Not long after he arrived stateside 20 years ago, Marcus Samuelsson started racking up awards. At the age of 23, when he was Aquavit’s executive chef, he received his first three-star rating from the New York Times — he was the youngest chef to ever do so at the time. Four years later, he was assigned the “Rising Star Chef” award by the James Beard Foundation. He’s since gone on to openly the highly acclaimed Red Rooster Harlem (310 Lenox Avenue; 212-792-9001), become a New York Times award-winning author, cook dinner at the White House, and launch several other concepts. Now the amicable chef is inviting readers into his home, with Marcus Off Duty: The Recipes I Cook at Home.
Samuelsson was born in Ethiopia, and when he was a baby, he, his sister Linda, and his mother contracted tuberculosis. When he was just a year old, his mother succumbed to the disease. He and his sister were adopted by Swedish couple Ann Marie and Lennart Samuelsson the following year.
It was in his Scandinavian home that he started to take an interest in cooking. At the age of six, the future chef would hang out in the kitchen with his grandmother Helga, sampling fresh lingonberries and blueberries. Helga would teach him how to pickle vegetables and cook meatballs, ginger snaps, cookies, and apple jam. In summers, the family would head to the coastal town of Smögen; with his dad and uncle, Samuelsson would fish for crayfish, lobsters, and mackerel. Many times, they’d come back and smoke or preserve the day’s catch.
With his passion stoked, at 15, Samuelsson started his formal French training at the local vocational school. After graduating second in his class, he packed his knives and traveled to Switzerland. He took his first stage (basically an apprenticeship for chefs) at the Victoria-Jungfrau hotel. With a wide range of international clientele, the classic European menu incorporated exotic ingredients from across the world, like sticky rice and exotic mushrooms. The young chef was even more excited to learn than he had previously been.
He then worked his way to Austria, back to Switzerland, France, and New York City for a position at Aquavit, where Samuelsson learned how to elevate the regional fare from the home of his youth and fell in love with the diverse cultures and cuisines. But the restless chef kept moving; he traveled all over the world exploring and absorbing different ways of eating and cooking.
To Samuelsson, exploring cuisine in its homeland is what cooking is all about. “Traveling today is not just how you start to get into a dish, but also the mood around that,” says Samuelsson. “You look at something like a fish burger. As a recipe it’s completely wrong: You have eggs, you have cheese, and all these things you’re not supposed to have, but sitting on a beach in Jamaica, that fish burger becomes the best fish burger you’ve ever had.”
After coming back to New York (and winning a multitude of prestigious awards), Samuelsson decided it was time to visit his homeland. For the first time since he was a toddler, he met his birth father, Tsegie, and his 18 brothers and sisters. To him, it was one of the single most important events in his life. “I found my family, and we were connected through food; we had so much to talk about, we didn’t know about each other,” says Samuelsson. “Obviously, adoption is very complex, and I talked about it a lot in Yes, Chef, but here [in Off Duty] was a way to talk about it through food…It’s my family, and a family I’m still getting to know over 10 years, which is very rewarding.”
It’s this distinct background and set of experiences that Samuelsson explores in his latest volume. Combining recipes from his birthplace, the country in which he grew up, his travels, and his beloved new home, New York, Off Duty represents the way the top toque cooks and eats at home. With easy-to-follow instructions, Samuelsson walks readers though dishes, like Ethiopian (Doro Wat) tostadas, fennel-matzoh ball chicken soup, pumpkin-cinnamon empanadas, and twice-fried chicken breasts with rainbow slaw.
Just like his other works, the book took about four years to complete. To Samuelsson, the creation process is intensely personal, a reflection on his current physical and emotional state. When he wrote Aquavit: And the New Scandinavian Cuisine, 10 years ago, he wanted to explain to the world what Swedish cuisine could be. With The Soul of a New Cuisine: A Discovery of the Foods and Flavors of Africa, he hoped to open Americans up to African fare. “It all matters equally to me; they’re all very, very different on how they can be used and why,” says Samuelsson. “I’m at home right now.”
