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The story of Marcus Samuelsson


Marcus Samuelsson

Yes, Chef

Born in Ethiopia to Ethiopian parents, he was adopted and raised in Sweden by a Swedish couple, trained as a chef in various countries around Europe, excelled as an award winning celebrity chef in the United States, hand-picked to cook for President Barack Obama as the President hosted the Indian Prime Minister at the White House, and capitalised on his reputation to open a fine dining restaurant in Harlem, New York, Marcus’ story is endlessly fascinating.

At  41 years of age in 2012, Marcus tells his own story in Yes, Chef, a book he published in June this year.


In 1973, a year before Emperor Haileselassie was deposed, three-year-old Marcus, who at the time was called Kassahun, and his five-year-old sister Fantaye left Ethiopia for Sweden to be adopted by Anne Marie and Lennart of Goteborg, Sweden.


Their adoption followed the death of their biological mother, Ahnu, a year earlier to the tuberculosis epidemic that gripped Ethiopia in the early 1970s.


Kassahun and Fantaye also contracted the disease but were cured after their quick-thinking mother decided to take them to a hospital in the capital Addis Ababa from their remote village in Meki, located about 120 kilometres from the capital.


Marcus says their ailing mother put him on her back while holding his sister’s hand and made the journey to Addis Ababa on foot over several days, seeking treatment for all of them.


At age two and four respectively, Kassahun and Fantaye’s lives changed forever when their mother fell victim to tuberculosis and died at the hospital at the young age of 28.


Kassahun and Fantaye continued receiving treatment but when they recovered and were ready to be discharged, they had nowhere to go. Their father was believed at the time to have died  in the civil war that was raging in northern Ethiopia, however, years later it was revealed that he had survived.


A nurse at the hospital offered to take Kassahun and Fantaye to her home to look after them temporarily until a permanent solution was worked out.  Within a very short period of time, the nurse was able to find a Swedish adoption agency that was operating in Ethiopia at the time and the adoption of Kassahun and Fantaye was arranged.


Upon their arrival in Sweden, Kassahun and Fantaye were renamed Marcus and Linda.


In the book, Marcus strongly declares that he owes his life to his biological mother.


“Today, in the dead of night when I should be sleeping, I sometimes imagine the breath of the woman who not only gave me life, but delivered me from death,” he says.


There are no photographs of his birth mother and all Marcus has of Ahnu is his own imagination of what she was like.


“I have never seen a picture of my mother, but I know how she cooked,” he says.


“For me my mother is berbere, an Ethiopian spice mixture … I know she cooked with it because it’s in the DNA of every Ethiopian mother.”


“… her identity remains stubbornly shrouded in the past, so I feed myself and the people I love the food that she made. But I cannot see her face.”


Cooking is everything to Marcus: it’s his profession, it’s what connects him to the spirit of his birth mother, it’s what brought his wife to him a few years ago, it’s what takes him to places around the world, and of course it’s what made him famous.


But Marcus says his passion for food and cooking was sparked by his Swedish grandmother Helga, who he says, “Treated her house like it was her own little food factory.”


Marcus pays tribute to his grandmother dedicating an entire chapter to her and describing her as one of the most important people in the world to him.


In the late 1980s his cooking journey took its first step with his enrolment at the Culinary Institute in Gothenburg Sweden, followed by his admission to a chef apprenticeship program in Switzerland.


In 1994, Marcus went to the United States for a further apprenticeship with an emerging Scandinavian restaurant in New York City by the name of Aquavit.


At the age of 24 in 1995, he became the Executive Chef at Aquavit and received a 3-star rating from the New York Times, becoming the youngest chef to gain such a high-level recognition in an industry where competition for recognition is always fierce.


Marcus grew up in Sweden thinking that he could one day become a soccer star and as a child, he invested his time and energy on the dream, until the dream was crushed when he was told by his club that he was too slender to play professional soccer.


But little did Marcus know that fate had sealed his future and he was destined to become not just a chef, and not just a celebrity chef, but an award-winning celebrity chef and a successful entrepreneur in the restaurant business.


There is no doubt that Marcus started to firmly realize something extraordinary was afoot when he was awarded the Rising Star Chef Award from the James Beard Foundation in 1999  – the James Beard Foundation Awards are to those in the hospitality industry what the Oscars are to those in the film industry.


Marcus went on to win the James Beard Foundation Awards three times.


He also won the 2010 season of Top Chef Masters, an American reality competition show, which literally made him a household name in America.


His success of winning the Top Chef Masters contest coupled with, the rare experience of cooking the first State Dinner for President Barack Obama at the White House during the state visit of the Prime Minister of India in 2009, paved the way for Marcus’ ultimate goal of opening an all-round restaurant in Harlem, New York.


The dream was realised in 2010, and Marcus is now the owner and Executive Chef of Red Rooster Harlem in New York City. Now an American citizen, Marcus says Red Rooster “…fulfills my dream to showcase American comfort food with hints of my Swedish and African roots. I want this to be a place where people from all walks of life break bread together.”


Praising Red Rooster and Marcus Samuelsson’s new book, the former American President Bill Clinton is quoted as saying: “The Red Rooster’s arrival in Harlem brought with it a chef who has reinvigorated and reimagined what it means to be American. In his famed dishes, and now in this memoir, Marcus Samuelsson tells a story that reaches past racial and national divides to the foundations of family, hope, and downright good food.”


The cover of Marcus’ memoir.The cover of Marcus’ memoir.

Marcus has published several cookbooks in the past, but this book is a memoir of his action-driven life.


It’s amazing how much Marcus reveals about his personal and professional life including secrets in this book.


The book gives an insight into someone who is more than determined to make the most of life and of someone who is single-mindedly focused on achievements.


In the book Marcus talks about finding the love of his life – Ethiopian model Gate Maya Haile – and his wedding, meeting his biological father – clergyman and farmer Tsegie – for the first time in Ethiopia, returning to Ethiopia after three decades, cooking in the kitchen of the Sheraton Addis Hotel, his half-sisters and brothers in Ethiopia, his 21-year-old daughter, his failed restaurant Merkato and more.


Marcus Samuelsson's quest for greatness, his passion for life, his love for Ethiopia and his resilience will inspire you.




Befekir Kebede | Thursday, 16 August 2012