Marcus Samuelsson is many things. He’s a father, a husband, a chef, an entrepreneur, an employer, an author and a TV personality. He knows what he wants, and just as importantly, he knows what he doesn’t want. But the thing he seems to like doing the most is to open new restaurants. And since achieving fame as the youngest ever chef to receive a three-star review from The New York Times in the mid 1990s, he has been opening restaurants all over the place.
Now 48 years old, Samuelson was born in Ethiopia and raised in Gothenburg and the village of Smögen. He began to learn his craft in his grandmother’s kitchen and at restaurants in Switzerland, France and Japan. He then moved to New York, where he now lives and from where he runs a network of more than two dozen restaurants.
Samuelson’s first job in New York was as executive chef of Aquavit. The Scandinavian restaurant had first opened in 1987 but it was with the arrival of Samuelson that Aquavit garnered culinary recognition and a three-star restaurant review from The New York Times. In 1999, Samuelsson opened a second Aquavit restaurant in Minneapolis, where it helped revive and build the city’s reputation as a food town.
“Entrepreneurship is something I learned at home,” says Samuelsson. “When we went fishing in Smögen, we always kept a part of the catch ourselves to eat that day, smoked some of it for the next day, and gave away some for others in the community. And maybe I got one or two to sell to tourists.”
A few years after opening the Minneapolis Aquavit, Samuelson, while riding his bike around Harlem, saw a new opportunity. “Harlem has always been a great community, with many churches, music and culture,” he says. “But when I started to talk about opening a restaurant there, nobody thought it was a good idea.”
Despite the lack of support, he opened Red Rooster Harlem in 2010 on Lenox Avenue. That’s a stone’s throw from legendary 125th Street, three blocks from the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, a few streets down from Barack Obama’s campaign office and two blocks from President Bill Clinton’s post-presidential office. The restaurant is already as much of a Harlem landmark as the legendary Apollo club.
But Red Rooster is not only a place to eat. It provides hope, roots to the community and jobs. “I think Red Rooster put Harlem on the map,” says Samuelson. “And if you look at the neighborhood now, you can see that tech is there, media is there, new business is there. Harlem is a viable alternative to Brooklyn or downtown Manhattan.”
Red Rooster quickly established its own roots in Harlem, helped by the fact that 70% of its employees also live in Harlem. And two years ago, Samuelson opened the Streetbird Rotisserie at 116th and Frederick Douglass Boulevard, a mere six-minute bike ride from Red Rooster.
For Samuelsson, a restaurant is always more than a business. It’s a statement. It’s about reaching out to other people and creating communities. “A restaurant serves the community it’s in, and it creates jobs,” he says. “In France, I learned how things are connected because there, the strawberry lady came, the rhubarb man came and I saw with my own eyes that the ‘farm to table’ concept had real people behind it. That was a game changer for me. As an entrepreneur, you can always choose who you’re doing business with.”
When he speaks about his restaurants, Samuelson talks warmly about putting together teams, the staff, his mentors and his customers.
“If you don’t enjoy teamwork, you can’t be an entrepreneur,” he says. “Or in the restaurant business. I know there are many people who are much better at business than me and cooking is my craft, that’s my identity, and that’s who I am. But when you build a team that people want to be on and around, you’ll find somebody to run the business.”
These days, Samuelsson has very little time for riding his bike between his home and the two Harlem restaurants. He has two dozen other restaurants to think about. Many of them have found homes in up-and-coming neighborhoods, such as the London Red Rooster in Shoreditch and Norda, housed in a former post office built in the 1920s in Gothenburg.
“I believe that restaurants transform neighborhoods,” he says. “The Clarion Hotel Sign in Stockholm changed the area into something more pleasant. In Gothenburg, the post office had been closed for a long time, so the new hotel and restaurant moved the city’s center of gravity and revitalized that area. Going to dynamic places like that takes vision and that’s what entrepreneurs do, but at the same time, things don’t just happen. You have to work at it.”
Work is something Samuelsson is used to. Hard work. “Whether something is hard or easy isn’t part of the conversation. Working hard has never been a problem for me, I just ask where I can sign up.” He doesn’t have any concerns about change either. “If you ran a hotel or a restaurant today, the same way it was done 30 years ago, you’d be out of business.”
His belief in change is in part informed by his belief in the exchange of ideas, something that comes naturally to him perhaps due to his background and current global reach.
“My goal was to be able to work in Scandinavia and live in New York,” he says. “Now we’ve had Scandinavian cooks in America and vice versa and the exchange is felt everywhere in the company. We invested in that to make the company better. I travel a lot in my work and see a lot of things, new things. Not just in the big cities, but in small towns too. Great things can come from anywhere.”
But the ultimate explanation for his success, and the key to why he keeps opening new restaurants around the world, is his passion “When you add a dimension of joy and passion to what you do – it’s not work anymore.”
Originally published in Scandinavian Traveler