Married and residing in his home for the past two years, Samuelsson’s aim with the book was to explore the emotional connection to cooking and celebrating with family and friends in one of the most intimate spaces in the world. Compared to compiling menus for restaurants, to Samuelsson, home cooking is all about the emotion and feel. (For him, music plays an important role, as well; the book features playlists to go along with every chapter.) “I want to encourage people to evoke a feeling that is a little different than ‘Here’s my great dish,’ ” he says. “I want people to show people the why, eating and cooking, with a spiritual context.”
That spiritual context goes deeper than religious holidays. To him, it’s about mindfulness: Share food with those who have less, waste nothing, think about the environment. That’s part of why he loves preparing things, like stews, at home. “I love cooking a stew, but I also get excited with the dishes I’ll get after that,” says Samuelsson. “I might make dumpling with stew and vegetables. And boom, that’s my dumpling from the stew the next day. Or I might make a lasagna and layer the stew with pasta and vegetables, lie it in the oven and gratiné it. There are so many directions you can go with that.”
With recipes from Ethiopia and Sweden to the Caribbean and Mexico to Italy and the American South, Samuelsson has blended his travels and passion for food with his own personal story. “The traveling experience has taught me to culturally understand, and my upbringing has given me context to why we’ve done this,” says Samuelsson. “In Sweden, we’ve done it because we were fishermen. In Ethiopia, we do it because you farm the land. The restaurant experiences I’ve had have taught me to connect it. Living here in Harlem has helped me combine all of the above.”
Sticky-Fingers Curried Lobster Stew
I love to cook lobster for friends — and I’ve never heard anyone say, “Lobster? Again?” There’s nothing like walking into a kitchen and seeing a big pot of stew simmering on the stove. The Asian flavors — red curry, coconut milk, lemongrass — make this stew feel sophisticated and complex. Eating with your hands immediately transforms the meal into something more rustic, more casual, and more fun. Serve with a baguette for mopping up every last drop of sauce.
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons red curry paste
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
1 teaspoon coriander seeds
1 stalk lemongrass, smashed
2 kaffir lime leaves (see Note)
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 cup coconut milk
4 cups water
1 cup dry white wine
4 ripe tomatoes, chopped
2 cups basmati rice
6 fingerling or creamer potatoes, scrubbed and quartered
2 tablespoons kosher salt
1 tablespoon sugar
2 (2-pound) lobsters
2 red finger chiles (or other small red chiles), thinly sliced
Juice of 2 limes
Note: If you find kaffir lime leaves in an Asian or Indian market — or in your supermarket — buy them and freeze them. If not, you can substitute the grated zest of 1 lime and 1/2 teaspoon minced fresh mint.
1. Heat the olive oil in a medium skillet over medium-high heat. Add the curry paste, mustard seeds, coriander seeds, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, and garlic and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 3 minutes. Remove from the heat and cool.
2. Discard the lime leaves and lemongrass. Scrape the remaining contents of the skillet into a blender. Add the coconut milk and blend. Set the curry sauce aside.
3. Bring the water to a boil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the white wine, tomatoes, rice, and potatoes. Bring back to a boil, turn the heat to low, cover the pot, and cook until the potatoes are tender and the rice is done, 12 to 15 minutes.
4. Meanwhile, fill a stockpot with water, add the salt and sugar, and bring to a boil. Add the lobsters, head first. Cover the pot and cook the lobsters for 7 minutes.
5. Lift the lobsters out of the pot with tongs (reserve the lobster water) and let them cool. When you can handle them, pull off the claws and crack the shells with the back of a heavy knife. Separate the bodies from the tails and cut each in half lengthwise. Remove and discard the sand sac and vein.
6. While the lobsters cool, pour the curry sauce into a large saucepan over medium heat. Add 2 cups of the lobster water. Bring to a simmer and cook until reduced and slightly thickened, about 15 minutes. Add the lobster pieces and cook for a few minutes, to warm the lobster.
7. Spoon the rice and potatoes into four small bowls and the lobster and curry sauce into a big serving bowl. Sprinkle the lobster with the chiles and lime juice and let your guests help themselves.