Marcus Samuelsson's Harlem restaurant, Red Rooster, draws inspiration from all over the globe. There's chicken dusted with African spices, meatballs with braised cabbage, catfish and grits. It's a menu that reflects the 42-year-old chef's unusual personal story, detailed in his excellent recent memoir, 'Yes, Chef.' Orphaned in Ethiopia at age two, he was adopted and raised by a Swedish family, traveled the world as a cruise-ship cook, and settled in New York, where he began earning awards and glowing reviews in his twenties. Since then, Samuelsson has appeared regularly on TV, created a line of teas, and even prepared Barack Obama's first state dinner, in 2009.
Samuelsson's home, a duplex apartment on a quiet block of brownstones in Harlem, is also a mash-up of influences global and local – a blend he's grown more comfortable with over time. "Cooking is about getting to know yourself," he says. "Today, I can mix in Africa, Sweden, and Harlem where they fit, because I know more about the layers of myself."
The airy space, where he generates recipes and ideas for Red Rooster, is near overflowing with art, books, clothing, and a few objects that defy explanation (the silver mannequin holding Samuelsson's collection of scarves and soccer medals). The room has an improvised feel, yet everything – from an antique, wooden champagne rack to a set of found dining chairs covered in taped-on newspaper clippings – seems to work together, like a cubist painting come to life.
Samuelsson attributes his strong visual sensibility, in part, to Sweden, where "aesthetics matter," as he puts it. "I grew up in a cold place where lighting, photography, and furniture were important." But his eye is guided less by rules about style and design than by instinct – and an attraction to the odd. "People are afraid of ugly, but I think it's a good offsetter," he says. "A home should never be supercurated because that's when you have a museum feel. When I was growing up, we had the 'nice room,' where kids weren't even allowed to walk in. My grandmother had plastic on her chairs. I always remember thinking, 'What are you waiting for? This is the best moment. This is it.'"
The chef's own artwork, much of it oil on canvas, lines the walls of the apartment. "When I went to cook in France, they'd never seen a black chef," he says of this painting. "They always thought I was there to wash dishes. It wasn't racist; they just didn't know."
Credit: Photograph by Randy Harris