National Adoption Month

Marcus Samuelsson On Harlem’s Food Scene, Growing Up Adopted, And Thanksgiving Traditions

"We are a very mixed family ... and it made us better."

November is National Adoption Month. In honor of the month, we will be bringing attention to the thousands of people in foster care awaiting forever homes, as well as those who provide and advocate for them. These stories emphasize the idea that families are bound together by the love they share, rather than their biological roots.  

For Marcus Samuelsson, family and food are everything. The Ethiopian-born, Swedish-raised chef and restaurateur — who most will remember for winning the second season of Top Chef Masters — has collected numerous awards, appeared on countless shows, and released a slew of books, but it's these two things that drive him and keep him grounded the most.

Samuelsson's success with food is more obvious, but he has also been open about his childhood — particularly how he and his older sister came to be adopted at a young age — in an episode of Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown and his 2012 memoir, Yes, Chef. Food and family, it seems, go hand in hand for Samuelsson and have shaped him into the man he is today.

A Plus caught up with Samuelsson — who has partnered with Spectrum — to discuss these two all-important and all-encompassing topics. We asked him about his Harlem-based restaurants (as well as his overall empire), what it was like growing up adopted in a blended family (as November is National Adoption Awareness Month), and what he thinks about Thanksgiving (both the meaning of the holiday and its accompanying food traditions).

A PLUS: Of all the Spectrum oils, which is your favorite to cook with and which dish do you best like to use it to make?

Marcus Samuelsson: My favorite oil is safflower oil because of the heat. You can use high heat when cooking with it, which helps create more technical dishes. Avocado oil is another one of my favorites because it's newer to the scene and is such a fan favorite right now. The oil gives you another way to experience the food.

You've said cooking with oils is “essential” to making a great dish. Can you elaborate on why they are so important in the kitchen?

As a chef, we think about ingredients constantly because that's really the language [we use]. So if you have a great oil, whether it's from a spiritual or an allergy point of view, you don't want that person to have a compromising experience. And that's just from a practical standpoint. If you're Orthodox, for example, there are many dates when you may not be able to eat butter, so oil is perfect for that. And flavor ... flavor is everything. If it doesn't taste good, it doesn't matter.

Your two restaurants in Harlem are two of my favorites. How do they fit into, honor, and continue to expand upon the history of that neighborhood?

They are very different. Streetbird is a neighborhood spot. You don't have to make reservations and it has a more casual feel. It incorporates the culture, music, and art of the surrounding areas. Red Rooster is a larger restaurant where people come to after church or to celebrate birthdays. The restaurant mirrors the history of Harlem culture.

What’s your favorite aspect of being a part of Harlem’s culinary scene?

The Harlem food scene is always evolving and is so open-minded for new, fun, and exciting twists on foods. There is such a wide range of foods present.

There are many restaurants in the Samuelsson empire. What’s your best advice for someone in terms of how to be a good boss?

To be a good leader, you both have to have your eyes in the business and on the business. For me, inspiring and motivating the staff is so important — whether that's through personal goals, through travel, or through creativity. Really, it's about building a culture people want to be around.

What’s the biggest way that being adopted shaped you into the person you are today?

The love and security from my parents is amazing. They are always behind, next to, and in front of me. I don't know if I would have had anything close to that without them.

I read a HuffPost article you wrote about growing up with a blended family. How did that impact the type of chef you would eventually become?

We are a very mixed family who had different cultures all around us and it made us better. With my French-Canadian cousins and Korean cousins, emotions were always running high, but [it] was always a great time when we got together and it prepared me for the diverse world we live in today.

What's a common misconception about adoption you can clear up for everyone?

I can't speak about misconception, but I can speak about my experience, which had it's ups and downs just like growing up in any family does. Between my parents, grandparents, and sisters, I was fortunate enough to be around a loving family.

What's the one piece of advice you would give parents who are adopting children and children who are/have been adopted?

Read up culturally if you are adopting out of the country or even out of state. The smallest things can matter — [such as] food, music, etc. — the most.

What’s your favorite memory associated with Thanksgiving?

One of my first Thanksgivings was amazing because I moved to another country and felt so welcomed. Holidays are a way to get together with your family and even your new friends that turn into family, and it's always great to spend time together. Last year was [my son] Zion's first Thanksgiving and we loved creating all these new memories as a family.

What are you most thankful for this year?

Staying healthy and having my family by my side. I have had two deaths in my family recently and it makes you appreciate the little things even more.

Of all the traditional Thanksgiving foods, what’s your favorite and least favorite?

My favorite thing is to create so many different and new recipes with the leftovers the next day! My least favorite thing is when I think of a dish, main, or side that I could have created or experimented with after Thanksgiving is over.

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