No one has a bad word to say about Marcus Samuelsson. The Ethiopia-born, Sweden-raised, Manhattan-made chef has worked at and opened a lot of restaurants on the East Coast, as well as participating in various food shows on TV. And by all accounts, he is kind to everybody. He doesn't have to be. He's friends with celebrities and is married to a fantastic woman and is in possession of one of the flyest wardrobes in New York. But Samuelsson, be it by design or by nature, is still an easygoing man of the people: When meeting reporters in the lobby of the Ace Hotel downtown, he told us not to wait for him while he got coffee, and gave us his room key.
So it's no wonder chefs all over the world open their kitchens to Samuelsson. He's bouncing around the country in support of his new book, Red Rooster Harlem: The Cookbook, right now, and between a dinner at Leona and a lunch at Chi Spacca (tickets still available!), he talked about local chefs from Nyesha Arrington to Wolfgang Puck and why the food scene in L.A. is so exciting — it's because we come from all over the world.
You did a dinner at Leona with the chef there, Nyesha Arrington. Have you worked with her before?
Yeah, of course! I love Nyesha. You don't post up with just any chef. I've always been a big admirer of Nyesha. I got to know her first through Josiah Citrin, who is always for me an iconic L.A. chef. … When he says, “Look at this person,” it's a good sign. I've worked with her before, and there's something very cerebral and focused about her.
Have you had Ethiopian food here in L.A.?
Yeah! I love Merkato, I love Little Ethiopia and jumping back and forth. One time I was here on, like, Ethiopia Day, and there was a parade, which was cool for me. There were kids, and the whole community was out. It's just nice that in the middle of the city you have this sticking-togetherness. One of the things I love about L.A. is that the food scene, through the lens of the immigrants in L.A., is just incredible. I don't know any food town like L.A. It's magical. Ktown is just magical. Little Ethiopia … I'm deeply in love with that little mall sushi that you have. We can never get that game in New York.
It's deep … honestly, you guys are just closer to Asian culture. Not just geographically, but the whole understanding of the culture. Not just Japan, but all the other Asian cultures … the Vietnamese game is tight here, and of course Mexican … I just love the ethnic food scene in Los Angeles. All of it.
We do a good job here.
Absolutely. And then you layer on the farmers market, but I'm more in love with the deep, grimy ethnic game.
And what about the big-name restaurants in L.A. — have any favorites?
Mozza is delicious. And I love what Ludo [Lefebvre] is doing. He carries the French flag so beautifully, but he also does it in a very contemporary way. And he's a great teacher. Those students who come out of his kitchen are good. And that's the next generation. Also I love Night + Market. I love what Kris [Yenbamroong] is doing. And, being an immigrant like me, Wolfgang [Puck] will always be my man. Even when he screams at me! He's the American dream.
Have you told him you feel that way?
Listen, there's not much I can tell Wolfgang. He tells me what to do. I don't know when we're actually going to change that relationship, when I can tell him anything, but I'll call you the day I can do that!