Marcus Samuelsson on Writing and Partying for July 4th

By Justine Sterling Posted June 29, 2012
Marcus Samuelsson

© Paul Brissman

Superstar chef and emerging media mogul Marcus Samuelsson spent five years working on his new memoir Yes, Chef. “My journey inspired me,” says Samuelsson. “The people of my community, my past and where I want my future to go.” In an exclusive chat with Food & Wine Facebook fans this week, the owner of Harlem’s Red Rooster revealed insight into his new book and shared his blueprint for a stress-free July 4th party—with a great playlist.

What's one of your favorite stories in the book?
Wow, there's so many that are my favorite. I think any story involving cooking with my Mormor [grandmother] Helga are the best. I can still see her standing in the kitchen teaching me how to cook her roast chicken, breaking down every ingredient and explaining to me why we should preserve every bit of the bird.

What was the hardest part of Yes, Chef to write?
I think any time I wrote about my father. He didn't get to experience my success and it was painful to think about how much I miss him.

How did writing the book influence you in the kitchen?
It's funny. I wrote the book to chronicle my journey but the whole time I kept seeing new dishes that I wanted to create in front of me. [Like a] braised short rib with berbere dusted onion rings and a chickpea-sweet potato puree. Just in this one dish it has touches of Ethiopian and Southern influences. Then it's topped with some truffle sauce, which is a nod to my classic French training.

Which chefs inspire you?
I’m not trying to be coy, but the chefs I admire the most are the ones that give authorship to their food. Anyone who works really hard to make their food the best—could be classically trained chefs or could be the guy selling tongue tacos from a stand in Spanish Harlem. Then of course there's always the greats like Ferran Adrià, Charlie Trotter, Leah Chase, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, the list goes on and on.

What are you most proud of at Red Rooster?
I think the fact that 70 percent of our staff here at Red Rooster are hired from within the community. I want to see these young chefs and staff find their strengths and grow from that.

What are some global twists home cooks can put on American grilled foods?
I think Americans need to stop being afraid of spice! I didn't discover berbere until I journeyed to Ethiopia for the first time and now you'll see it in so many of my dishes. I think home cooks should think about the flavor profiles they want to create and try to find spices from different cultures. Experiment and have fun! Plus, when you have a great piece of meat or the freshest seafood, it will just enhance the flavor.

What's your entertaining style—what are some tips for the perfect cookout?
When I entertain I feel like it should be communal, comfortable and fun. My tips for throwing the perfect cookout include a great rosé sangria (use lots of fresh seasonal fruit and mint), a fresh watermelon and tomato salad, and then lots of great meat and seafood. But make sure you're not standing behind the stove! Involve the group and make it a party.

What is on your ideal cookout playlist?
How much space do I have? Michael Jackson, Prince, David Bowie, Black Radio, Timbuktu, Buika, Sengalese drummers, Marvin Gaye—shall I go on?

What would be on your ultimate July 4th menu?
Fried chicken, watermelon salad, veggie chips, lots of great "Yes, Chef" cocktails! And for dessert, some sort of fruit tart or cookies that can be eaten warm or cold.

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