A Chef’s Three-Country Odyssey to Stardom
Marcus Samuelsson was born in Ethiopia, grew up in Sweden and now lives in a five-bedroom brownstone in New York’s Harlem.
Celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson, 44, owns four New York restaurants, with a fifth—Streetbird Rotisserie—opening in the spring. He is author of “Marcus Off Duty: The Recipes I Cook at Home”, which features 150 dishes inspired by his travels and background. He spoke with Marc Myers of The Wall Street Journal.
I was born in Ethiopia but grew up in Sweden, which wasn’t as big a culture shock as you’d imagine. I was 3 when my older sister and I were adopted by a couple from Göteborg who taught me to fish, cook and prioritize my life—lessons that remain with me today.
I don’t recall much from my earliest years in Meki, Ethiopia. I was too young. My mother had died from tuberculosis during an epidemic and my father was a priest and couldn’t take care of us. The hospital where my mother had died was affiliated with Sweden, which is how my sister and I came to be adopted by Ann Marie and Lennart Samuelsson.
Göteborg is a major city on the southwestern coast of Sweden, but we lived in a residential area with many two-story homes. My father was a geologist and my mother was a homemaker. When they brought my sister and me home, they already had another daughter who was 8 and also adopted, but we all got along perfectly from the start.
Our house had four bedrooms and sat on about half an acre. The kitchen was the center of the house, and we all ate dinner together most nights, with extended family and friends often joining us. My parents had a Bang & Olufsen turntable, and records by Bob Marley, David Bowie and ABBA were always on. It was a happy house.
In Sweden, many people maintain gardens for food, and we grew carrots, onions and other produce, as well as apples and plums. There was always a season for something that could be picked and added to the dinner table. This made us self-sufficient, an important concept in Sweden. We were never far from the woods or the ocean, and I remember waiting with anticipation for sweet strawberries to grow in the spring or mushroom-hunting season in the fall.
As an Ethiopian, I didn’t have a hard time growing up in Göteborg. My parents saw to that. My sister and I knew we looked different, but we stuck together and were taught to view our distinction as an opportunity. No matter what happened, we were still the Samuelssons. Sometimes it was tough at school. Kids will be kids. Nevertheless, I did well in class, and much of my confidence came from being an exceptional athlete in soccer, tennis and hockey.
I don’t believe children are racist, and most kids in Sweden weren’t. But I was prepared for anything. My parents spoke with me and said, “You know you’re from Ethiopia and children are going to say things.” They told us not to retaliate, that nothing anyone said made any difference anyway. All of those talks prepared me for reality and made me stronger, giving me tremendous focus.
Like most Swedish families, my parents owned a second house on the water in Smögen, a small fishing village about an hour and a half up the coast. We spent weekends there fishing on a 15-foot boat that my father and uncles owned. The experience taught me that I was from the city and the country.
I started fishing with my father when I was 6. We’d sail all day out into the North Sea. My first job was to throw the net into the water to catch fish and to clean them. At first I was afraid, but older people on the boat gently taught me how to do it. It was part of nature, and in Sweden children are brought into the adult world early. Adults don’t look down on kids, nor do they serve children special meals. Kids eat what adults are served.
I still remember the taste of the first fish I caught. It was delicious. It was a filleted mackerel that we brought back home to cook in a black skillet with wild chives, lemon and mashed potatoes. That day we caught 40 fish. We cooked and smoked most of them, gave some to our neighbors and sold 10. Fishing was a spiritual, sharing enterprise.
Cooking quickly became a passion for me. Whenever my parents were out of the house in Göteborg for extended periods, I spent my free time at my grandparents’ home, which was an eight-minute walk. For my grandmother, cooking wasn’t a chore. She loved it and constantly worked to improve. I started in her kitchen by peeling carrots and mixing the ingredients for meatballs, which are a staple there. Then I graduated to making the gravy, pickling the herring and jarring things.
Instead of a modern electric range and oven, like my mother had, my grandmother had an old gas stove, which lets you better control the heat. Back then, it was strange to me that something older was better. Despite all the cooking in our family, no one ever became heavy. Swedish portions were small, which makes a big difference in a daily diet.
My favorite dish was my grandmother’s roast chicken. It was rubbed with spices—cardamom, cinnamon, salt and pepper—and served with roasted potatoes. The bones would be used to make chicken soup. It was farm to table before that term existed.
I’m so proud of my Swedish heritage—and grateful. I knew in high school that I wanted to be a professional chef, and after graduation I trained in France and Switzerland. Once I was there, moving to America to work was the logical next step. I arrived in the States in 1994 and eventually became a U.S. citizen, retaining my Swedish citizenship as well.
Today, I live with my wife, Maya, in a 4,650-square-foot, four-story townhouse on a quiet block in Harlem. Maya is a fashion model who also is from Ethiopia. We met at a housewarming party in Harlem. Our home has five bedrooms, four bathrooms and a nice-size fenced garden that’s private. We look at it as a resting spot for us and a place to host a rotating cast of family and friends when they visit New York. Each year we visit Maya’s family in Ethiopia. There’s so much about the culture that I still need to know.
Both of my sisters remained in Sweden, so each August, our families return to the Samuelsson weekend home in Smögen. The entire extended family gets together there for about two weeks. I do the cooking, of course. I love it.