Chef and cookbook author Marcus Samuelsson, born in Ethiopia and raised in Sweden, calls New York City home, not Los Angeles. Although he does come to town often, to check in on his burger operation at South Coast Plaza's Signature Kitchen at Macy's, where Nancy Silverton and Cat Cora also have food court menus, to visit friends, and (maybe) to film episodes of certain high profile cooking shows. Samuelsson, co-owner of Aquavit in New York City, has also been busy promoting his new book, New American Table, his fourth, which was published a few weeks ago. And want to know what he's doing tonight? The chef is at the White House, where he's cooking for the Indian Prime Minister at President Obama's first state dinner. (On the menu: potato and eggplant salad, red lentil soup, roasted potato dumplings, green curry prawns, pumpkin pie tart and pear tatin.)
Samuelsson took a break recently from his busy schedule to answer a few questions about the new book, which takes as its subject the cooking of myriad American home cooks who the chef has met over the years, as well as a few other things. And check back tomorrow for Samuelsson's recipe for turkey with collard greens and stuffing.
Squid Ink: You were born in Ethiopia and raised in Sweden. Where's home for you?
Marcus Samuelsson: America, New York City. A lot of this has to do with the book. I think for me writing it as an immigrant was very important.
SI: How would you define “the new American table”?
MS: We are all immigrants. We're an extremely diverse nation and a diverse people, and that was something that I wanted to highlight and celebrate in the book. There are a lot of things that we don't do right in this country, maybe. But a lot of things in terms of food we do extremely well. When you travel around the country, [people are] cooking, they're trying to be authentic. Which is difficult because they don't always have the ingredients. But that's okay too because the food really takes on this new taste. Artisanal food-making is back, from small cheese farmers to people making real tacos. And then we're doing twists on that–that's why you have trendy taco stands today. I also wanted to highlight not just the styles that we know, not just the Italian-American or the French-American but others, not just the obvious ones. Start the dialog of this diverse nation when it comes to food. Be part of the dialog, from an immigrant point of view.
SI: In your book you address the issue of how high end and low end food is being redefined: do you think the current economic climate has had a part in this?
MS: This book was written during these tough economic times, and I think it's definitely affected us. Why are burger places so happening? And twists on comfort food? Because they remind us of our childhood, but also because the price level is affordable. It doesn't mean that we stop wishing for other stuff: we want better ingredients. There's a dialog between the poor man's culture and great experiences. It's very linked. When I'm in Los Angeles, which I think is one of the best places to eat in the country, there's Grand Central Market. It's an incredible place. It's magical.
SI: So is it more about value then?
MS: You want something authentic but it doesn't mean you have to use the most expensive ingredients. A modern taco is a great example of where the flavor is very high but the ingredients might not be very expensive. We've gone from high end ingredients to high end taste, flavor driven stuff. That's the biggest change. A pho can be just as good as a rib-eye steak. Maybe we didn't consider that 10 or 15 years ago. This is evolution, because 20 years ago it was only about France when you talked about fine dining. And then America opened up to Italy, Spain, Greece, Japan, all of these different things. Now it doesn't matter where you're from if you cook from an authentic point of view. America has done this very well. I compare this to Europe, which I think has not done this as well. We are a diverse nation; we migrate within. We're also a young nation in terms of food. We're not rooted in an old tradition, like in France, where it has to be one way. It's like, if you say oh, boeuf bourguignon has to be done this way. In America it's like, you know, we can do gumbo this way and it's great, but if you go to Alaska, you can do it in a different way. We're not rooted like that. We're very rooted when it comes to our baseball, but not when it comes to food.
SI: Speaking of baseball, well sort of, you have a recipe for picked herring hot dogs in your book. Do you think Americans, or at least Americans who do not come from a Scandinavian background, are ready for that?
MS: Absolutely. If it's served with a twist, if it's served fun, absolutely. When Americans are on vacation, they're very open minded. They'll eat that in Haarlem, in Amsterdam. They eat them in the stands there already. And you know that's how things start. We change our food habits by traveling, by our experiences. And I think food is the best window into other cultures–it's not politics or money or religion.
SI: What's your favorite ingredient to cook with these days?
MS: Fish. Because fish is what I grew up on. A simple mackerel, a simple salmon.
SI: What's your first culinary memory?
MS: Baking gingersnaps with my mother and my grandmother. We did other stuff, we went mushroom hunting and berry picking. But the first one I remember was making gingersnaps. I was like 7 or 8. My grandmother's gingersnaps were crunchy and not perfectly cut out and they tasted better than the ones we bought at the store. I started to make notes about this very, very early on.
SI: Who was the most influential person in your life, foodwise?
MS: My grandmother. There were chefs and mentors who opened the doors for me along with way, but my grandmother, for sure. Because she cooked every day with us. If you came to our house, you had to work with food. You had to, when she had a conversation with you as she was pickling herring or putting sugar on top of the berries to preserve them for the wintertime. And it all related back to food, to her life.
SI: What's your favorite cookbook?
MS: Wow. That's a hard one. I'll tell you a couple of them. One was Charlie Trotter's first cookbook. I'd never seen American food shot like that, treated like that. And the fact that he didn't live in New York or San Francisco or Paris or Lyon. He was an American man making this food, treating it like that. Just like the French, but he wasn't in France. And I wanted to taste it. I'd never seen food like that before. I mean, I'd seen food like that, but I'd never seen it done by non-Europeans. And then there've been others. Like White Heat by Marco Pierre White. It doesn't have a lot of great recipes, but telling that story that way, it was like, wow. I have all the classic French books, like Ma Gastronomie. They were for me great going into it. But if you want a game changer, I would have to say those two.
SI: What is one thing that you wished people realized about cooking?
MS: Well, that cooking is the biggest anti-depressant you can ever have. If you're sad or having a moment, or if somebody passed away. You know, I'm with my grandmother–she passed away 15 years ago–almost every day because I cook. And when I cook Ethiopian food I think about my family in Ethiopia. It's very much like a healing process, and it drives a creativity within you. It's a dialog that you can have, it's not segregating in any way, you know. Here, we're cooking. It transcends gender, age race, language–everything.
SI: Do you like to cook to music?
MS: I do. I love it. If I do something ethnic, I'll have Ethiopian music on, my wife will have Ethiopian music on. I love to cook to Miles Davis. Jazz just fits cooking so much. I love to cook to David Bowie, Van Morrison. I'm all over the place when it comes to music, it takes me back. If I do a fried chicken, it might be a Sam Cooke recipe.
SI: Is there anything that you will not eat?
MS: I'm game for most stuff. I try everything. And then there's stuff that I might not like. I remember the first time I had an oyster–and I grew up on the water, I was maybe 9. And the texture of a raw oyster was so weird. I'd never had anything mushy and soft like that before. And then I started to crave it. Maybe not the first one, the 3rd or 4th later on. And now I think that leap, going from a fried oyster to a raw oyster, is just as weird as going from eating veal to veal brain, you know?
SI: What's the worst thing you ever ate?
MS: Oh, there's a lot of bad, bad stuff out there. That's the [next] cookbook, you know?