Marcus Samuelsson Biography
Celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson and the New York City restaurant he co-owns, Aquavit, have each done their share to make Swedish cuisine one of the hot new culinary trends of the early twenty-first century. Born in Ethiopia but raised in Sweden, Samuelsson took over the executive chef's post at the Manhattan landmark eatery when he was just 24 years old, and "what then was a respectable Scandinavian restaurant best known among Swedish expatriates and comrades began to build a national reputation," noted Laura Yee in Restaurants & Institutions. In 2003 Samuelsson's first cookbook, Aquavit and the New Scandinavian Cuisine, was published to enthusiastic reviews that extolled his talents and the Aquavit dining experience.
Samuelsson was born in Ethiopia in 1970, but when he was three years old his parents died in a tuberculosis epidemic that swept the land. He and his sister were adopted by a Swedish couple, and grew up in Gothenburg, Sweden's second largest city and a major seaport on the North Sea. Though the country was a relatively homogenous place during Samuelsson's youth, with a scarce number of foreign-born residents, he said he never felt like an outsider. "Color was not an issue in Sweden," he told Restaurant Business writer Patricia Cobe. "My upbringing was very open-minded, and I never saw a hurdle I couldn't work through."
Samuelsson spent a great deal of time with his adoptive grandparents, and learned to cook at the side of his grand-mother, who had once been the private chef for a well-to-do family. He learned the kitchen basics from her, but also a deeper appreciation for the art of sustenance. "We'd do things like go hunting for mushrooms, or go out fishing on our own when I was nine," he explained to Melissa Ewey Johnson in a Black Issues Book Review article. "By spending time with her and being raised around food and nature, I didn't just learn how to cook, I learned where food comes from, how to identify different things and combine ingredients to create unique flavors."
Samuelsson's first job was in a bakery, and he entered the Culinary Institute of Goteburg at the age of 16. Swedish cuisine was not considered at the same level as French or Italian, however, with Swedish meatballs perhaps the best-known dish outside of Scandinavia. Sweden was for centuries an isolated northern land, and fish and other fruits of the sea were the mainstay of the national diet; the Swedes' devotion to herring, especially in pickled form, remained a solely national passion. The herring and other chilled fish delicacies were usually served with akvavit, a distilled alcoholic beverage similar to vodka but flavored with caraway or other spices, during an appetizer course.
While still in school, Samuelsson worked in a restaurant kitchen at night, and then completed apprenticeships at fine-dining establishments in Switzerland and Austria. He even worked on a cruise ship for a time. In 1991 he traveled to New York City and began an eight-month apprenticeship at Aquavit, the well-known New York City eatery. In business since 1987, the Upper East Side restaurant was considered the top Swedish-cuisine restaurant in North America.
After that, Samuelsson returned to Europe and worked at the legendary restaurant Georges Blanc, near the French city of Lyon. In 1994 Aquavit owner Hakan Swahn invited him back to New York. Swahn had recently hired a new executive chef and offered Samuelsson the second-in-command job. Two months later the executive chef died unexpectedly, and Samuelsson took over the job. He was just 24 years old at the time. Aquavit's daring new menu soon earned it three stars from the influential New York Times restaurant reviewer, making Samuelsson the youngest chef ever to win such an honor. In 1997 Swahn made him a partner in the restaurant, and two years later they opened a second Aquavit, this one in Minneapolis, Minnesota, a state that is home to a large number of Americans of Scandinavian heritage.
New York Times food critic William Grimes returned to the Manhattan Aquavit in 2001 and found its chef still "restlessly inventive" and "a fully mature artist with a distinctive style, the culinary version of counterpoint, in which precisely defined flavors talk back and forth to each other rather than blending into a single smooth harmonic effect. He keeps your palate on edge." Grimes wrote approvingly of several innovative dishes that came out of Samuelsson's kitchen, among them the Swedes' beloved dish. "Aquavit's herring plate, served with an icy shot of aquavit and a Carlsberg beer, amounts to a dazzling showcase for the national fish," Grimes wrote. "It's an infectious, show-off medley of marinades and herbal accents that makes the humble herring seem, for once, like a star."
Critics generally marvel, often in superlative terms, over the amalgam of flavors and textures that Samuelsson seems to invent out of thin air; at Aquavit, careful attention is also paid to what is sometimes a stunning moment of arrival. "A dish such as house-smoked salmon with poached quail egg, goat cheese parfait and osetra caviar is a testament to Aquavit's out-of-the-ordinary presentations—it arrives on an ice block—and attention to texture and temperature," wrote Yee in Restaurants & Institutions. "The parfait is frozen, while the quail egg contributes to the richness."
Samuelsson worked for years on his first book, Aquavit and the New Scandinavian Cuisine, which was published by Houghton Mifflin in 2003. Translating his elaborate Aquavit dishes into ones that were attainable in the kitchen of the average reader and cook was a particular challenge, he noted, but he was enthusiastic about broadening culinary horizons with his mix of old and new. The recipes in the book included some traditional items, such as gravlax—thinly sliced, cured salmon—and Swedish meatballs, but also some new items, such as Pickled Herring Sushi Style. He even found inspiration in his Ethiopian heritage with entrees like coffee-roasted duck breasts.
A Publishers Weekly review gave Aquavit and the New Scandinavian Cuisine high marks. "Samuelsson is one of our great chefs, and a warm-hearted and generous writer to boot," its reviewer noted. The publication of his first cookbook was just one of many notable achievements for Samuelsson in 2003: he won the James Beard Award for Best Chef and also opened Riingo, a new fusion restaurant with a heavily Japanese influence, in New York City. Aquavit moved to stunning new quarters in early 2005 on 65 E. 55th St., and it continued to win high marks from patrons and hard-to-please critics alike. Still, Samuelsson was pragmatic about the challenges of his profession. "You make more bad food than good," he said in a Restaurant Hospitality interview with Pat Fernberg. "When you cook, your goals are always changing, and you need to find a medium in which you can be happy—but not satisfied. It's bad for an artistic person to he satisfied, I think."
Aquavit and the New Scandinavian Cuisine, Houghton Mifflin, 2003
Black Issues Book Review, May-June 2004, p. 38.
Crain's New York Business, January 31, 2000, p. 27; February 14, 2005, p. 22.
Interview, September 2000, p. 148.
New York Post, March 16, 2005, p. 44.
New York Times, May 23, 2001, p. F9; October 26, 2003, p. 25.
Publishers Weekly, July 7, 2003, p. 67, p. 68.
Restaurant Business, August 15, 2003, p. 20.
Restaurant Hospitality, November 2003, p. 34; July 2004, p. 120.
Restaurants & Institutions, May 15, 2001, p. 63.
Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN), October 23, 2003, p. 1T.
Time, October 20, 2003, p. 84.
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