On a whirlwind tour of Göteborg and Stockholm, chef Marcus Samuelsson talks to T+L about his new restaurant in Harlem, life as an outsider, and cooking for the President of the United States.
“We are in for some really bad food tonight,” says Marcus Samuelsson, celebrated chef, exemplar of stylish eclecticism, and general seeker of good-tasting things. He sounds so happy about this, I don’t bother objecting. We’re in his hometown of Göteborg, Sweden, and he’s got a plan for us. A plan that includes, apparently, the worst New York–style pizza western Sweden has to offer. But before we can think about eating, we set off on foot from the designy modern Avalon Hotel for an introduction to the city.
Samuelsson walks quickly. Flapping around his neck is a red scarf that would make me look like Howdy Doody but on him is effortlessly suave. Across the street from the hotel is Saluhallen Kungstorget, the airy 19th-century food hall where a young Samuelsson would buy fish and the returning Samuelsson is stopped for his autograph. “Nice kid,” Samuelsson says after a brief exchange in Swedish. “I could tell he’s serious about cooking—so I offered him a job.” He says this casually, as if it’s the most normal thing in the world to fly home and hand out opportunities to young cooks you encounter on the street. And anyway, what’s normal for a chef who gave up fine dining to build an Afro-Swedish soul-food bistro in Harlem—and made it feel like just the thing the whole city had been waiting for?
It’s impossible to talk about Marcus Samuelsson without addressing his backstory, the lore of origins and ascent. It’s a much-retold postmodern multiculti fairy tale that’s so good to rehear not least because it happens to be true: presumed orphaned in Ethiopia; raised by loving Swedish parents; taught in the kitchens of grandmother Helga as well as Georges Blanc; and handed the reins at Manhattan’s Aquavit, where he became the youngest chef to receive three stars from the New York Times. He’s cooked for both the king of Sweden and Barack Obama—at the White House, for the President’s first state dinner in D.C., as well as up in Harlem at his new restaurant, Red Rooster. He went on Top Chef Masters and won it, though he’s more likely to talk about his two nonculinary enthusiasms, fashion and soccer. He’ll tie in things that Stevie Wonder and Björn Borg told him into a single conversation. A recent sample tweet, from this year’s World Economic Forum, where he spoke on several panels and hobnobbed with fellow citizens of the world: “Best food in davos indian samosa or canadian beaver tail hmm.”
And it might all be too much to chew on, like a big bite of Canadian beaver tail, or feel as authentic as a soggy slice of western Swedish pizza, but here’s the thing: the guy is legit. All you need to do is read the cookbooks he’s written about his varied culinary identities (Scandinavian, African, and American) and the depth of knowledge and enthusiasm is evident. Or take the train to 125th and Lenox Avenue and order the fried “yard bird” and Helga’s meatballs with lingonberries and survey the scene (and it’s always a scene). There’s the retired governor of New York; here’s a young trumpet player. The tables are packed, the joint is jumping. The guy is on to something.
And that something begins in the port city of Göteborg, home to Volvo as well as the world’s largest manufacturer of ball bearings and a Gothic-style fish market that resembles a church. What inspires him about the city is that it’s found its own inspiration in an economic downturn. When fishing and industry faded away, the artists and the homegrown denim brands, the micro coffee roasters and Web-design studios reclaimed the industrial spaces and made the city new.
“There’s something similar at the core between Göteborg and Harlem,” Samuelsson says. The project of separating himself from the midtown-chic style of Aquavit to open Red Rooster meant looking for new ways to define himself. “Three years ago I was always thinking, How can this fit in with the image of Aquavit? How can this be perfect? Then you realize: F—ck perfect!”
Göteborg charms with its imperfections. Take that pizza. It is as bad as promised. Or worse. But no matter. I understand why Samuelsson chose it: the unnameable restaurant is cheap and fun and filled to capacity with people more interested in the Champions League soccer final on TV than the food on the plate. A group of Samuelsson’s old school pals join us and we cycle through a string of clubs, ending up late at a place called the Peacock Dinner Club. It is the kind of relaxed, goofy night G-borg (as Samuelsson and nobody else calls it) is made for.
The next morning we walk over to a cobblestoned street called Magasinsgatan and drink several coffees at Da Matteo, a local roaster with unfinished wood-plank floors and a lively, lingering young crowd.
Next to the café is an eclectic, well-curated boutique called Grandpa where you can buy preppy pink men’s corduroys from the Göteborg label Velour and fuzzy sweaters from the Swedish brand Uniforms for the Dedicated, as well as old maps of Sweden, sailor’s caps, locally made leather goods, and a gold-plated sardine can. “Everyone moves away but everyone moves back,” says Emmelie Böl, who works here. She is ethereally beautiful in pale-pink Chuck Taylor sneakers and a long gray dress she’s wearing backward. “Really, you should move here.”
