I have just finished reading Marcus Samuelsson’s book “Yes, Chef”.

Daunt Books in Marylebone High Street

Daunt Books in Marylebone High Street

I like to read books relevant to where I am travelling which is why I love Daunt books so much as they make it easy to choose books that are set in a specific country. And they are a wonderful, traditional book shop at the same time, with free canvas bags to boot, ideal to carry those hefty wares. So all in all the perfect literary retail experience.

For this trip it was the USA and I picked up “Yes, Chef” at the local Barnes and Noble – another lovely book shop experience, complete with perfect little pick me up gifts.

MS yes chef

Marcus is a New York based chef, but what is fascinating is his story and how he ended up there. He was born in Ethiopia from a tiny village called Abruganda, and was almost certainly going to die from TB by the age of 2 years old had his mother not pushed herself to walk him and his sister many many miles to the hospital in Addis Ababa despite losing her own battle against this disease on her arrival there.

The orphaned Marcus and his sister were lucky enough to be adopted by Swedish parents, of all things, and found themselves growing up in Gothenburg with a wonderful family. As ever in a chef’s life, the first cooking influence came from home and it his Swedish Grandma Helga who was the inspiration, teaching this Ethiopian boy the tricks of perfect Swedish cookery…. meatballs, cured fish, soups, breads, etc.. He also had an innate sense of what it was going to take to make it as a great chef in this very challenging world having a great attitude ingrained from his unassuming, principled parents. He kept his head down, had what appears to be a wonderful work ethic and really grafted to make it as a black man in a predominantly white world.

Inside Red Rooster

Inside Red Rooster

I visited his NYC restaurant, Red Rooster, in Harlem, a couple of years ago with Mr and Mr Jones. We had it on our very long list of places to see in New York having read a lot about it in the press. We were sat in a lovely corner booth next to a very vibrant man who was clearly in the middle of a meeting over lunch. This man was dressed in the most fabulous mustard coloured slim legged trousers compete with funky mustard and maroon checked jumper and quirky co-ordinated hat which perfectly topped off the outfit. He just emanated energy and passion and we couldn’t help overhearing his knowledgable conversation which was all about the food world, including what was happening in London. In between he could see me paying a lot of interest both to him and his food and he kept offering us tasters from his plate! It wasn’t until much later that day when I looked up the chef that I realised I had been sitting next to the man himself all along. This larger than life character was indeed Marcus Samuelsson.

Fried Yardbird

Fried Yardbird

Red Rooster was many years in the making in that it was a culmination of all his training and past experience as well as a nod to the traditions of restaurants embedded in the history of the neighbourhood he now calls home – Harlem. The menu reflects both his Swedish and American influences as well as featuring a number of dishes that Marcus says were demanded of him by the very fact that he had come to this rich cultural centre in the North of the city. Grandma Helga features in the Swedish parts of the menu along with other classics of America. We went with the Fried Yardbird which is classic southern fair served with white mace gravy, mash and bread & butter pickles. I am only sad that we hadn’t booked for one of the events they hold, in particular Sunday Gospel Brunch. Nevertheless we enjoyed ourselves there and I would recommend it as a place to hunt down when in the city.

Daniel Bageriet

It also struck me as somewhat coincidental that the only other chef I know from Sweden is Daniel Karlsson who was also significantly influenced by his Grandmother in his food education. Daniel specialises as a pastry chef and so he should with the talent that he has. I met him at Melrose and Morgan where he treated me to tasters of the most fabulous creations throughout the working day and it is lovely to see him now fully established in his place, Bageriet in Rose Street, Covent Garden. His Grandmother’s influence is clear both there and on his website and I for one am thankful that there is such a wonderful home tradition of cooking and baking in Sweden. Long may we all benefit from it.

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