Culinary Genius

The Story of Marcus Samuelsson!

“You should always try and also allow yourself to fail”. This is the principle that Aquavit’s co-owner and Executive Chef, Marcus Samuelsson, follows in his creative kitchen, where taste, texture, and aesthetics are put to the test and the outcome is a crisp taco filled with smoked herring served on a marble tablet or osetra caviar placed on broken glass. Innovative taste accompanied by flamboyant presentation is his trademark.

The Ethiopian-born and Swedish-raised Chef aims to create an unforgettable experience with every meal he serves by adding a touch of drama. With his brush, something he has had since childhood, he displays his artistic talent on plates, tiles, glass bricks, and other items that exist in everyday culture to enhance his out-of-the-ordinary presentation. Flavor that invigorates the palette is what inspires Chef Samuelsson, and to achieve this, he experiments with ingredients from around the world. He has revolutionized modern and classic Scandinavian cuisine by blending uncommon flavors, yet staying true to the basics.

Samuelsson was orphaned in a tuberculosis epidemic in Ethiopia when he was just three-years-old. After finding shelter in a Swedish field hospital, he and his young sister were adopted by a young Swedish couple and taken to Göteborg, Sweden. At a tender age under the tutelage of his grandmother, who was a professional cook, he started to learn respect for ingredients as well as the Scandinavian art of cooking.

Samuelsson's father traveled the world as a geologist and often took the children along. Those outings enabled young Marcus to sample Polish, German, Russian, Yugoslavian, French, and Spanish cuisine. The exposure allowed him to appreciate world flavors, defy the commonly held notions about the art of cooking and venture into a realm of discovery.

When Marcus was 16 he joined the Culinary Institute in Göteborg. He attended classes by day and cooked in local restaurants late each night, fulfilling his degree requirements in record time. He proceeded to hone his skills by apprenticing in Switzerland, Austria, France, and Aquavit restaurant in New York City. In 1994, he was asked by owner Håkan Swahn to return to Aquavit to work under the new Executive Chef, Jan Sendel, and just eight weeks after the pair began working together, Jan Sendel died unexpectedly. Chef Samuelsson’s adept management skills, cooking prowess, and unique enthusiasm paid off and he was formally appointed as the Executive Chef in May of 1995. Just three months later, at 24, he became the youngest chef ever to receive the coveted three-star rating from The New York Times.

He told us, “I knew that I was going to work hard at it and I always visualized that I’d own my own business.” And in 1997, his dream was realized when he became co-owner of Aquavit. Today, he also focuses his energy on the second Aquavit in Minneapolis, which was opened in 1998, a location chosen for its high concentration of Americans of Swedish descent. In addition, the restaurant has launched a new line of traditional Swedish prepared foods from recipes Samuelsson himself developed and researched.

In 1999, the James Beard Foundation honored him as best “Rising Star Chef” (the culinary world’s most prestigious award), and was rated as one of “The Great Chefs of America” by The Culinary Institute of America. He has appeared on several national TV shows, including CNN, ABC's “Good Morning America”, Martha Stewart’s Living Television, and The Discovery Channel. His recipes have been featured in Gourmet, Food & Wine, Bon Appetit, USA Today and he has authored an eight-part series column for The New York Times. Chef Samuelsson has also cooked for the royal family of Sweden.

Proud to be an Ethiopian, Marcus has in his own way tried to raise awareness about Ethiopia’s rich culture and history by publishing his personal journey from Ethiopia to Sweden and New York. His quest to learn more about his heritage takes him to Ethiopia every year. There he gives back to the community by working with an orphanage and educating the youth about the art of cooking. “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,” he says. Not only does he teach his profession, but also learns the art of Ethiopian cooking and suggests that Injera makes a great complement for smoked salmon or caviar because of its sourness.

Besides cooking, Chef Samuelsson has a passion for art books, novels, and cookbooks. He spends his free time visiting museums, exhibitions, and art galleries searching inspiration for his work. During his travels, he reads extensively to learn the history of the country and refine his language skills, which include Swedish, English, some German, Dutch and French.

His charm, youthful spirit and No. 5 ranking on the July 2000 issue of People magazine's most eligible bachelor's list have heightened his profile. Chef Samuelsson almost bared himself wearing only a Speedo while strategically holding a blender for a Vita-Mix advertising campaign. The New York Times said the blender ad featured some of “the food world's four-star heartthrobs”. Samuelsson is grateful for the recognition, but he stressed in his interview with Tadias that “… it’s not the awards that keep you going. … Your passion for your work is what drives you.” tf

Follow your dreams…

Become Chef... Do you dream of becoming a star chef like Marcus Samuelsson? Here is a list of schools that will help you embark on an exciting career path. We list these institutions and their contact information as service to our readers, not as an endorsement of their program. You must contact each organization directly and make independent evaluation of their curriculum

Atlantic Culinary Academy
23 Cataract Avenue
Dover, NH 03820

California Culinary Academy
625 Polk Street
San Francisco, CA 94102
(415) 292-8210

California School of Culinary Arts
521 East Green Street
Pasadena, CA 91101

Cooking and Hospitality
Institute of Chicago

361 West Chestnut
Chicago, IL 60160

Texas Culinary Academy
11400 Burnet Rd., Ste. 2100
Austin, TX 78758

Pennsylvania Culinary Institute
717 Liberty Avenue
Pittsburgh, PA 15222

Le Cordon Bleu Culinary Program
Mendota Heights, Minnesota