Last week I was invited to a demonstration hosted by Chef Marcus Samuelsson. An awarding-winning chef and cookbook author, Samuelsson is known for his role as chef and owner of Aquavit, New York City's innovative restaurant devoted to Scandinavian cuisine. Taking inspiration from his Ethiopian roots, the chef recently opened his first African restaurant, Merkato 55. His love for African cuisine was illustrated at the demo where he cooked shrimp piri piri in lettuce wraps and rack of lamb with couscous. In San Francisco to promote BlueStar cooking ranges, Samuelsson took some time out of his hectic schedule to speak with me. To see where he likes to eat in San Francisco and hear what he has to say about his buddy Rocco DiSpirito,
Samuelsson is friendly yet focused, personable yet professional. The chef, who was angered by buzzed, pretentious fans who interrupted our interview, clearly values respect, privacy, and consideration.
His favorite places to eat in San Francisco: Samuelsson enjoys the Ferry building and all it has to offer. He recommends "the Mexican food stand behind the building" because "it has the most amazing breakfast burrito." The Slanted Door and Coi are other favorites.
The difference between food in San Francisco and food in New York: Both cities are incredibly "magical in different ways." Out of the two, "New York has a true reflection of the world. The entire world is right there. However, New York doesn't have the same sort of relationship to farmers. The relationship, the bond that the chef has with farmers, that was started by Alice and the Berkeley hippies is still something that is very San Francisco."
The ingredients he can't live without: Anything in season. Samuelsson enjoys the farmers' markets and is quick to point out that New York City has over 42 farmers' markets.
On a typical night at Merkato: The restaurant is so new that he is focusing on communicating. It's his goal to teach everyone (the customers, his staff, food writers, the purveyors) the "elegant nuisances of African food." Although the majority of African ingredients can be found in 13 mom and pop stores, Samuelsson hopes that in the future African ingredients will be common and found in stores nationwide.
His tip for the everyday home cook: Understand the seasons. Look at food as you would clothes. Just as you wear certain things in the Winter and other things in the Summer, you should do the same with food. Even fish has seasons. If he were to serve a meal tonight, he would use wild salmon and pair it with delicious heirloom tomatoes. He says, "rather than try and make complicated dishes, make simple dishes that highlight the food that's in season."
What he thinks of his pal Rocco DiSpirito: Samuelsson feels Rocco is tragically misunderstood by the food industry. He believes Rocco is the best chef in America and is sad that one teeny mistake ruined his reputation as a chef. He's also confident that Rocco has what it takes to make a come back
After speaking with the chef, I was eager to get home and practice what he preached. The next time I'm in New York, I hope to eat at one of his restaurants.