Celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson: On a journey to learn the world

The Kansas City Star

Marcus Samuelsson says his new cookbook, at left, is about his restaurant “but it’s also about holding on to your dream.”
Marcus Samuelsson says his new cookbook, at left, is about his restaurant “but it’s also about holding on to your dream.” Los Angeles Times

Marcus Samuelsson is wearing a fedora. He flashes a high-voltage smile and looks up for a nanosecond before getting back to the job at hand: autographing 1,200 copies of “The Red Rooster Cookbook” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $37.50, 384 pages).

The cookbooks are laid out on tables in a back room in preparation for a Harvesters hunger benefit. Sliding and thunking noises emanate from the human conveyor belt helping Samuelsson. The owners of Rainy Day Books flank the celebrity chef, sliding a copy under the tip of a fat black marker. He scribbles his signature, then pushes the book to the other side, where it is whisked away by a chain of staff and volunteers.

The cookbook pays homage to Red Rooster Harlem, Samuelsson’s 130-seat restaurant that opened in 2010 in New York City’s storied Harlem neighborhood. The popular restaurant serves 4,500 diners a week, but the book is about much more than a celebrity chef’s food.

“Yes, it’s about the restaurant,” Samuelsson says of his new cookbook, “but it’s also about holding on to your dream, executing it and also talking about the community. Harlem is a big part of New York City that people know about all over the world. I write about where it came from and where it is today – and where it is going.”

Harlem’s food story is influenced by slavery, the Great Migration and – as Samuelsson’s personal story illustrates – global immigration. Samuelsson was born in Ethiopia. He and his sister were adopted and raised in Sweden before he came to prominence as a chef in the United States.

Samuelsson was just 23 years old when he was recognized with a three-star New York Times review while executive chef of Aquavit. Before he was 30, Samuelsson was awarded the Rising Star Chef Award by the James Beard Foundation. Since then his résumé has grown to include 11 restaurants in the United States, Bermuda, Sweden and Norway, numerous awards and honors, TV appearances, and invitations to cook for four U.S. presidents, including President Barack Obama’s first state dinner.

Samuelsson is also a philanthropist, a role that brought him to Kansas City after Mario Batali had to cancel an engagement. Tickets for the event were $10 and included a copy of his book.

Samuelsson has been a UNICEF ambassador since 2000, supporting childhood immunization and nutrition programs. He and his wife also started Three Goats, a nonprofit dedicated to improving the health and well-being of children in Ethiopia.

“Chefs have a responsibility in the sense that we have choices of where we’re buying our food from and where we’re putting our restaurants,” he says.

“I made a choice to put a restaurant in Harlem, where it was part of changing the communication of what an urban community can look like.”

Samuelsson became intrigued by Harlem nearly two decades ago. Today he lives with his wife and young son five blocks from Red Rooster.

“It’s really a place that is in and of the community, so we hire locally, and we think about how we present our food, our culture, our music, our design in a fun way that family and visitors can enjoy,” he says.

The menu is eclectic and includes a taste of Sweden and Ethiopia, as well as elements of the Caribbean and South America. But chicken is at the heart of Red Rooster.

“Chicken is the one thing that – unless you’re a vegetarian – every culture, every religion, can relate to it. Some fry it. Some steam it. Some roast it. But it’s the one protein that is not divisive,” Samuelsson says. “It’s also one that you can get so many different things from, from the eggs to the chicken oyster to the soup. There are endless possibilities with the birds.”

In Ethiopia, there’s doro wat, a chicken stew thickened with berbere spices and onions. In Singapore, chicken is steamed until the skin is almost gelatinous. Chicken in Harlem means fried – and for someone who grew up in Sweden, a country where salmon is the country’s “chicken,” the pressure to perfect Red Rooster’s fried chicken recipe was an exhausting process.

“I’m looking for a sound when you bite into it. It has to have this crackling skin, and then it needs to be very juicy inside,” Samuelsson says. Questions he had to answer: buttermilk or no? Dark meat only or not?

“I really took almost two years to come up with it, and I talk about it in the book. My friend (singer/songwriter) John Legend finally said, ‘Marcus, you’re overthinking this. Fry the damn bird!’ 

