leave high school, he enrolled in the Culinary Institute in Goteborg. 

“My parents raised me to believe that they’d support me, whether I was a chef or plumber or lawyer, as long as I was sincere about what I wanted to do,” he remembers.  After his desire to cook  was clear, his father gave him some advice:  “He said, ‘You have to work at the best places, not just small restaurants.’ I’m a very driven person,” he adds.  “I knew I’d give it my best shot.”

And he did.  After graduating, he apprenticed at some of the finest kitchens in France, Austria and Switzerland, where, at the Hotel Victoria Jungfrau in TK, he made his most embarrassing culinary mistake.  “The language of the region was German and everyone in the restaurant spoke French.  I didn’t understand a recipe for avocado mousse and translated it wrong,” he recalls, and didn’t put in enough gelatin.  The result was a goopy avocado soup.  “I was yelled at in German and French and English, all at the same time.  I will never, ever forget it,” he says, quite seriously.  Typically, he gleaned a lesson from his experience, and it wasn’t just about the correct proportion of gelatin to avocado.  “You can complain, or you can say, ‘I accept the challenge.’  I accepted the challenge.  And I made sure it would never happen again.”

Meanwhile, a few years before Samuelsson was having avocado-inspired invective hurled at him, Swedish businessman Hakan Swahn  had opened Restaurant Aquavit to great acclaim.  As the word went out that he was looking for young Swedish cooks to prove that there was more to Scandinavian cooking than meatballs and herring, Samuelsson, like many other Goteborg graduates, did a stage, or apprenticeship, before continuing the peripatetic life of a junior chef.

Today, the partnership between the Samuelsson and Aquavit seems almost pre-ordained.  In fact, it was the stuff of a modern fairy tale, complete with seemingly insurmountable obstacles, amazing coincidences and a heaping dose of good fortune.  By 1994, Aquavit was in trouble.  Chefs had come and gone, the initial excitement had dissipated and The New York Times had dropped the restaurant’s rating to a single star.  The bottom line promptly plummeted. “It was a demoralizing time,” says Hakan Swahn. 

Realizing that he needed to put together a new team, Swahn hired chef Jan Sendel to head up the kitchen.  Like most of the other Swedish chefs in New York, Sendel had spent time at Aquavit’s stoves--coincidentally, at the same time that Samuelsson had been stirring the saucepots--and he remembered the slender, intense young man’s talent and taste for hard work.  Even more coincidentally, Sendel’s assistant announced his intentions to move to California at the same time that Hakan Swahn received a letter from Marcus.  “He asked to help bring Aquavit up to a top level,” Swahn remembers.  “It was a very brash letter.”

Sendel and Swahn decided to take a chance, and Marcus came over on New Year’s Day, 1994. In early February, Swahn was preparing for a trip to Sweden when Sendel called to say that he had made a decision:  Samuelsson was definitely going to be his sous-chef.  Tragically, the next night, Sendel died of a heart attack.

“I said to Marcus, ‘The step from sous-chef to executive chef is a big one.  You’ve got a lot of talent but you’re only 24 and this job involves cost control, purchasing, supervising and a slew of other responsibilities.  I think you need more seasoning, but for now, consider yourself in charge,’” says Swahn.  “And he said, ‘I’ll take that challenge and I won’t disappoint you.’”

He hasn’t.  Samuelsson introduced livelier dishes, cut food costs by more than 10 percent while adding free appetizers and desserts, lowered the cost of a prix-fixe menu and, less than two years later, not only won back the lost star but leaped to a three-star rating from The New York Times, an accolade that only TK other restaurants in New York City can boast of. 

Has culinary celebrity changed things?  “It changed everything,” Samuelsson says.  Overnight, business jumped 40 percent. Interview requests poured in.  He became a star--and promptly threw away his watch.  “I never want to know how many hours I work each day,” he explains.  He knows that he gets to the restaurant by 8:30 in the morning and stays until he’s satisfied-- “11, 10 o’clock, sometimes midnight.”  He laughs.  “Never nine o’clock.”

Six days a week, he walks from his modest apartment in an eclectic brownstone neighborhood to the soaring skyscrapers and sleek clientele that throng Fifth Avenue.  Aquavit’s home is an elegant townhouse across the street from the Museum of Modern Art.  Its blonde wood, streamlined design and airy atrium dining room where a waterfall slides down a slab of polished gray granite, provide a soothing Scandinavian setting for quintessential New York power lunches.

