“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.