Samuelsson, a confirmed New Yorker and chronic traveler, isn’t headed back for good, but he has found a way to go home again—and bring his work with him. This February, he’ll open his first restaurant in his hometown at the Clarion Hotel Post, a massive renovation project in a landmark 1920’s post office. The restaurant, Norda Grill & Post Bar, will reflect elements of both his adopted homelands. American classics through a Swedish looking glass: a traditional New England lobster roll, for instance, but filled with Swedish shrimp, cucumber, and dill.
“It’s funny,” Samuelsson says, “growing up I knew very early that, to go where I wanted in life, I needed to leave this place. Now I’ve traveled and I’ve figured out how to write a love letter to Göteborg. I’m comfortable with my Swedish side now.”
“Ah, this city is so crisp,” Samuelsson says. We’re in Stockholm, at lunch with Teresa Lundahl, the lovely woman whose ceramics company, Mateus, is producing a line of plates and tableware for both Red Rooster and Norda Grill. “Beauty is everywhere in this city, so whatever you add, it has to look great. You don’t want to be the architect who makes an ugly building or the designer who makes people look bad.” We walk through the narrow shopping lanes of Östermalm down to the newly opened Nobis Hotel, where an afternoon crowd has gathered for drinks in the sun. It’s brighter here, warmer, the sparkle off the water sparklier. There are no ugly buildings and everyone’s attractive. Stockholm is the great, underrated beauty of European capitals.
The thing to do, Samuelsson says, is wander and look. We walk by the opera house with its carved-wood cafés and hidden bars, turn at the water, and follow the embankment past the aptly named Grand Hotel and the intimate Hotel Lydmar, where another group is enjoying drinks in the glow of the early evening light. Around the corner, we stop for a beer at B.A.R., an airy bistro where every table is packed. Samuelsson notes the menus hanging from hooks on the wall, the platters of oysters, and the general cheerful hum of the place. “I take so much energy from the simplicity of Swedish style.”
That night we drive a bit out of the center to a restaurant called AG. “I already like it,” Samuelsson says, ascending the clunky circular stairs to the second floor. Within an unassuming apartment block, the room is low-lit and lovely, a tapas bar by way of an industrial Berlin nightclub: white tile; concrete floors; great slabs of beef aging behind glass. “This is fantastic,” he says. “This changes the conversation for Stockholm.”
Conversation is a favorite word of his: the complex play between people and place. “I’m an inside-outsider in a lot of places,” he says. “When I jump on a plane and go to Ethiopia, I’m the white guy. They call after me, ‘Falenge! Foreigner! Foreigner!’ Even though I look like them, they can tell something’s odd, a little bit off. When you’re a kid you don’t know how to process that off-ness. Now I’m at a point where I want to celebrate it.”
Our own conversation is briefly halted by the appearance of a large, salty, charred steak with bone-marrow-enriched béarnaise. The particular, compelling off-ness of Marcus Samuelsson’s multiple dislocations may be hard for most of us to relate to, but there’s a simple lesson here: to appreciate the style of where you’re from, it helps to get away from home, to be engaged by other conversations. Because he’s not quite from either place, Samuelsson says, he’s “more pro-America than Americans and more pro-Göteborg than Göteborgers. I like it like that.”
We have a half-dozen bars on our hit list. But this can’t be another late night for the chef. Home is beckoning. The day after he lands, he’s due at the White House to meet with Mrs. Obama.
Coming Soon: Norda Grill & Post Bar 10 Drottningtorget, Göteborg; 46-317/619-000; opening February 2012.
Adam Sachs is a T+L contributing editor.
Avalon Hotel 9 Kungstorget, Göteborg; 46-317/510-200; avalonhotel.se; doubles from $307.
Hotel Lydmar 2 Södra Blasieholmen, Stockholm; 46-8/223-160; lydmar.com; doubles from $494.
Nobis Hotel 2-4 Norrmalmstorg, Stockholm; 46-8/614-1000; nobishotel.se; doubles from $462.
B.A.R. 4A Blasieholmsgatan, Stockholm; 46-8/611-5335; dinner for two $136.
Operabaren Classic wood-paneled bar and restaurant in the opera house with the feel of a private club, rediscovered by the stylish set. Karl XII:S torg, Stockholm; 46-8/676-5800; dinner for two $153.
Restaurant AG 37 Kronobergsgatan, Stockholm; 46-8/4106-8100; dinner for two $210.
Villa Godthem Latest restaurant from Samuelsson’s good friend, the prolific Melker Andersson. Built in the ornate 19th-century home of an opera singer and specializing in steak cooked on wooden planks. 9 Rosendalsvägen, Stockholm; 46-8/5052-4415; dinner for two $150.
Artilleriet Interiors boutique in a former stable with designer pieces handpicked from around the world. 19 Magasinsgatan, Göteborg; 46-317/117-621.
Grandpa 3 Vallgatan, Göteborg; 46-317/117-008.