Samuelsson strides across the room, his crisp chef’s whites at odds with a battered pair of shoes, whose grease stains and thick rubber soles testify to long hours in front of a stove.  He refuses to wear a toque, the traditional toplofty chef’s hat, saying it’s too formal; more likely, it would never stay on his head as he whizzes from his office to the kitchen.

An executive chef must be a genie, everywhere at once, simultaneously granting the wishes of the customers and solving problems in the kitchen. Today, there’s a new chef on the line--one of Swahn’s Swedish trainees--and Marcus wants to watch him.  Grabbing one of the dishcloths that chefs use instead of potholders, Marcus slides in next to him at the industrial stove and starts to saute a slice of salmon, joking in Swedish while making sure everything’s running smoothly. 

Lunch is in full swing and the kitchen is a picture of controlled confusion, a Babel of Swedish, French and English.  The expediting machine is spitting out order chits, which the waiters clip to a counter and shout to the cooks:  “Ordering table 15, chicken and veal!” “Ordering table 20, gravlax and halibut!”  After each entree is cooked, Jonas, the lunchtime sous-chef, spritzes it with flavored oil or vinegar, garnishes it with sprigs of fresh herbs, wipes the plate to remove errant drops of gravy, then alerts the waiter:  “Pick up 15, please!”  “Pick up 18!”

At the stove, Samuelsson pivots like Scottie Pippin in the middle of a full-court press.  He dips the third finger of his right hand into a pot of simmering sauce for a quick taste check; calloused from many high-temperature dunkings, his finger gives a truer flavor than a metal or wooden spoon.  The sauce is okay, so he ladles some into his saute pan, sloshes in cream and a shot of wine, and whisks it smooth.  He spoons it around the salmon with a precision that belies his speed, then switches from the stove to the finishing station.  Jorgen, the new guy, is in the groove now, and barely a step behind.  But even while focusing on the garnish, Samuelsson is aware of a clatter from the dishwashing station.  “No!  No!” he raps out, all pleasantness gone, all purpose now.  “This is no holiday camp.  Organize!  Organize!

During the lull between lunch and dinner, he reflects on what it’s like to lead a 55-person staff.  “Seventy percent of running a restaurant is a staff issue. These are very talented guys but it’s important for them to learn discipline so they stay focused.”

His own focus is never far from food.  He works out regularly so he can withstand the physical punishment of his profession.  He visits SoHo art galleries on his day off to get ideas.  “I look at a work of art and get an inspiration for mixing colors of food,” he says.  “I see a design and can envision a pattern on the plate.”  He reads voraciously--he’s presently hooked on the works of Toni Morrison--but often goes to bed with a cookbook.  He frequently dreams about food, and gets up in the middle of the night to write down recipes.  Not surprisingly, his favorite movies as “Like Water for Chocolate” and “Big Night.”

“Cooking is a great way to express yourself,” Samuelsson explains.  “If you’re not in a good mood, if things aren’t in harmony, it will show.”  Conversely, if you’re happy and disciplined, you can achieve what he calls the “wow” factor.  “You come in here expecting one thing and we give you more than you expected. That’s the reaction I love. There are few times in life when that happens.  And to get that ‘wow’ in New York, wiht a tough crowd that’s seen, done and tasted it all....”  Samuelsson shakes his head in disbelief.  He’s having his own “wow” moment.

But he’s not satisfied.  His greatest fear is to be seen as just a flash in the pan.  Echoing his father’s precept, he allows, “The key is to be the biggest flash in the pan ever.”  That’s why he has plans:  to write a cookbook; to open another branch of Aquavit; to establish a scholarship fund at the Culinary Institute of America; to expand Cook for Kids, a nonprofit program that introduces gourmet cooking to the public schools to spark interest in kids with talent.  “It’s very important to give back.  If you’re in a situation where you can help out, you have to take advantage of that.”

It would be easy for a man in his position to be arrogant, or at least slightly conceited.  But frequent conversations with his mother keep his feet firmly on the ground, as does the casual racism he encounters outside the walls of Aquavit.  “As soon as I change clothes and try to get a cab, I’m just like any other black person.  That’s one of the best reality wake-up calls.”

He claims to be remarkably unaffected.  “I’m my own man.  I can wake up in the morning, put whatever I want to on the menu and people will be eating it later.  I show people how to be good.  I have no right to complain.  Look,” he adds impatiently.  “I won the lottery.  I was plucked from the sand and taken to Sweden.  I was supposed to die, but I was given a second chance.  I don’t want to mess it up.”