Marcus Samuelsson talks to Ali Velshi

The Ethiopian-born, Swedish-raised chef is working to make a difference in Harlem

Ali Velshi: The most interesting thing, to some people, about you is your differentness. And really, your career took off in America, and now you’re one of the hottest chefs around.

Marcus Samuelsson: I was born in Ethiopia and grew up in a small town called Gothenburg [in Sweden]. Our whole household was filled with love. We're a regular family, besides the fact that my parents were white and my sisters [and I were not]. We were a mixed family. My auntie was Jewish, and my cousins were Korean. We were just a mixed family that does what a regular family does.

In western Sweden doing what families do also means some fishing?

Absolutely. You know, on my father's side, they were professional fishermen. We fished every day. Mackerel, crab, cod, you name it. If it was in the ocean, we picked it up.

And your grandmother cooked the food? Or at least showed you how to cook the food?

Absolutely. My grandmother Helga, she was an amazing cook. Everything I really learned about cooking, not just the techniques but how to taste, how to smell, how to touch food, when to preserve, when to pickle, how to save every part, you know?

You have very vivid memories of your youth in Sweden. Do you remember your life in Ethiopia? You were very young. You left before you were 3.

I really don't. I mean, my Ethiopian memories really come from my older sister, [who] was adopted at the same time, Linda. She's really the one that had more memories, talked to me a lot about Ethiopia. And then 20 years later, when we went back together, it was really based on Linda's curiosity, and she'd always [say], "I want to go back. I want to see if there is some family left. I want to know what happened to our birth father," and so on. I was just basically cooking here in New York, doing my chef life.

The reason you had to leave Ethiopia is you and your sister and your mother all contracted tuberculosis?

TB, yeah, and it was very common at the time. Still a big issue in Ethiopia. And sometimes, in life, the worst that can ever happen to you can also be a saving. And for us, it became our ticket to get adopted.

My mother didn't survive, but it's one of these things that I always think about, "What if?" But at the same time, I'm very happy that I got the opportunity to be raised in Sweden, and I love Sweden just as much as I love New York, you know, and Ethiopia. I feel like I have three homes.

Northern Europe and the Scandinavian countries have really taken a lot of pride in the fact that they can bring people into their cultures and those people can grow up and have a full experience. They're facing a little more threat these days, with the influx of refugees and immigrants, but what was it like? Were you different in Denmark? You clearly look different, but you don't seem to describe that in your book. You don't seem to feel like you grew up as an other in Denmark.

Scandinavia is, in general, a very open place, where first of all, you have pretty big countries with not a huge population, right? We definitely stood out. But today, 20 years later, it wouldn't have been a big deal, because today you have immigrants, you have refugees, you have adopted kids, you have layers.

It really started, in the '60s, post–World War II, when the whole industrial revolution in Europe and Sweden started to build cars and all of that stuff. And first, we got a lot of working force from Italy, Spain, former Yugoslavia, and then eventually came the next wave of refugees and then immigrants. It's a mixed bag of waves that got to Sweden and particularly Denmark, right? Norway and Finland, it's a little bit different, but growing up in Sweden, we definitely stood out. 

Was it negative or positive or neutral for you?

I think, even for adopted kid, it's even different, right? Because if you think about a refugee or an immigrant family, you're very clear on your identity and your language.

And as adopted kid, you speak Swedish perfectly, but you might not be as clear on your culture, right? So I think there are different — you know, like anything. But what it did do, it really prepared me for the 21st century. We're figuring out what diversity looks like in the 21st century, in terms of spirituality, in terms of marriages, in terms of relationships and so many things. 

‘Sometimes in life, the worst that can ever happen to you can also be a saving. And for us, it became our ticket to get adopted.’

Marcus Samuelsson


If you want to do your job, you're going to have to be busing and waiting tables and doing all sorts of things. Your program goes into high schools. Tell me about it.

And I always thought about it, "OK, the day when I have an opportunity to give back or hire, I want to hire a more diverse kitchen." And with CCAP [Careers Through Culinary Arts Program] started to focus on after-school programs and giving them simple tools in life skills but also through cooking, right? Showing up on time, making an omelet, being disciplined. And eventually, if you do that really, really well, you can get a scholarship and eventually go to college, very often for free, full scholarship.

And 15 years, 20 years later, we have CCAP students that own their own business, they're executive chefs, they're in the management program. So taking inner-city youth across the country, showing them our industry that is now a profession — the kids are highly motivated. There's big reward if they succeed.

I think that's very important. We can't ignore inner cities of America. This is one of the reasons why I opened Red Rooster in Harlem as well. This community has over 30 percent unemployment among African-American men, 19 percent unemployment. We hire 200 people here in Harlem. These jobs can't be outsourced, so it's very important to work, when you have the opportunity, to give back and create jobs.

Let's talk a little bit about this, about Red Rooster. This is sometimes a hard place to get a reservation. I know. I've tried. But maybe now I'll say that I did a thing with you and get a seat. 

I'm still not sure if that's enough.

You have faced great accolades in this place because of what you've done. And you've faced a little bit of criticism that this isn't really Harlem. Or that you've romanticized Harlem.

Criticism, I think, is also a sign of love and respect, right? We work with this every day. We internalize. "How can we improve the job environment? How can we improve the experience for the guest?" So when people criticize us, I'm like, "OK, let's go through this. Let's figure out how we can do this better." 

Ali Velshi and Marcus Samuelsson

You are an American living the American dream. Every American at one point, I think, wants to have a bar or a restaurant and run it, and it's a lot of work. You're also African born. Being African-American today — educated or financially successful or not — is a complex thing, much more complex than it's been in a few decades. Do you relate to that discussion?

Of course. Being a black man is a blessing to me. Being an African man, having my spirits and roots in Africa — it's a blessing. And being able to have windows into three, four different communities is something that I feel privileged to.

The world today, it's more layered, it's more complex, because also there's more channels to talk about it, right? But I also realize the opportunity and my responsibility as a black man. It's very important for me to hold a high standard, take not just being a chef but being an employer very seriously and being part of reshaping the narrative of what a black man can be in the 21st century. It's very important to me.

There's a whole generation of African-American — when I think about the civil rights movement and the fact that I can own a restaurant in Harlem. To me, coming here as an immigrant with $200, as a black man, and today being able to have a restaurant like Red Rooster, that's the best of America, on all sides. That's the audience coming to support it. That's the work ethic. But it's really the hope. That's what America is supposed to be. And when I think about the incarceration rate of black men, that's the worst of America.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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