Interview Corner

Has being an Ethiopian, paved or hampered your success?
Being raised Ethiopian and having been taught pride and dignity has definitely helped.

What motivated you to become a chef?
I can say my grandmother. She always cooked and when I was young I was always surrounded by food. My grandmother on my father’s side owned a bed & breakfast. My family is from two different regions so the food was also different. My grandmother on my mother’s side came from a more rustic environment and my grandmother on my father’s side grew up by the sea.

At 32 you have received more recognition than most chefs receive in a lifetime, including high ratings by the New York Times and Forbes magazine. What is the secret to your success?
When you work hard and apply yourself to your craft then you will succeed no matter what you do. You will be successful. The important thing is to work on your craft.

You have also been celebrated as one of “The Great Chefs of America” by the culinary institute of America. Have you received similar accolades in Europe?
Yes I have gotten awards for my cookbook but it’s not the awards that keep you going. You don’t walk around thinking about that stuff. Your passion for your work is what drives you. Success is defining what are your short-term and long-term goals and then achieving those goals.

How did you feel when you were honored as the “Rising Star Chef” by the James Beard Foundation in 1999? What other awards have you won?
It’s always nice to be recognized by your peers. Our team worked hard and again it’s not really getting the award that’s important as much as it is setting your goals and achieving them. There are many goals some are personal, some are business, or spiritual. But usually when people talk about goals they are talking about professional or business goals.

When you were on an eight-month apprenticeship at Aquavit, did you ever dream that one day you would become executive chef and co-owner of the same restaurant?
I was always very clear on what I wanted. I knew that I was going to work hard at it and I always visualized that I’d own my own business. It’s important to visualize and be clear on what you want from the start.

You’ve already written one book and you are in the process of coming out with an American cookbook. Can you tell us a bit more about this project?
The Aquavit Cookbook is being published in October 2003. It is a reflection of Aquavit and the recipes that the restaurant uses. However, it is also tailored for the home cook. My first book came out in Sweden entitled ‘A Taste Journey’ and it’s about my life and my personal journey. It’s about Ethiopia, Sweden and New York. I wanted to show Ethiopia to Swedes, that it’s rich in culture and not focus just on the hardships and famine. The book did very well. My second book that will be coming out soon follows the life of Aquavit restaurant and I’m also working on a 3rd book focusing on Africa as a continent. I want to show the rich diversity and differences in culture between North Africa, East Africa, and West Africa. When someone says “do you speak African?” for example then you know they don’t know what they are talking about. So, I want to show the distinct cultures that make up Africa, that it’s not just one homogenous lump.

Is there a recipe that you have not shared with anyone yet?
[laughter] There are thousands of recipes to come. You should always try and also allow yourself to fail. There will be good things and bad things that come and they’re all experiences. But yes, there will be more to come and the point is to keep working hard and trying new things.

Who is your role model?
This changes all the time. When I was younger and into sports, Pele was my role model. And when you get older and in your professional career your advisor becomes your role model. So this changes from time to time. When you are in Ethiopia and you see people working at the orphanages you admire these people a lot and they too become role models.

Have you ever returned back to Ethiopia? If so, what was your impression?
Yes, I go back every year. I like working with its food. I show people that cooking is a craft. Cooking has a very central place in Ethiopian culture but professionally as a career it’s not really there yet so I go out and do cooking on the street, at merkato, at shelters to show that it’s a craft.

What is your role as a UNICEF ambassador and when did you become one? What kind of projects do you focus on?
I became a UNICEF ambassador in 1999. We work with big American companies and I am willing to do press conferences or advertisements to raise money to go to projects on Polio, TB, and HIV. This year we started a Trick-or-Treat for Adults and on Oct 31st restaurants all over the U.S. would donate 1 dollar for each meal and the proceeds would be given to UNICEF for their children’s programs against Polio, TB, and HIV. I also closely work with Anna Getaneh and her Ethiopian Children’s Fund. She has an amazing orphanage.

What is your view on the current famine in Africa, and are you involved in any alleviation projects?
I was in Ethiopia in December and I visited the Awash region that is considered the breadbasket of Ethiopia. The lakes and ponds were all dried up and what I saw was terrible and very real. To raise money I’ve approached the Swedish –Ethiopian community in Sweden and we have put together an event that will raise some funds to help.

Do you ever cook Ethiopian food? If so what is your favorite dish?
Yes, I cook my version of Ethiopian food all the time. I think, for example, that Shiro is great for lunch, it gives you a clean meal. For those who have not had Ethiopian food before Tibs would be good. And for those who have had Ethiopian food Kitfo is also a good dish. I sometimes make kitfo with fish (salmon, tuna). There is also Doro Wat which is great too. One thing about Ethiopian food is that it’s very distinct. You can love it or hate it, but you will always remember that you have had it. And that is a unique aspect of Ethiopian cuisine.

What are your leisure time activities?
I like sports, I like playing tennis. But I also like art and going to museums and art galleries. Speaking to Tadias is also my leisure time activity. [laughter]

Anything else you would like to share with our readers?
I definitely think that being Ethiopian is something to be extremely proud and happy about. For me, I appreciate the way that the Ethiopian community has embraced me and my work.

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