6/22/2012 10:06:00 AM

Marcus Samuelsson Talks Rooster, Ramsay and More in His New Tell-All Memoir

Mega chef Marcus Samuelsson pours his heart out in his brand new memoir, Yes, Chef which hits shelves on Tuesday. The book, which took Marcus five years to write, chronicles the chef's astonishing journey from a tuberculosis-stricken orphan who nearly died before the age of three, to becoming a world renowned chef, James Beard Award winner and most recently the owner of Red Rooster Harlem and Ginny's Supper Club. We recently caught up with Marcus to get the lowdown on his rise to success, his current and future projects and that oh-so-shocking Gordon Ramsay quote from the book that was all over the blogs last week. Check out our chat with him below.

Zagat: What inspired you to write this book?
Marcus Samuelsson: I wanted to do a book that spoke to me, and you know when I was coming up there was no book on that, so I wanted to do a book that speaks to the young chef coming up. And also the fact that in my life there's a lot of segue, whether you're an immigrant or whether you cook or whether you're African-American, there's so many intersections that I thought, well you know what, time to share.

Zagat: I was struck by how candid you were in the book about so many personal topics - was writing the book a cathartic process for you?
MS: Very much so. I think any person regardless of they are going to publish a book or not, I recommend they should do a book, because it's a place where you are forced to be very honest - a place where you are reflective. It was almost like my psychiatrist for five years you know what I mean? I wrote up every day, I wrote about two pages every day for a few years. It was a therapeutic way of being like, 'you know what I didn't do this right, let me took another stab at this.' It's very rare to have a chance to even do that.

Zagat: Was there anything you considered leaving out or did leave out?
MS: I think it's all there - you know with my father's death you know of course I cried so much when I wrote it, but I mean obviously I wanted him to eat at Rooster, I wanted to tell him about how it was to cook at the White House. There's so much father-son stuff that you want to tell your Dad. You want to go fishing again, you know there's so many things. I reflect on that time with my daughter for example, how much I can't take that time back. But I think I tell it in the book, you know, I don't want anybody to feel bad for me, I've had a amazing life, I worked very hard at it but it's definitely a push and a pull, you know?

Zagat: I think a lot of people were shocked by the Gordon Ramsay quote that broke on the blogs last week. Have you crossed paths with him since?
MS: I haven't. It was 10-12 years ago, I moved so much forward from that. Obviously that day that week, you know it took me awhile and I was shocked, but you know you move on. You know, I wish him the best. I have so much in my life, I don't want anybody to feel sorry, to pity me and from my point of view, I'm explaining how personal a cook's journey can be, it can be amazing and there are lots of things that make it challenging. And that was a challenging moment and then you move on and it makes you stronger it that's it at the end of the day. Rooster would not have been as yummy without all these experiences that have happened in my life, I'll tell you that. And my search wouldn't have been as deep-tissue.

Zagat: You talk a lot about how race was often a roadblock for you in certain kitchens. Do you think things have improved in the high-end world for minorities in recent years?
MS: I talk a lot in the book about the anonymous cook being a visible cook, my work is really about being an anonymous cook and becoming visible and feeling like this profession was the career for him or her. And that's why we positioned Rooster where it's at, and that's why my staff of 50% is women, and it will always be. So it could be gender it could be race - of course things have evolved but there's still a lot of improvement to be done in terms of African-Americans in the fine dining world, absolutely.

Zagat: It seems like you knew you wanted to be a chef from a very young age, was there a particular moment when you knew it was the career for you?
MS: I think I've been lucky enough to have been working hard enough so I can get the breaks I needed. A lot of people work really hard and they don't get the breaks but I did. I saw that break, you know whether it was getting the job at Park Avenue [in Sweden] or getting the job at Georges Blanc, etc. You always have to put yourself in position. So those things were moments for me in the beginning of my career that were really breaths for me, and really what they were just opportunities for me to work more.

Zagat: In the book, you described Merkato 55 as"the biggest failure of your professional life" - what was the greatest thing you learned from that experience?
MS: You know I do talk about it from a "fail" point of view, but I also think it was the whole idea that yes it was failure but for who? It was mine. You know what learned from Merkato informed how I interact with Red Rooster, you know, I didn't open the restaurant right away. I lived in Harlem for five years before I even dared to open Red Rooster, You know if you look at Merkato,  I never lived in the Meatpacking District, and I didn't know the neighborhood that well. You know with Rooster, I'm deeply integrated in this community, I know every corner.  I didn't know Meatpacking that well and I dont know if I cared about it enough in that sense. If you have such a major conversation you have to feel out everything. And I couldn't, I didn't, because I had Aquavit at the time, so when you come to work in a kitchen you really have to go all in, you can't half-ass it.

I think when I look at Rooster, there's a sense of: 'I'm all in, I'm in.' It's not a management contract, it's not a percentage of ownership, we own it, we're here, we hire from the community. At Merkato, I hired anybody that was good and at the end of the day I also learned - don't chase rent. We were playing too much rent, but beyond that I really wanted to do a higher-end African restaurant in New York City, and I think that was an achievement just by itself. I also learned that if I put my head to it, I can do these things that are absolutely virtually impossible if I really work hard at it. 

Zagat: There were rumors that you were eyeing the Lenox Lounge space - confirm/deny? 
MS: No, not at all. We're just working really hard at Rooster and also with the idea of having fun with the chase. I love music I think everyone knows that, and the combination of music and food together. We're inspired by that and that's what Ginny's is about. I like Lenox Lounge, it's a great club, it's a nice space in Harlem.

Zagat: What's next for you, will you open more restaurants in Harlem or elsewhere?
MS: I mean Ginny's is an expansion of Rooster right? It's within the four walls, but it wasn't open before so that was our expansion and we'll keep working with that, and keep cooking and serving the people and hiring from the community of Harlem. When we opened we used to have 60 employees, now we have 100, and 75% of them come from Harlem. That's a big deal, that's expansion. I keep serving the community. To me the idea with Rooster was to make people see at Harlem in a positive way, and now with both that and Ginny's there's more customers than ever. So we have expanded without having moved.


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