Celebrity Chef Marcus Samuelsson Chews On NJ’s ‘Incredible Food Scene’

His new restaurant, Marcus Live! Bar & Grille, is open in the American Dream mall.

Marcus Samuelsson
Celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson says Jersey has an "incredible" food scene. Photo: Courtesy of Marcus Samuelsson

Celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson was born in Ethiopia, grew up in Sweden and has 15 restaurants around the world—including his landmark Red Rooster Harlem and two right here in New Jersey.

In March, his restaurant Marcus B&P in Newark reopened as Vibe BBQ, serving house-smoked meats. Marcus Live! Bar & Grille opened at the American Dream in East Rutherford in December, and quickly landed a spot on NJM‘s list of the best new restaurants of the year.

Also familiar to fans of TV shows like Chopped and Top Chef Masters, Samuelsson, 53, has written eight cookbooks.

You learned about cooking through your Swedish grandmother. How did that pique your interest?
My grandmother had a huge impact on me, and I think that it was really through her love that I got in the kitchen. I feel like her way of engaging with us was not so much through play; it was mostly through cooking. When you went to Grandma’s house, you ate and you cooked. It could be rolling meatballs or pickling herring or making ginger snap cookies, depending on what season it was, but it was always something.

You were born in Ethiopia, and you and your sister were adopted by your Swedish parents, growing up in Sweden. You apprenticed in Switzerland and Austria before coming to the United States to work at Aquavit in New York. Can you talk about how your multicultural background influences your cooking? How does your style of cooking fit in with the diversity of this country?
We traveled a lot with my parents. My parents took us to many countries in Europe, and we ate whatever that culture had. My father also traveled a lot through work, and he always brought home something, whether it was from Japan or from the States, and that had a big impact on me. I was in awe of the way things that came from Japan were wrapped; even a simple thing like candy was different. And then the things tasted differently. Even just going to Germany was a very different culture.

And then I had a chance to work—not just visit, but work—as a teenager and in my early twenties, and to live in Switzerland, with its three languages. I lived in France, and I lived in Austria, and all of those things had an impact on me. I also started to work on a cruise ship and traveled around the world and went to places like Singapore and Southeast Asia. So when I came to New York, where you’re really in a place where all of those things are in front of you, it just felt like I was home. It was a perfect setting for me. It was like, Wow, this is the place I’ve been looking for. And I still feel like that way, actually.

At 23, when you were executive chef of Aquavit, you became the youngest chef ever to receive a three-star restaurant review from the New York Times. What was that like?
It was a whirlwind. I don’t think as an early 20-something person you can ever be prepared for that. I had a staff of 20 and had to manage them, and it wasn’t easy. But that’s how I grew up. And I knew about cooking. I did not know how to manage people or any of that stuff, but had people around me that knew. And I think that’s what’s beautiful in a restaurant, that it’s always teamwork. No chef has done anything alone, and I’ve had great mentors that guided me. But more than anything, I’ve always had this curiosity for the food. And I’ve always said that to myself, that the day I’m not curious anymore, I should quit to just do something else. It’s the food, always. Whatever decade you are in, it feels like it’s getting more interesting [in the food world] because it’s more diverse. There are more voices in food today.

New Jersey has an incredibly diverse selection of ethnic restaurants. How is that an important part of the dining culture in this state, and how does your cooking represent that?
I think Jersey has an incredible food scene, but it’s also connected to farming and the traditions around that. It’s beautiful. New Jersey farms have provided New York City restaurants forever. And for the past 15 or 20 years, a lot of those restaurants in New Jersey have been celebrating that. And then you add the diversity, whether it’s the Portuguese in Newark, or whether it’s the Koreans or the Italian or the Jewish or the African Americans. There are all these layers. And that will also change every 5 to 10 years, depending on what wave [of immigrants come here]. There is also great Mexican food in New Jersey today, so it’s all been growing.

But the other piece is the technology. There are great startups and urban farms and things that were not in Jersey before. So I think it’s such an incredible state when it comes to food, from the growing to its diversity. Before, when I was coming up in all the New York City kitchens, Jersey chefs were all working in the kitchens. That still happens, but a lot are also returning and opening their own places, which is great for New Jersey. I think that New Jersey kind of sees its own potential with having both New York and Philly as these urban places to go and learn the trade, but then come back and do your own thing. That’s fantastic.

Tell me about the inspiration behind Marcus Live! Bar & Grille at American Dream.
I wanted to create something that was fun and vibrant and that matches the energy of the entertainment they have there. I’ve been bringing my son there, and whether we’ve been skiing or going to the water park, for me, it comes down to energy that you feel, both as a parent and as a kid. So how do you create something delicious that matches that energy from a dining point of view? I took that in and thought, Let’s put the kitchen up front so people walk by and there’s a certain level of energy. People walk in and see everything. And we’re serving delicious meals that families and people of all ages can celebrate together. And I think Marcus Live! should be a place where kids and parents and the date night can feel like it’s speaking to them.

How would you describe your style of cooking and the type of food that you offer at your restaurants?
It’s comfort food—things that everyone has had before—but we make them with a twist, whether it’s our burger, our pizza, or our chicken and waffle. It took me a long time to decide what the audience there really wanted, and we needed to create something that parents can trust and kids can say yes to. It’s about this space that both sides are happy and excited about, and that, for me, is around comfort. And that’s what we’ve done with all the Marcus restaurants—really built them around comfort.

You have two young children [a daughter, age 2, and a son, age 7]. Do you think it’s important to get young people interested in cooking? Do you cook with your kids?
I cook with my son all the time. Just yesterday, we did our own tortillas from scratch. And we make all kinds of things together because it’s fun, and it’s a way to learn about food—like: Tortillas come from Mexico. Then we talk about that. For me, it’s also full circle to the way my grandmother taught me how to cook. We like to plan out the meal on the weekend and go shopping for it at the farmers market, and then we go home and make it. Anything I can do to keep him engaged and get his hands involved, whether that’s putting down the seeds for the tomato season or making something at home. It’s great.

How does cooking bring people together?
It’s the ultimate way of sharing stories and sharing memories. It’s a beautiful thing that in America, you have so many cultures. With bread, for example, everybody has it, but everybody has a different version of it. And everyone is going to have their childhood memories of their favorite. And it’s such a good conversation to engage in—especially in divisive times like this, we need music and we need food and we need culture. All of these things that we can share in a non-divisive way are important—especially showing our kids. Just talk about it and learn from each other and share that. It’s such a beautiful way of breaking bread, you know?

What’s your advice for someone who wants to get into cooking?
Dive in—cook a lot, intern at your favorite restaurant in the neighborhood. Sign up for classes. Cooking is not a field that you can do from the sideline. You really have to roll up your sleeves. The beautiful thing about doing that is that you’re going to meet some great people.

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