Go Away With … Marcus Samuelsson

Photo credit: Paul Brissman

By Jae-Ha Kim
Tribune Media Services
June 19, 2012

Born in Ethiopia and raised in Sweden by his adoptive family, Chef Marcus Samuelsson currently resides in the United States with his wife, model Gate Maya Haile. Samuelsson, a TV personality and “Top Chef Masters” champion, runs his restaurants Red Rooster Harlem and Ginny’s Supper Club in New York and Norda in Gothenburg, Sweden. His latest project is his memoir, “Yes, Chef” (Random House, $27).

An avid traveler whose family is spread worldwide, the telegenic chef says the best way to get a feel for a new country is to have a drink with the locals. “I think food is one way to see what’s local, but you always want to drink what they drink, too,” advises Samuelsson, 42. “Whether you’re drinking mezcal in Mexico or tea in Ethiopia, it helps you understand that culture.” Fans may follow him on Twitter @MarcusCooks.

Q. What is your favorite vacation destination?

A. My favorite place to go is the fishing village where my father was born. I have a house in Smogen, Sweden, and everyone in my family uses it except me, which is OK. I often view a year based on failures and successes, and success for me is measured by how many days I spend in that house. For the last 36 months, I didn’t spend any time there.

Some might view it as an odd way to measure success, but for me this house in Smogen is a place where my mother enjoys her time, my sister and her kids come to spend the summer, the people I truly care about are there. I get joy in knowing everyone had a good time. The way my father had to work to take care of everybody, I feel like I’m prolonging the tradition of the family by going to spend time there.

Q. To someone who was going there for the first time, what would you recommend that they do during their visit?

A. Fish. Fishing is not only about catching fish, but it’s the ritual of getting up early, going down by the boat house and smelling the salt from the water. No matter how early you go there’s an old man that’s there before you. From there it might take you 45 minutes to find the perfect spot and you might only fish for an hour, but it’s just knowing you’ve been out there. Once I’m back at the house and fixing myself a cup of coffee, it’s only 9 o’clock. I can spend the rest of the time doing whatever I want — fixing a meal, playing soccer, whatever!

Q. What untapped destination should people know about?

A. I think Africa just has that mystique. I would love for people to travel in Africa the way we travel in Europe. Hitting a place like Addis Ababa — it’s just a different vocabulary, rhythm, music, smells. … It’s ancient and modern at the same time. You come back with your eyes wide open.

Q. In what city have you eaten the most amazing meal?

A. Tokyo. In a city of 13 million people, I’m sitting in this tiny eight-person restaurant watching the tempura chefs so expertly prepare this dish. When Americans think about anything fried, we think about it being greasy. Eating tempura in Japan, it’s everything but grease. It’s crisp, it has this incredible texture and it doesn’t even smell like oil.

Q. What was the first trip you took as a child?

A. One of the first trips I took with my family was to Auschwitz in Poland. Every other year they changed up our destinations. My father was very hardcore about learning. I’m standing there in this concentration camp and thinking about one of my aunts who came from a place like that. As a child I couldn’t relate to the stories, but I remember thinking how awful it was that something like glasses were taken away from people there. I was 12 and I’ll never forget it. I also remember I didn’t like the food.

Q. Where are your favorite weekend getaways?

A. I love heading out to Montauk (in New York) and running to the beach or hitting up an antique shop while I’m there. But my favorite thing to do on the weekends is to play soccer in Chinatown with my team of Swedish expats. I’m in love with New York City and my favorite getaway is staying right here when everyone else is out of town. I like to go to places like Rockaway Beach, where the ‘hood meets the water. I take the train out and read the paper and it’s fascinating to hear how all the languages change as you go from uptown to downtown and then out to the beach. Because I travel so much, it’s a luxury for me to stay right here.

Q. If you could do it all over again, which place that you didn’t like so much at first would you give another shot?

A. Germany. I was picked up by the cops in Germany while sitting on a park bench. I didn’t have my passport with me and this was before cellphones so I didn’t have any identification on me. Luckily the family I was staying with was able to come and get me, but it was a horrible experience. I haven’t been back since, but I would like to have a different experience there.

Q. What are your five favorite cities?

A. New York City. Harlem, because I consider Harlem a city within a city. Tokyo, Addis Ababa and it’s really hard for someone from Gothenburg to say this, but Stockholm. I love Stockholm.

Q. Where have you traveled to that most reminded you of home?

A. Sydney has a lot of Swedish sensibilities. It’s a city on the water — with a completely different climate, of course. But it has very kind people and it’s also a little remote so it’s a lighter life.

Q. Where would you like to go that you have never been to before?

A. Peru and a couple of places in India.

Q. When you go away, what are some of your must-have items?

A. Pen and paper so I can document my thoughts, my phone so I can instantly share my experiences with my Twitter followers and friends, running shoes and a pair of good shoes. I don’t pack a lot because I always like to buy things on my travels. It’s cool to buy a shirt from wherever you are. And if you have good shoes and a nice pair of pants you’re set. All my clothes and hats are memories from where I’ve been.

Q. What would be your dream trip?

A. I would love to go back to Victoria Jungfrau Hotel where I worked and be a guest. I’ve never seen the rooms. We weren’t allowed in them.

Q. What kind of research do you do before you go away on a trip?

A. I always try to figure out what kind of sports teams matter in that country, because you can get a sense of the divides. Once you see the sports and the way the men dress, you see the style. I also want to see what museums are there and then, of course, the music scene, and above all that, the food. But I land on the food through these other channels.

Q. What is your best vacation memory?

A. I love being with the jerk guys in Boston Bay, Jamaica. It gets annoying for my wife, because she has things planned for what she wants to do. But I feel like if there isn’t food that represents the roots of where I am, I don’t want to go. In Boston Bay, I went down every day early and would just hang out with those guys. I love that.

© 2012 JAE-HA KIM

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