On Saturday, July 29, the James Beard Foundation (JBF) will toast to James Beard Award-winning chef, author, philanthropist, and restaurateur Marcus Samuelsson at Wölffer Estate Vineyard in Sagaponack during one of the premier events of the Hamptons summer season, JBF’s Chefs & Champagne. In addition to celebrating Chef Samuelsson, the evening will feature unforgettable bites from over 40 notable chefs, flowing champagne, of course, and more.
We recently caught up with Chef Samuelsson about his start in the kitchen, being honored by the James Beard Foundation, and more.
How did you initially get into cooking?
MS: It was my grandmother Helga who really taught me the basics of cooking when I was young. Some of my best memories as a child are with her in the kitchen, preparing fish, cooking potatoes and making meatballs. I grew up in Sweden in a small fishing village in Gothenburg and my first job was fishing with my uncles. They taught me how to fillet the fish and cook it as well.
When you’re in the kitchen for fun, what’s your go to meal?
MS: That’s a tough question because it changes so much! For a while it was ramen, and I still love that. I’m always inspired by the delicious food in East Harlem and enjoy making tacos. When it comes to Ethiopian food, my wife is a great cook and I love cooking with her. We make Kitfo or Doro Wat.
Where do you find inspiration for new dishes?
MS: Traveling is a big part of where I find inspiration. I never stop learning and see myself as a student, so I constantly look at how I can make a recipe better. I’m a big fan of Southern food and recently went to Memphis where I learned more about how they do things there compared to other parts of Tennessee and the South. Traveling and talking to other people who are very passionate about food is what drives me.
What’s the best meal you’ve ever had and what made it spectacular?
MS: Eating Fugu Japan is at the top of my list. I always wanted to go to Japan. I saved up for a year and went when I was 20 years old. Also, the vegetarian tasting menu at Alain Ducasse, it opened my eyes to seeing what’s possible. Another memorable meal was the Charlie Trotter’s first tasting menu about 17 years ago. I had never seen an American chef treat food in such a sophisticated and complex way. It was 96 and I was thinking how unreal that was.
Have you ever been to the Hamptons before? If so, what are some of your favorite spots?
MS: I have and really enjoy the Hamptons. I always like going to Chefs & Champagne and seeing all my chef buddies and meeting new people. I usually stay with a friend and we grill and cook at home, which I love. I might swing by North Fork Table & Inn on a trip there, or ask a local where they love to eat and try it.
If you could invite anyone (and it can be absolutely anyone) to a dinner party you’re hosting, who would make the list?
MS: Leah Chase from New Orleans would definitely have to be on the list. She’s done and seen so much in her day, you have to hear her stories, they are just as captivating as they are informative. I’d mix in some iconic musicians including David Bowie and Prince.
You’ve had quite the career. Are there any moments that standout?
MS: I’ve been so lucky to do what I love and have had some amazing mentors and chefs along the way that I’m very grateful for. Some of the standout moments would be given the role of Executive Chef at Aquavit and then the three star review from The New York Times is something I’ll never forget. Getting my first James Beard Award for Best Chef: New York City was really huge for me, and the other Beard Awards throughout my career. Opening Red Rooster Harlem was a defining moment in my career. It took me years of really studying and understanding the neighborhood before I felt like I could open it. Then being invited to the White House as a guest chef to cook for the President was an incredible experience. Also, when President Obama came to Red Rooster for his fundraiser and my team got to cook for him in our restaurant.
What does it mean to you to be honored by the James Beard Foundation?
MS: I’m honored. I feel like I represent many people…the people who helped me out, the mentors who helped me, really, this is for them. The cooks, servers, the tribe of the people; the chef is the representative so this is something I share with the people who were always next to me, behind me. I hope I can serve as an inspiration.
Tickets to Chefs & Champagne start at $200 for JBF Members and $275 for the public.
For tickets or more information about the James Beard Foundation’s Chefs & Champagne, visit www.jamesbeard.org.