PW: You've been executive chef at one of New York's top restaurants, Aquavit, for eight years now. Why did you choose to write your first cookbook, Aquavit, now?
Marcus Samuelsson: I wanted to be in a place where it's clear what the difference is between my cooking and, say, Alfred Portale's [chef of Gotham Bar & Grill]. That doesn't come from five dishes on a tasting menu; that's a long-term goal. I was ready when I could say, "Okay, I'm clear on my cooking: the cornerstone will always be Scandinavian, but it's all flavor-based cooking." Five years ago, I might have just said, "My dishes are great." That's the difference between having a great menu and writing a book.
PW: So many restaurant cookbooks contain recipes that are impossible for home cooks to prepare. How did you ensure that these recipes would be doable for home chefs?
MS: We had two different recipe testers that I never met. I spoke to them a lot and it wasn't about me being pissed off and telling them, "Why didn't you get it?" It was more about them saying, "Marcus, this doesn't work. Go back and work on this." That's another thing I couldn't have done five years ago—write a recipe that was interesting, but simple enough for the home cook to do it.
PW: Do you have a favorite recipe from the book?
MS: I'm extremely proud of the whole book, and each recipe is there for a reason. They all sort of fit together. There are some signature dishes, and the most difficult dish is the Foie Gras Ganache. That's a very chef-y recipe. But I'm pleased to have a gravlax recipe in there, too, and that's very basic. Going from cover to cover gives you a sense of being in Aquavit—without even leaving your home—and an understanding of the flavor-driven idea that we're using to cook.
PW: When you took charge of the kitchen at Aquavit, you were only 24. Looking back, do you think you were ready?
MS: I was ready. I started cooking professionally when I was 15 or 16 years old. I had started to conceptualize, to visualize myself creating my own food and not other people's food, which is a major difference. But I'm not chef-ing the same way now as I did before. I'm chef-ing with a sense of confidence, a sense of strength. Still, I had enough in my bag then to take a bite at it. It never happens that the opportunity comes, and you're ready, and the market is ready. You might get two out of three. You have to say, here comes my train, and jump on it.
PW: You were born in Ethiopia and adopted by a Swedish family when you were three. Do you go back to Ethiopia? Do any of your recipes have Ethiopian influences?
MS: As a chef you can never be biased toward any culture. You have to listen. If preserved lemons from Morocco make sense in a dish, you should use them whether you're Moroccan or Vietnamese. I've been to Ethiopia several times and I love their way with Berber spice, and they have a great way of making clarified butter. Ethiopian injera is something that can work with smoked salmon. In general, as a chef you want to look for untapped waters, and since I have a natural tie to the place I do go to it. It's not like Tuscany. And how many times do you read about Provence? But Ethiopia is untapped and I have been given the keys to that because I go back there.
PW: Swedish food seems to be experiencing a boom right now. Do you see it becoming tremendously popular?
MS: There are only a couple of ways a cuisine becomes major: through mass population like India or China or massive tourism like France and Italy. Sweden doesn't have massive tourism and Sweden doesn't have a massive population, so it's very tough for Sweden to get the word out. On the other hand, Swedish cuisine now has a global approach. Younger chefs look at the U.S., Japan. The whole Western world has moved away from the idea that in order to be fine dining it has to be French.