Local Spotlight

Marcus Samuelsson Shares Stories About Life and Cooking at Central Market

Read "Five Questions for Chef Marcus Samuelsson" and "Lunch with Marcus Samuelsson Provides a Sneak Peek at Pass and Provisions."

In case you haven't heard, Chef Marcus Samuelsson was in town last week for a whirlwind day of book-promoting events, including a book signing and cooking class held at our very own Central Market.

The sold-out class included a copy of his new book, Yes, Chef: A Memoir, along with a three-course meal prepared by cooking-school staff and demonstrated by the man himself.

The class was slightly delayed after Samuelsson received what for him was some very emotional news. Samuelsson's friend, food icon and neighbor Sylvia Woods of Sylvia's in Harlem, had passed away just that morning.

You could see the emotional impact the news had on him as the class began. He was studiously pensive, his expression somber. But he had a class of expectantly excited fans who were there not only to see him in person but to hear his story, and as they say, the show must go on. Samuelsson managed to do exactly that, spending the better part of an hour talking almost nonstop.

It was one of the most fascinating cooking classes I'd ever taken.

Not only did I learn how to preserve salmon, but also how to cook fried chicken and keep it moist. I learned how to think of a meal not only in terms of what to make one day, but what to do with leftovers and how to plan my meals to avoid waste, stretching a single meal into potentially two or three meals.

Samuelsson also shared some of the the stories that are written in his memoir: how he applied to 30 three-Michelin-starred restaurants in France and got turned down by all of them; how he finally got one single acceptance, only to be turned away by the executive chef when he arrived because his skin wasn't the right color; how he worked for an entire year for free in France before making his way to the US, earning a three star review by the New York Times just two years after he'd had to give away his labor for free.

Through it all, he unhurriedly prepared the three dishes on the menu, the first an open-faced gravlax sandwich, made with house-cured coho salmon with pickled fennel, avocado and fresh dill over purple mustard-smeared pumpernickel -- my favorite of the night. The second item was a juicy coconut fried chicken over collard greens. And the third was an Ethiopian-style lamb hash topped with poached egg and a berbere spice sauce, the spice of his homeland.

What impressed me most about Samuelsson was his humility. Here is a chef who has achieved success against all odds. Yet you could just tell how totally grounded he was from the way he spoke, from the lessons he shared and through his actions. Small actions, like making the time to take a picture with each person at the book signing, or grand gestures, like opening a restaurant in Harlem, or volunteering his time teaching inner-city kids how to cook, told the story where words didn't have to. There was no larger-than-life ego, not a sign of anything remotely resembling arrogance.

When asked by one of the attendees what motivated him, his response revealed the most about his depth of character. He said he had a responsibility to the people who worked for him. He said that being a restaurateur is always about exceeding expectations, and that he is always striving to over-deliver. "In Harlem, right now, you can't find fresh corn during corn season -- you have to buy frozen. I am hopeful that in a country that invented Google search, we'll be able to get fresh corn and tomatoes, in season, in every part of America."

I went into the class hoping to get a glimpse of Chef Marcus Samuelsson, possibly taste some of his food, and walked out with so much more. I got a glimpse of the real person behind the public persona, of someone with a fascinating life story, someone who is passionate about his craft yet still thirsty to learn, someone who gets to eat the best food in the world but still wants to know where the best barbecue or fried chicken joint in town is, whose success was something earned, rather than given. I left inspired.

If that isn't a reason enough to pick up a copy of his memoir, I don't know what is.

Copies of Yes, Chef: A Memoir are available for sale at Central Market and major bookstores.

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Mai Pham is a contributing freelance food writer and food critic for the Houston Press whose adventurous palate has taken her from Argentina to Thailand and everywhere in between -- Peru, Spain, Hong Kong and more -- in pursuit of the most memorable bite. Her work appears in numerous outlets at the local, state and national level, where she is also a luxury travel correspondent for Forbes Travel Guide.
Contact: Mai Pham