Interview with Chef Marcus Samuelsson of Aquavit – New York, NY

October 2011

Jocelyn Morse: How do you define your cuisine today?

Marcus Samuelsson: My food is based on building blocks that I constantly work hard to polish. My building blocks start with the traditional Swedish [ingredients and techniques]. I've developed the other [building blocks] here as a chef throughout the years. As a Scandinavian-American, very often you have to ask yourself what are you? What is your cuisine about? This forces you to then line up these blocks. For Scandinavian cuisine, fish and seafood are big. Sweden is a peninsula surrounded by a lot of water. We have a lot of lakes and bodies of water to take our fish and seafood from. We have a big hunting tradition and we have a lot of woods - so game is another essential. Pickling and preserving techniques are fundamental as well. This is the one thing that I think every culture really has. Koreans have kimchee, Germans have their sauerkraut, Peruvians have ceviche. It's something that a lot of different cultures have. These are the hardcore Scandinavian building blocks that I incorporate into my cooking.

JM: Aside from ingredients and technique, what are the other 'building blocks' of your cuisine?

MS: I always think about texture…different types of textures of food. For example if you have a melon, I think about melon granité, melon foam, hot melon soup, cold melon soup, melon ice cream, melon sorbet…one ingredient gives you six different types of textures which will then drive the flavors. Another big building block is aesthetic. One thing that I think Scandinavia and Sweden are known for, more so than their food, is their minimalist design. We have a lot of similarities with Japanese culture. The aesthetic for me is key. All these 5 building blocks: aesthetic, texture, fish and seafood, pickling and preserving and game combined drive the flavor. This is a little bit different than classical French cooking. It's very much technique-based. Technique comes from somewhere else for me. Produce comes from somewhere else…they are not as important. If I have the best foie gras in the world, I work with its texture before I think of technique and ingredients.

JM: Do you serve straight-up Scandinavian food? How do you entice people who are less familiar?

MS: The types of food people know are French, Japanese, Chinese, maybe Indian, and Mexican… People will never ever say, 'Today I want to eat strictly Swedish.' My job is to globalize my cooking. There are fish and game in many different parts of the world. For example, if I cure tuna I am using a very classical Swedish thought process, but I am using a tuna rather than a salmon. My key is to integrate that with global ingredients. My audience is mixed. A very high percentage of the people who come to my restaurant are American, so I have to work with this.

JM: Is herring something you serve here? What are some of the typical Swedish attractions on your menu?

MS: We have two levels at Aquavit. Upstairs you can get a more classical approach to Swedish cuisine - your straight-up meatballs, herring and gravlax. Downstairs we also serve herring and gravlax, but even a classical thing such as herring has an Asian appeal for me. It's the only dish that I eat the same way I eat sushi. Sushi - tuna, salmon - you compare different types of fish and different types of pickling ingredients. Herring is the same thing. Very often, you eat 3 or 4 different types of herring.

JM: On the dining room menu, you have a lot of sweet and savory combinations as well as unexpected ingredients…in a typical savory dish I found plum and papaya and in a dessert I saw pepper and goat cheese…

MS: You build harmony when you eat, but you can also build harmony by having a wake up call, by total shock. A fennel panna cotta makes a person, no matter who it is, surprised…or curry and chocolate. You don't force [combinations]. You make it so it makes sense. Fennel is part of the citrus family, and so it makes sense; it's a subtlety. You can make a sweet curry with coconut milk and brown sugar and it makes sense. It's not about making food 'cool food,' it's about making harmony and flavors that make sense together. I never look at a dish and say 'this dish should be served for only a main course or appetizer.' I look at everything as an option.

JM: Do you tend to pair Aquavit with your food and/or use it as a cooking ingredient?

MS: Any alcohol is really good for food. You can make great sorbets, vinaigrettes; you can cure your meat with it. You can use it many different ways.

JM: Does your Ethiopian background have a roll in your creativity? Or, is this less prominent today?

