To serious food lovers, Chef Marcus Samuelsson needs no introduction. The 47-year-old Ethiopian-born, Sweden-raised restaurateur and culinary wunderkind heads-up the kitchen at New York’s much-acclaimed Red Rooster Harlem, presenting an artisan’s take on traditional American comfort food. The youngest chef ever to receive a three-star restaurant review from The New York Times, Samuelsson was named 2003’s "Best Chef: New York City" by the James Beard Foundation and received the Foundation's prestigious prize for his 2006 cookbook, The Soul of a New Cuisine.
Somehow, this past July, Samuelsson still found time to serve dozens of appreciative New Yorkers a selection of carefully chosen small plates from a food truck parked outside an historic townhouse on the Upper West Side. Part of Booking.com's Taste of Travel Townhouse Experience, the dishes, inspired by New York neighborhoods rich in culinary traditions, included sticky rib, beef rib, and pickled chili to represent Koreatown, meatball skewer, lamb, chicken, dill, and labneh in homage to Astoria's dual Greek/Middle Eastern heritage, and much more. The event was planned in support of Samuelsson’s 6-part PBS series No Passport Required, which launched July 18, sending the master chef across the U.S.A in search of community, dialogue, and great food.
No stranger to TV, Samuelsson has served as a mentor on ABC's “The Taste,” hosted shows on the Discovery Home Channel and BET J, and is a regular guest judge on the Food Network’s Chopped. In this newest series, he highlights the real stories behind culinary life in America. Recently Samuelsson chatted with Departures about travel, treasured dishes, and his all-time-favorite destination.
I heard that one of your favorite travel destinations is Addis Ababa?
“It's the capital of Ethiopia and where my wife and I are from. It’s such a magical place to go because it's a big city, but still feels small and the food is amazing. It's not overcrowded with tourists yet. You have to go to Mercato, the open market, it's one of Africa's biggest. You can drink honey wine and tea, buy fabric—you really feel transported.
You filmed an episode of Explore Parts Unknown in Addis Abba with Anthony Bourdain. What did you most want to convey to viewers?
Any time you talk about Africa, you want people to experience Africa the way you experience Europe, the way you experience aspects of South America, with no fear. Africa is amazing, and most people who go to Africa have an amazing time. People just don't know how to "open it up" or where to go to first. As an African, you feel like an ambassador, exclaiming "come to Ethiopia! Come to Cape Town! It's amazing.” You constantly feel like that.
What is your favorite destination for food?
For food, my favorite travel destination is Tokyo. But I also love Brazil, because I can also play soccer and be at the beach—which is not a bad combo! I like to visit Rio, but also Manaus, the capital of the Amazon, in the middle of the jungle. In Brazil, you eat a fair amount of sweet foods—mostly African sweet foods that were brought over—and I love that. There are shrimp dishes, pepper dishes—and then you drink Caipirinha on the water. That's a pretty good life.
Beyond food and travel destinations, what is your all-time favorite city?
Addis always puts a smile on my face. But my favorite city is New York City—that's where I live! It is my favorite city of all time.
What made you want to transform this New York townhouse into an eating experience?
The show is really about exploring and traveling, and we want people to be out exploring and being part of America—exploring America—and both this and booking.com and No Passport Required are all projects that are about bringing out that inner traveler in people, about celebrating our amazing diversity, even in times like this when diversity is being challenged.
Is this a major theme of the show?
When you live in New York and work in an industry that’s so diverse, you're around so many different cultures all the time. And you can take it for granted, but you shouldn’t take it for granted. Diversity is what makes America so beautiful. It's important that we celebrate each other through art, music, and breaking bread, food—and traveling is a major connector to that. I think of everything I've learned through traveling—I would be a completely different person if my parents hadn’t put me in that car or on a plane at an early age—and that curiosity stays with me today.
What were some of the most interesting conversations you had while filming the show?
It was absolutely amazing to visit Miami and be part of the Haitian-American community or in Chicago speaking to the Mexican American community. At this moment, with ICE and DACA such a constant presence, to be able to have conversations with people experiencing this first-hand—those were all extremely humbling. There’s a sense of pride and community that doesn't always get the chance to be explored through a tv show, and I think we can do that. Little Haiti has such a rich history. They have a soup called soup joumou that is a soup of independence, so you can experience a country through its soup. I think that's fabulous—it's a beautiful community.
Out of curiosity, is there a regional dish even you have trouble making?
A lot of them! On "Chopped" it happens all the time. There was one segment where I was cooking with a Vietnamese family in New Orleans and I'm messing up the spring rolls, and the pork terrine is not done right. So I got to go back to cooking school. I loved it. And that's no small part of traveling. Having cooking classes while you travel, or eating and going to markets—eating a dish you might not have grown up on—that's exploring, that's traveling. Now you're living!