Brown butter biscuits

Makes about 2 1/2 dozen biscuits

Adapted from a recipe in “The Red Rooster Cookbook” by Marcus Samuelsson.

¾ cup (1 ½ sticks) cold butter

2 cups (9 ½ ounces) flour, plus more for rolling

1 tablespoon baking powder

¼ teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon coarse kosher salt

¾ to 1 cup buttermilk

Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Cut ½ cup (1 stick) of butter into small pieces and freeze.

Cut up the remaining butter and place in a small skillet over medium heat. When the butter melts, start swirling it in the pan. The butter will sputter while the water cooks out, and the solids will separate. Keep cooking and swirling until the solids have sunk to the bottom and browned and the butter smells nutty, about 5 minutes. Keep a constant eye on the butter so it doesn’t burn. Pour the butter out into a small bowl, making sure you’ve got all the browned bits.

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Remove the butter from the freezer and work it into the dry ingredients using your fingers until it resembles very coarse oatmeal with some larger bits of butter. Stir 2 teaspoons of the browned butter into ¾ cup of the buttermilk, add it to the dry ingredients, and stir the dough with your hand, kneading it a little. Add more buttermilk if you need it to make a cohesive dough that leaves the bowl clean.

Dump the dough out onto a floured surface and pat it into an even disk with smooth edges. Roll out to a thickness of 1/4-inch. Cut the biscuits with a 2-inch cutter and set them, barely touching, on a rimmed baking sheet. Gather up the scraps, form another even disk, and repeat. Brush the biscuits with some more of the browned butter and bake until risen and nicely browned on the top and bottom (lift one to check), 20 to 25 minutes.

Per biscuit: Calories 77; Protein 1 gram; Carbohydrates 7 grams; Fiber 0; Fat 5 grams; Saturated fat 3 grams; Cholesterol 13 mg; Sugar 0; Sodium 111 mg

Bird funk

Makes 2 1/2 cups

2 cups chopped chicken skin

1 cup ground chicken thighs

1 cup small dried shrimp, pulsed in a food processor to finely chop

4 garlic cloves, minced

1 lemongrass stalk, trimmed, smashed and minced

One 2-inch piece ginger, peeled and minced

½ cup rice vinegar

2 tablespoons soy sauce

2 tablespoons white miso

2 tablespoons oyster sauce

Line a rimmed baking sheet with plastic wrap. Spread out the chicken skin and freeze for 30 minutes. Put the frozen skin through a meat grinder or pulse in batches using a food processor to mince the skin.

Scrape the skin out into a saucepan. Add the ground thighs, shrimp, garlic, lemongrass, ginger, vinegar, soy sauce, miso and oyster sauce. Heat over low heat.

Cook, stirring occasionally, until the fat renders and the fat begins to brown, about 45 minutes. Keep cooking, stirring frequently and scraping the bottom of the pan, until the funk is a deep, rich brown, about another hour and 15 minutes.

Remove from heat. The funk will keep, tightly covered and refrigerated, about 1 week. Remove from the refrigerator about 30 minutes before serving.

Chicken liver butter

Makes 2 1/2 cups

1 pound (4 sticks) softened butter, divided

½ pound chicken livers, halved, trimmed and patted dry

1 teaspoon coarse kosher salt

¼ teaspoon ground allspice

1 whole clove

Leaves from 1 sprig thyme

1 tablespoon bourbon

2 tablespoons maple syrup

2 tablespoons brandy

In a large skillet over medium-high heat, melt 4 tablespoons of the butter. When the butter stops sputtering, add the livers, salt, allspice, clove and thyme and saute until the livers are cooked and browned but still pink inside, about 3 minutes. Remove from heat.

Add the bourbon and stir, scraping up any browned bits. The butter, bourbon and liver juices will become almost syrupy. Scrape everything into a food processor and cool to room temperature.

To the liver mixture, add the maple syrup and brandy. Turn on the food processor and add the remaining butter, bit by bit, scraping down the sides as needed. Process until the butter is completely incorporated and the liver butter is smooth.

If you want a more refined butter, pass it through a fine strainer. Otherwise, cover tightly and refrigerate; the butter will keep about 1 week. Remove from the refrigerator about 30 minutes before serving

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