MS: When you look the way I look there's nothing less prominent. I look 100% Ethiopian…It's not like I'm half mixed. I love the experiences I've had, my different backgrounds. It is who I am and I can't change it, but I think it's fantastic. You can't get exposed to too many things. My Ethiopian heritage is something that I continue to learn about. I am a student of Ethiopian culture everyday…I go to Ethiopian restaurants, I've been to Ethiopia, I took Gourmet magazine with me and we did a big story about Ethiopian culture that will come out in October. I know more about Sweden. It (my heritage) is something that I'm very proud of and I think about it almost everyday.

JM: What are staple ingredients in your kitchen?

MS: It's not ingredients, it's a brush. It's something I've had forever, since I was a kid. I paint on plates, for example. Anything is a vehicle for me to serve food on. I use tiles or glass bricks. I don't buy the most expensive china, I design my own and I use stuff [that exists] in everyday culture and I put it in my restaurant. I think we're going to move into a time when cuisine is personalized. It's not so much he's French so he's got to cook French food. It doesn't work that way anymore. Look at Jean-Georges; his food is a reflection of where he's been in his life. Vong is a reflection of that and he now cooks in America and for me it's the same.

JM: Swedes are known for their glass blowing…do you incorporate this into your collection?

MS: All of [the glass sculptures in the dining room] are from Costa Boda. Very cheap. (Laughs).

JM: How do you choose to explore new techniques in your cuisine, like foams?

MS: There is no real difference between what all of the top thousand chefs have done. Truly. You go via France, or you train with a French chef at a 3- or 2-star restaurant, work your ass off, get kicked around and then go back to your home country or city. Why do you go to France? You go there to get the techniques. After you've done that for 10 or 15 years, you need to have a revolution within yourself. Anybody will evolve that way no matter what they do. I can make anything in a cookbook from A to Z, but now I'm more interested in what happens if I [mix and match], and that's what drives me. I get cooks in here who come to me because they want to be part of a unique experience.

JM: How do you find most of your cooks?

MS: They come to me. The New York market is very tough right now, but I've been on the scene for a while and I have a network of great friends. All the great chefs in New York are both colleagues and friends [and we all] work together. It goes both ways; Rocco DiSpirito and I work well together…Floyd Cardoz and I work well together. We send [cooks] back and forth. Anybody who has gone through the great chefs such as Daniel or Jean-Georges, of course that's a plus on your résumé. I try to push people and after a year and a half with the guy, that guy's got to go.

JM: Daniel says that he requires a year and a half from his cooks for him to be willing to recommend them to other chefs.

MS: We all have a philosophy in that we want a year out of the guy or a year and a half. Unless you're going to put the person into management, it's better [to have fresh attitudes]. This is a profession where you're under a lot of scrutiny. It doesn't matter what you did yesterday, if you mess up today, most likely you will be removed from your position. There are not a lot of jobs where you make one mistake and the next night you're gone. It doesn't mean that you get fired, but maybe you're removed. People don't want to get embarrassed - it's worse than being fired.

JM: A kitchen is a very competitive place. What kind of cooks tends to survive in yours?

MS: I hire talented people whether they're all women or all men…I never try to force it. I never say, 'We need to have more guys.' You get reviewed based on what you serve and if it takes an all-Swedish team or an all-women team or an all-men team, it makes no difference to me.

JM: How is your restaurant in Minneapolis going?

MS: I'm really excited about what we've been able to accomplish there. In Minneapolis we have a great chef program where we do a tasting menu together with all the local talent and great chefs of America. Rocco DiSpirito was out, Floyd Cardoz is coming in the fall, Deborah Madison is coming in August. In New York, we have everybody here. We get spoiled. Most parts of the country don't have that talent. I am happy to be able to put a stamp on the community in Minneapolis. Now people have a great reason to love food and there are other great restaurants there too, but we are unique.

JM: What other projects do you have coming up?

