Marcus Samuelsson Talks About His New Cookbook, TV Celebrity and Tomato Jam

Drink Features

The introduction of food-focused reality television shows changed the game for chefs, catapulting a mighty few to a celebrity once reserved for A-list actors and musicians. Chefs like Stephanie Izard, Rick Bayless and Bobby Flay are now household names—with the reservation waitlists to back it up.

The standout, however, is Marcus Samuelsson: An Ethiopian-born, Swedish-raised restaurateur best known for Red Rooster in Harlem. He also famously cooked the first White House dinner of the Obama administration. And hey—if it’s good enough for Barry, it’s great for us.

His newest book, Marcus Off Duty: The Recipes I Cook At Home, is being released today, showcasing 150 of the recipes he’ll default to on a Monday night at home. The book is also a mash-up of the many cultural influences in his life: From time spent in his grandmother’s Swedish kitchen to his first taste of plantains after moving to Harlem in 2010.

We caught up with the chef to chat all things Samuelsson. Beware: The interview below will make you very hungry.

Paste: You’ve opened restaurants all over the world, but definitely have a focus on Harlem. How has the surrounding area impacted your decisions?
Marcus Samuelsson: It makes me happiest to see members of the Harlem community, downtown New Yorkers and tourists alike gather in a less trafficked neighborhood to have a great time with their loved ones. I’m always proud to be hospitable to my guests and give them great, delicious food and memories of Harlem.

Paste: I know it’s hard to pick just one, but what is the “not to miss” dish at Red Rooster?
MS: Many people say our cornbread with honey butter and tomato jam is the best they’ve ever had—almost every table orders a plate. Definitely try our Fried Yardbird too. It’s really comforting and easy to crave.

Paste: In a similar vein… what’s your favorite recipe in this book?
MS: Each recipe is significant to me, because of the people or places that inspired it… so it’s too hard to pick one favorite. Some recipes are inspired by my family from Sweden, others from where I was born in Ethiopia. Several dishes are also inspired by my neighbors in Harlem, or other places I’ve explored: New Orleans, Los Angeles, India and Trinidad.

Paste: Are there any NYC restaurants—aside from your own—that you have to visit whenever you’re in town?
MS: I have a long list of favorites here, and feel lucky to live in a place that provides such a wide range of amazing foods. I love Jonathan Waxman’s Barbuto, Amanda Freitag’s Empire Diner, Sushi Nakazawa and Charles Country Pan Fried Chicken in Harlem.

Paste: You once said you think that food should “tell a story.” What story do you hope readers will find in this book?
MS: I hope readers will want to experiment with different flavors and surprise their friends and family. My book tells the story that food is about relaxing, having fun and being with the ones you love. I hope my readers will make many memories while cooking these recipes.

Paste: How long is your up & coming book tour? Are there any cities you’re most excited about visiting?
MS: I’m excited to celebrate my new book here at home in New York City. Much of it was inspired by the foods and people here—and I can’t wait to embrace that. But I’m also excited to visit other cities on this tour, to hear everyone’s stories and to talk about these recipes.

Paste: You certainly have a lot of accolades, most notably the James Beard Award for Rising Chef of the Year. What has been your biggest struggle while chasing your dreams?
MS: The biggest struggle is the beginning leap of faith when opening a new restaurant. It’s always a big risk.

Paste: Your most recent restaurant is in Bermuda. What country do you hope to conquer next? Is there any place you would love to have a restaurant?
MS: There are many countries where I would love to have a restaurant, but we’ll see what comes next!

Emily Siegel is a freelance writer whose pieces have appeared in Mashable, Haute Living and Elite Daily. Her favorite animal is the Rockhopper Penguin (even if she’s jealous of their flair). Follow her on twitter @emilysiegel.

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