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Interview with Marcus Samuelsson

Aquavit, Riingo, AQ Café, New York City

What's your favorite new ingredient?
I love this vegetable I discovered in Singapore and now get in Chinatown. It's a little bitter like brussels sprouts, and has the same juiciness as bok choy. We prepare it the same way you might bok choy—we cook it with salt and a little bit of chile and serve it as a side dish.

I'm also excited about spices. I went to Zanzibar a year ago and saw so many new spices and learned how to preserve and mix them. For example, sumac is not a new spice; it's been around forever. But I mix sumac with berbere (an Ethiopian spice) to get a wonderful blend.

What's the most versatile spice?
I don't look at spices like that. I think that if you grind your spices and keep them in small batches, you can use them in endless ways. The key thing is to have a spice mill or a coffee grinder, and to keep your spices cold and in tightly lidded boxes.

What's the most underused spice?
I like Moroccan spices like chermoula and ras el hanout, which is floral and difficult to use because it takes on a perfume-y flavor if you don't know how to blend it. You don't want to go overboard. Going to the right places for these spices is also key. Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn has incredible Moroccan specials. I also really like water-chestnut flour, which I get in Chinatown. It's good as a light coating for fish. I love using rice as a flour; I'll grind roasted rice and dip fish in that. It gives a beautiful, crunchy texture.

What items should be in every pantry?
You should definitely have ramen noodles, couscous and good olive oil. People should also have good niter kebbeh, which is Ethiopian spiced ghee (clarified butter), in their fridges. You can cook anything with it and it'll taste great.

What's your favorite knife?
I love Korin's private label knife. It's a good Japanese knife and you don't need a mortgage to buy one. For a regular household, a MAC would be fine. It's medium-priced. I use a couple of different knives. I like my bread knife for slicing items really thinly. A medium-size chef knife is great for filleting fish as well as chopping vegetables.

What's your favorite pan?
I really like what Staub comes out with. For cooking at home, you can transfer the pan straight to the table. It's great when you don't want to do dishes.

What's your favorite place to buy equipment?
I love that Bridge Kitchenware is right down the street from Riingo. It's such a beautiful thing. I also love JB Prince [jbprince.com] because it's very professional. It has even more items than Bridge.

What's the kitchen appliance you wish for most?
I have a killer kitchen in my apartment, but I need a better vent. Every time I have a party and cook for my friends, the fire alarm goes off. And like all chefs, I'd like more space for my restaurant kitchen. Space—it's a classic New York issue. But we're never going to have the phattest kitchen. I think a lot of our ideas and our cooking approach comes from not having that.

If you could design one piece of serving equipment, what would it be?
I'd like to create a play on the plastic trays found in school cafeterias. It could be made out of really cool wood, with different compartments.

What's the best restaurant dish you ate in 2005?
I had an incredible chicken rice dish at Fatty Crab [in New York City] and I had a really great tarte flambé at August [also in New York City] It was just simple and authentic.

What's your favorite sushi place?
I can give you that easily: Sushi Yasuda [in New York City]. Sitting at the bar there is such a treat. It's my number-one sushi spot by far. You ask the chef to do his thing and you eat until you can't anymore and it feels beautiful. It's a massage for your belly.

What restaurant would you want to eat in once a week?
I can't eat at a restaurant once a week! I'm working. But there's a Senegalese place in Harlem at 116th Street called Africa Kine Restaurant. It's like walking into Dakar. There are even African dance videos on the TV. You have to have ginger juice and grilled fish with rice.

If you were going to open a fast-food place, what kind of food would you serve?
I wouldn't necessarily open one, but the fast food I love is called doubles. Everyone eats them for breakfast in Trinidad and Tobago. They're like pancakes with chickpeas. They're sold on every street corner. They often come with some pickles and a nice chutney on top.

On a scale of one to 10, with one representing an emphasis on using in-season ingredients as simply as possible and 10 championing high-tech, scientific cooking, where do you rank yourself?
I'm intrigued by both sides. I'm studying food science and I want to know more about organic produce. It's never one or the other. I love both sides. I love the farmers, and I want to know more about the technology because I have to evolve as a chef.

What's your favorite cookbook?
There are so many. I love cookbooks for completely different reasons. I love The Harry's Bar Cookbook and Marco-Pierre White's White Heat for their feel. For pure learning, Gray Kunz wrote a great cookbook, The Elements of Taste, published in 2001 . The first time I read Charlie Trotter's, the Chicago chef's first cookbook, I was blown away. I also love Leah Chase, who wrote And I Still Cook, Eric Ripert's book, A Return to Cooking, and Hot Sour Salty Sweet by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid. The one thing I have too many of is cookbooks and the one thing I will always have too many of is cookbooks. I don't have a car, but I probably have a Mercedes-Benz worth of cookbooks sitting in my apartment.

From whom would you most like to take a cooking class?
I would love to take a cooking class from Gandhi. Maybe I could teach him how to cook and he could teach me his message. I wouldn't mind learning how to make couscous from scratch from a North African woman either.

If you were given $1,000 to spend on food, equipment, travel or a restaurant meal, what would you buy? What about with $10?
A thousand bucks!? I would cook a big and fabulous meal at the Merkato, the open-air market in Addis Ababa, and try to serve as many people as I could. That would give me just as much pleasure as going to a restaurant. With $10, I'd buy ramen noodles, some dried shiitake, a six-ounce piece of fresh salmon and some scallion for a wonderful meal.

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