MS: We're opening a café in the fall on 37th and Park in the Scandinavian House, the culture center for all of the Scandinavian countries. I'm going to run their café and we'll also have banquet facilities. Most private parties I have to turn down now. We don't have the space to do it. I am very excited to work with the Scandinavian countries. There're going to be a lot of art shows and music. To be a part of that whole thing - it's going to be great. Secondly, it gives us new opportunities.

JM: Who are your mentors? You're pretty young, 30?

MS: No, 29. My grandmother is the one who really taught me how to cook. That's my number one. In terms of mentors, I had the opportunity to work with Georges Blanc, which is 3-star Michelin in France. I had a great working relationship with Charlie Trotter. He really embraced me and helped me in many ways. I have the utmost respect for Daniel and Jean-Georges, what they've done and how they remain consistent. Daniel represents high quality and is truly professional. Every time you meet him he says, 'If there's anything you need…' He doesn't just say it, he really means it. I've been in situations when I've needed these great people and they've hooked me up. Jean-Georges, the same thing. Thomas Keller has done a lot for American food.

JM: You speak a couple of languages. Which ones?

MS: I speak Swedish, English, a little bit of German. I can understand Dutch and French but I don't practice it here. I don't speak Spanish, but I'd really love to.

JM: Of your experiences cooking abroad, which have been most influential?

MS: The greatest experience is to be in New York. I feel like it's one of the few places in the world where you have a competitive market 52 weeks out of the year. I have some great cooks, and friends, and chefs in Sweden that are technically just as good as anybody in New York, but they close their restaurant in July, half of August, New Year's, Christmas, Easter. A New York chef never has that opportunity. New York chefs pay top rents - we have to stay open. Even if you compare us to the 3-star Michelin in France, they have 5 or 8 months of operation a year, closed two days a week. That doesn't happen, that doesn't exist in New York. You have so many tiers of true talent in New York. You can take a guy like the one at 71 Clinton Fresh Food, Wylie, he's a fabulous chef with just a small restaurant, Anita Lou on 13 Barrow Street, Diane Forley…these are small, little restaurants. And then you go to the club scene. Think about the food you get at Bond St and Moomba. It's a club and the food is great! You have to go to more than 150 good restaurants for the quality to go really down. I don't even think Paris has that.

JM: What are your favorite tools and equipment besides your brush?

MS: It's very rare that you have an oven that is even - no matter what brand, no matter what you do, rarely. I mean even heat…and also that gives to flexibility so that you can do anything from steaming to cooking a pizza in one oven.

JM: Isn't there one out called the Accellis by Maytag?

MS: From GE to Viking, they know how to put it together, but you go to any kitchen anywhere and it's an issue…

JM: You have a line of products. Where can we get them?

MS: At ABC Carpets and Chelsea Baskets at the Chelsea Market in New York.

JM: Swedes have a lot of pride in their culture. Your involvement in the cultural center shows an appreciation of your cuisine as art.

MS: The culture center asked us to do the restaurant for the Scandinavian House. If you do quality work it will always come back in a positive way, and you can see this in other chefs. For example Daniel, all of his partnerships are with solid people. You get a newsletter, a postcard or a dish in the restaurant, you can line up all of his stuff and it's all quality and that is often what I talk to about with my staff. Everything we do at Aquavit - product line, food, service, flowers - is on the same level of quality. I am really impressed with how people can dress-down but still do quality, like Mercer Kitchen, and it's still fun. I ultimately want to work toward doing different things of my own style. There are a lot of things that I have to give that other chefs don't have and vice versa. I use [Daniel and Jean-Georges] as examples.

JM: Do you work with any cooking schools?

MS: I work with all the schools…CIA, Peter Kump, French Culinary Institute. When I say work, I mean that I don't like to have a relationship where they send me students. I go to the schools and I do seminars and cook for them. It goes both ways. I'm working a lot with a charity organization called C-CAP. It works out really well. I am a very hands-on chef and want to provide incentive for them. I can't just say, 'I'm on the cell phone, see you.' It's not just about how I cook, it's about how I carry myself and my relationships.