On the outside, Marcus Samuelsson is a rock-star chef. The youngest chef ever awarded a three-star rating by the New York Times for his cuisine at Manhattan’s Aquavit, he won the second season of Bravo’s “Top Chef Masters” and Food Network’s “Chopped All-Stars Tournament,” and planned and prepared President Barack Obama’s first state dinner at the White House in 2009.
But at heart, the Ethiopian-born, Swedish-raised Samuelsson, 44, is more of a cultural anthropologist, observing and telling stories through food, flavor and taste. In his newest book, Marcus Off Duty: The Recipes I Cook at Home, he invites foodies and amateur cooks alike into his home kitchen, taking them on a delicious globetrotting trip through their taste buds.
“Cooking is a language we all should know,” said Samuelsson when we caught up with him on a recent trip to Chicago, where he spoke at the Chicago Humanities Festival and the Art Institute of Chicago. (It wasn’t his first jaunt in the city — he previously owned C-House, which shuttered in early 2013.) “What’s in the book is a good combination of what I grew up with and my journey.” Though he cooks for a living, the chef acknowledges that “there are a lot of dishes that don’t work in a restaurant setting,” but says cuisine has become more democratic. “When I started cooking, the [amateur] chef didn’t have access to the same great ingredients that professionals do.” The Internet, he says, has become the great equalizer. “The average person has traveled more, which means the conversation of food gets really exciting. Food is pop culture, which it wasn’t before.”
According to Samuelsson, taste isn’t the only sense integral to cooking — hearing is also important. Music is key to the recipes in Marcus Off Duty; in each chapter, he suggests seriously diverse “Music to Cook By” lists. “A lot of our music and food, for me, is about originality. Off Duty is a bridge into Americana and diversity,” he says. “There’s a lot of pointing to Asian and Latin flavors, and that’s more a reflection of those populations. It’s also about being curious about the other side of town. Good food doesn’t have borders.”
And he eats as he preaches. While in Chicago, rather than only hitting downtown and North Side hot spots, Samuelsson traveled south for Lem’s Bar-B-Q (311 E. 75th), a carryout-only rib tips and hot links joint, and nearby Original Soul Vegetarian (203 E. 75th). Likewise, in the book’s chapter on “street food,” he introduces readers to recipes like fish burgers with Bajan mayo, Durban curry buns inspired by the markets in South Africa and spicy shrimp falafel inspired by his favorite Manhattan street carts. “My job very often is to take something from cultures and present it [in new ways],” he says.
With “globalized food” now the nation’s norm, Samuelsson argues, “a [traditionally Vietnamese] bánh mì sandwich can become an American staple,” he says. “That great taco can be an American staple.” That said, he adds wryly, “The hot dog doesn’t have to go.”
Watch Marcus Samuelsson’s Chicago Humanities Festival video conversation with freelance journalist David Tamarkin:
“ ‘Good Times’ by Chic, ‘Hard to Handle’ by the Black Crowes, ‘Your Love’ by Frankie Knuckles, ‘Fame’ by David Bowie, ‘Electric Relaxation’ by A Tribe Called Quest and ‘Oye Como Va’ by Santana.”
Favorite Chicago dining spot
“The one I adore is Avec [615 W. Randolph]. For me, it’s a very retro place.”
Must-have travel item
“I always have a little notebook with me. All my life, I’ve been observant of my surroundings because I don’t want to miss [anything].”