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.'"