The cooking school classroom was filled to capacity. Central Market instructors and volunteers bustled around the kitchen in preparation, and the room was buzzing with excitement. Marcus Samuelsson, 2010 Top Chef Master, James Beard Award Winner, Chopped All-Stars Champion, was about to teach a class.
After becoming the youngest chef to ever earn a coveted three-star rating from The New York Times (at age 23), Samuelsson has cooked for White House State dinners and founded FoodRepublic.com. Since he wasn't yet in the room, I expected a big introduction and entrance.
"I always cook with Ethiopian spices and sensibility. Both cuisines work well when you cook with your soul. I touch my Swedish side whenever I pickle and preserve anything, and I show my Ethiopian soul when I make a dish spice driven."
Instead, Samuelsson quietly entered without fanfare and made his way through the tables, shaking hands with each attendee and introducing himself (as if we didn't know who he was), thanking us for coming. He was wearing a black rockabilly shirt with embroidered roses, paired with a crazy purple tie that indicated his sense of humor and irreverence.
We got right down to business, as Chef Samuelsson checked his team's prep and started on the first demonstrated recipe, his own Berbere spice blend. "It's a privilege for a chef to have different sorts of interactions with the public," he told us. "The book signings have been fun, but where I'm really most comfortable is right here, cooking for you."
Born in Ethiopia, then adopted into a Swedish family, Samuelsson's love affair with food began at an early age, inspired by his grandmother Helga. Samuelsson's meteoric success sprang from a simple childhood ritual: Every Saturday, he would go down to his grandmother's house to help her make dinner.
"Her meatballs weren't round, but they were delicious," Samuelsson told me in an interview prior to class. "She taught me about rustic food; she taught me to appreciate different cuts of meat. She showed me the joy in cooking. My sister and I always raced to see who could stack up the jars of Lingonberry jam in the pantry. My grandmother made cooking and eating fun."
Samuelsson's signature style really springs from this blending of his Ethiopian and Swedish roots. "I always cook with Ethiopian spices and sensibility. Both cuisines work well when you cook with your soul. I touch my Swedish side whenever I pickle and preserve anything, and I show my Ethiopian soul when I make a dish spice driven."
As he mixed the spices that go into his Berbere blend, he told the class, "I want to welcome you to Ethiopia. This is what it smells like, where I come from." Next, he moved on to an Open-Faced Gravlax Sandwich, including instructions on how to preserve the salmon for six to 48 hours using salt, sugar and peppercorns.
"In Sweden, we ate well without being rich. We used what was available: It was fish every day. Pickling and preserving were necessities; today, it's a taste profile. I see the Texas barbecue culture like that: you can eat well without it costing a lot of money."
In fact, this "eating well on less" concept is what drives much of Samuelsson's food philosophy. "9/11 and the economic downturn changed how I cook, and how the public wants to dine; they’re looking for more communal, more affordable experiences. That was my whole intention in opening Red Rooster in Harlem. I wanted to break the idea that great food has to cost a lot of money. I used to cook for the one percent; now I cook for the 95 percent."
As far as Texas barbecue, well, Samuelsson admits that it's a cuisine he still has a lot to learn about, but loves to eat. "It's one of the reasons I love coming to Texas," he added, as he polled the class on our favorite local barbecue spots. Franklin's won, hands down. Chef Christina Lee, a Central Market staff instructor, surprised Samuelsson with a bag of Franklin's that they had procured earlier for the visiting star chef.
"They even let us cut in line, because it was for you," she told Samuelsson as he dug in. And his thoughts? He wasn't too crazy about the slice of white bread served with it, but loved both the sauce and the coffee-rubbed beef brisket. "It's real good," was his simple summation.
Two other dishes on the class menu for the evening were Coconut Fried Chicken with Collard Greens and Ethiopian-Style Lamb Hash served with a poached egg along with Berbere sauce, pickled beets and goat cheese. The hash pretty much sums up his blending of flavors, Samuelsson says.
"This is the most exciting time to be a chef, and to be a diner, too. Food is not going backward, it’s going forward. While respecting the past, we are also inventing new things for the future."
As far as Austin goes, Samuelsson says the city is a prime example of where leading American food is today. "It's obviously an artistic community here, and that's what I love about it. That's very inspiring to chefs."
His new book, Yes, Chef: A Memoir, is not only an account of his life's journey and passion for food; it was also written with young aspiring chefs in mind.
"One part I love about being a chef is being able to teach and see young people who are passionate and are working hard towards finding their own cooking style and signature dish," he says. "But you have to be in love with it, not just thinking that you'll be famous and on TV. If you're not in love with it, do something else."