Throughout the second season of Top Chef Masters, New York based chef (and KitchenDaily expert) Marcus Samuelsson displayed a steady hand and a masterful knowledge of world inspired cuisines — so much so that he emerged victorious over “culinary ninja” Susur Lee and seafood king Rick Moonen.
Early on, Samuelsson’s cool and confident demeanor helped edge out competitors such as Jody Adams, Carmen Gonzalez and Tony Mantuano. Then, during the first few episodes of the
“champions’ round” it almost felt like he’d be leaving at any moment. But once the competition field narrowed to four, Samuelsson hit his stride.
As was often noted throughout Top Chef Masters, Samuelsson was born in Ethiopia but raised in Sweden by an adoptive family. In the end, his heritage paid off. In the season finale, Samuelsson took the table guests and judges on a journey from Sweden to Africa, preparing smoked char, cured duck with a foie gras ganache and a hamachi meatball with a sea urchin froth and porcini couscous.
Although Samuelsson recently departed from New York’s Aquavit as head chef, winning Top Chef Masters is another score in what’s been a career defining year. This past November, Samuelsson was selected as the guest chef for President Obama’s first State Dinner. He’s now focusing on opening Red Rooster, his new Harlem restaurant, where he says dishes he cooked on the show will appear on the menu.
Throughout the competition, Samuelsson competed for Unicef’s Tap Project, where clean drinking water is made accessible to children around the globe.
Slashfood spoke with Samuelsson about how he was able to edge out Susur Lee and Rick Moonen; cooking African food for Western palates; and what his win will do for the Tap Project .
Congratulations on your win. Are you going to have to get new business cards that just say “master”?
Marcus Samuelsson: [laughs] That’s an idea. But no, I don’t think so. It’ll live with me forever — I don’t need it on a card.
During the “Champions” portion of the show, it seemed like you struggled at the beginning but the last two episodes you came on strong. Were you saving a bunch of your tricks for the final four?
MS: Well, whatever it was, it worked. I was very excited about it. But it was a tough competition all the way through. They’re some really good chefs. I found my stride towards the end of the competition. But for me, culturally — both me and Susur — there were a lot of things we learned. I’d never been to a tailgate. I didn’t know the characters of The Simpsons. Yes, I got better at the end, but I felt like I was catching up at the beginning. Just getting there, understanding it.
Gail [Simmons] made a comment about your African dish and how it might’ve been lost on their Western trained palates. Did you consider that when you were designing your menu?
MS: Absolutely. There were two things for me: I was following the challenges that we were given — I knew the duck dish in my heart and knew that if I wanted to be true to that challenge, in what separates me from other chefs, it is Africa. And I really have to do that dish. When you cook modern African food today, the problem is a lot of people don’t know what that is. So I felt like if I wanted to be true to that challenge, maybe I could treat people to new textures, new vocabulary, new flavor palates. Just like we were learning about Indian food 25 years ago or Japanese food 30 years ago. It takes awhile. And that was a big risk in front of a nationwide cooking competition. It wasn’t just for me to cook a dish that tasted good. All of us can do that. Susur can do that, Rick can do that. But if I wanted to be truly honest about what separates me, I have to look Africa right in the eye and cook from that point of view. Even if it makes me lose the competition. But that’s really what the challenge was. Winning is about taking a chance.
Can you talk about the origins of the Hamachi Meatballs with the Sea Urchin Froth?
MS: It was really about finding a great piece of fish and the Hamachi there was amazing. It’s a rich dish and there’s a beauty eating that. Obviously, if there were more courses, you could do something lighter to break it up. But I really thought that the richness was something to celebrate. I wanted to be in there and explain bite by bite. But I couldn’t do that. I felt really strong about the first two courses. Not like I was ahead, but I felt really good about those first two dishes.
They freaked out about the foie gras ganache. Did you know it was going to elicit that reaction?
MS: You always hope. That’s a very technical dish to do, but I’ve done it before.
Did you find a lot of the chefs were cooking what they knew or what they did in their own restaurants?
MS: For me, I honestly had little knowledge of what the other chefs were doing. You’re so in the moment. If I had any chance of hanging on, it wasn’t about what the other chefs were doing. It was really about what you put out.
We’re you trying a lot of new things throughout?
MS: Yeah, you’d come in the morning and not know what the afternoon challenge was going to be. And you’d have 45 minutes and then next you have to cook for 450 people. We all are very strong cooks and that is what really comes through, throughout this season. You really get tested as a cook — not necessarily as a chef. And at the end of the day, I think that came across.
I know water is the central idea behind the Tap Project. But it’s also such a critical component to your career. Was the connection important to you in that regard?
MS: Absolutely. Where would we be without clean water? It’s something we take for granted and so many kids have to wake up and walk hours to get clean water. It’s something I’ll always keep fighting for. You’re right, it’s a strong core to me as a chef — having clean water.
How much does $100,000 do for the Tap Project?
MS: It does a lot. One dollar can get 40 kids clean water. So think about what $100,000 can. But what’s beautiful about the show is the platform. Not just my charity, but all of those guys’ charities get major exposure. That’s fantastic. When you cook in that scenario, you’re thinking about your family, about your charity, about your community. All different things inspire you to go to the next level.