NEW YORK CITY -- It's unusually frigid here in the city since a foot of snow dropped, mostly sideways and then ushered in a big freeze. No warm cars with heated seats here; instead to get to the subway, one climbs over snow-packed curbs and skids on ice-slicked sidewalks.
So, understandably, Marcus Samuelsson, celebrity chef, owner of Harlem's Red Rooster and author of the memoir "Yes, Chef" was running late on Wednesday. Just a touch, for his noontime talk at the Beard on Books program. Run by the James Beard Foundation, it's held in the Greenwich Village townhouse once occupied by Mr. Beard.
Marcus Samuelsson is intense, and maybe a little nervous, but very dapper, wearing a deep-purple sweater, a multi-colored scarf, a cap with triangles of black leather, and leopard-print sneakers.
Inspiration was key to his message. His early culinary influences came from his Swedish grandmother who shaped his love of food. Born in Ethiopia, Marcus Samuelsson and his sister were adopted by a Swedish couple after their mother died. It would be years before he would return to his roots and the country where he was born.
His grandmother was a retired domestic and there was struggle between her and Marcus' mother, who didn’t want to cook in the old way. But he loved cooking and the work it involved. Besides, "Her kitchen smelled better."
Often he'd have two dinners, he told us with a wide smile. First with Mom and Dad, and then he'd ride his bike over to "Mormor's" house.
There he learned from the ground up. To roast a chicken, it first had to be killed, plucked and salted. With the cooking lessons there were always stories, about World War II, about poverty. At his grandmother's house, he said, "there was always something to do and something was always cooking.
"There were mushrooms and herring to pickle, jam to make, plums and apples to pick. I was tasting things for the first time."
After working in France, and realizing food would be his life's work, he tried to get to the States, writing three letters of appeal. One was to David Letterman, one to Oprah and one to the founder of a well-known Swedish restaurant in New York, Aquavit, where, later, he garnered three stars from The New York Times. He had $300 dollars in his pocket.
"And a big idea."
He'd explore the city on roller-blades, living with a roommate who was also working in restaurants and at night they'd exchange ideas.
After 9/11, he found a new place for himself in Harlem. Opened Red Rooster and then Ginny's Supper Club, a place where the culture of Harlem, jazz, gospel music and art intersect with food. His goal is to inspire other young cooks, to work with them, to teach them. To do something meaningful, beyond just filling up seats in a restaurant.
He travels by bicycle now, having given up rollerblades. Fifteen restaurants have opened in Harlem since he opened Rooster.
As he writes in "Yes, Chef:"
"I spent so much of my life on the outside that I began to doubt that I would ever truly be in with any one people, any one place, any one tribe. But Harlem is big enough, diverse enough, scrappy enough, old enough, and new enough to encompass all that I am and all that I hope to be. After all that traveling, I am, at last, home."
Miriam Rubin photo