2000s Archive

The Soul of a New Cuisine

Originally Published October 2000
On a search for his past, chef Marcus Samuelsson travels to Ethiopia and finds a world of spices and honey wine.

The future of cooking, Marcus Samuelsson will tell you, is personal. Soon, we will stop boxing great chefs into narrow ghettos of national or ethnic cuisine. What will emerge is an era of “personal cuisine,” he says, in which cooking will be defined by all of a chef’s influences.

At 29, Samuelsson has established himself as one of the most innovative chefs in the world. The dishes that emerge from his kitchen at Aquavit may be Scandinavian by design, but the food is strikingly original. Herring sushi—a pickled fish, boiled potato, and black mustard combination—is an unmistakable nod to classic Swedish cooking. Foie gras ganache, Samuelsson’s most famous creation, combines his love of new textures with the classical French training he received at Georges Blanc, the Michelin three-star restaurant in Vonnas. And even though Samuelsson first encountered lotus root years ago while cooking on a cruise ship, he takes this Asian ingredient to a whole new level with his lotus root–crusted char with white balsamic sauce.

The most telling—perhaps the most personal—element in this bounty of influences and inspirations is the small, unassuming fold of spongy, sour, crêpe-like bread that lies on a plate next to hot-smoked salmon and goat cheese parfait. This is injera, the indispensable accompaniment to many Ethiopian dishes. Samuelsson, though raised in Sweden by adoptive Swedish parents, was born in that East African nation and lived there until he was 3. The complexity is not lost on Samuelsson. “I’m really three personalities,” he says. “If I don’t open my mouth, I’m 100 percent Ethiopian. As soon as I open my mouth, I’m Swedish. And I live in America.”

It is late December 1999, a month before Timkat—the Epiphany festival of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and a traditional time for Ethiopian-Americans to return home. As people finish their Christmas shopping or prepare for the dawning of the new millennium, Samuelsson plans a trip to Ethiopia, a place that he loves but does not know.

Everybody on the Ethiopian Airlines flight to Addis Ababa seems to know one another from their days in Ethiopia or from their membership in the tightly knit Ethiopian-American communities in Washington, New York, and Los Angeles. Seats are soon abandoned and people are up visiting, hanging out at 35,000 feet, alternating between Amharic and English. “This is totally different from flying to Sweden,” Samuelsson observes.

The chef talks about Ethiopia with the can’t-wait-to-get-there anticipation typical of tourists. But for him the trip raises the perilous question of how much he really wants to know about his early life. Ethiopia was in upheaval when he left in 1974. The Communists had overthrown the monarchy, and in rural areas, people were dying of disease and malnutrition. Samuelsson pulls out his adoption papers, which state baldly that his mother died of tuberculosis. On the subject of his father’s fate, they are silent.

“When I went to the Ethiopian consulate, the woman said to me, ‘Your uncle gave you up for adoption.’ I said, ‘What are you talking about? I don’t have an uncle.’ I don’t know if that’s true or not.”

Although Samuelsson has a personal agenda, this is a working trip for him as well. He feels that it’s time to learn more about Ethiopian food. One of his traveling companions is Yeworkwoha “Workye” Ephrem, owner of Ghenet Restaurant in New York and his adviser on Ethiopian cuisine. Ephrem is taking him to meet a higher authority: her 81-year-old mother, Muluwork Asfaw.

Samuelsson also has an invitation to cook a meal at the Sheraton in Addis Ababa. It is one of the few luxury hotels in Africa, and a star turn by this particular guest chef has consequently attracted quite a bit of local media attention. The proposed menu for the evening is a work in progress. Even though he has come to this country to learn, Samuelsson is not interested in strict interpretations of Ethiopian classics. He plans to use Ethiopian ingredients and flavors much as he uses Swedish ingredients and flavors at Aquavit. He is looking for building blocks for his own very expressive cuisine.

Samuelsson has brought along his best friend, Mesfin Asefa, for moral support. “Mesfin was raised in Sweden, but he’s totally Ethiopian. He lived in an area where the Swedes were a minority,” Samuelsson says. “I lived in Göteborg, where my sister and I were the only black kids.” They met in New York—another unlikely twist to this improbable tale.

Asefa’s uncle meets us at the airport. And it is in Asefa’s family’s home—a white stucco middle-class house with a gate and a guard—that Samuelsson has his first meal in Ethiopia: yebeg wat (spicy lamb stew), lentils, and kale. This he eats in the traditional way, with his right hand, first tearing off a piece of injera, wrapping it around some stew and perhaps some lentils, then placing the package in his mouth. Like prodigal sons, Asefa and Samuelsson eat under the watchful glare of Asefa’s aunt. “That’s my Swedish grandmother in a nutshell,” Samuelsson laughs. “If you came to her house, she had to go in the kitchen and make you something to eat. She simply had to.”

Samuelsson rarely ate Ethiopian food until he moved to New York. Now hardly a week goes by when he doesn’t go to Ghenet or Meskerem, another favorite restaurant. Though his Swedish parents were not versed in East African culture, “they knew they couldn’t just give my elder sister and me black dolls to play with,” says Samuelsson. “They gave us black culture as they knew it, and that was through music. The first concert I ever saw: Stevie Wonder. First album I ever bought: Bob Marley.”

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