Saturday, December 20, 2008

Marcus Samuelsson: The man behind C-House has a lot on his plate, but he still likes to peel carrots.

Chef Marcus Samuelsson does it all. He cooks, he writes, he teaches, he paints. And he still finds time for soccer on Sundays. Dividing most of his time between New York and Sweden, Samuelsson recently paid a visit to his Chicago restaurant, C-House, where I had the opportunity to catch up with him over a cup of coffee.

Just in town long enough to host a wine dinner with Brian Duncan of Bin 36 and a signing of his 2006 book, The Soul of a New Cuisine: A Discovery of the Foods and Flavors of Africa, Samuelsson didn't seem jet-lagged at all. He wanted to reintroduce the James Beard Award-winning book (for Best International Cookbook) because he thinks African cooking should be more approachable. He says that not enough people are familiar with African cuisine and seeks to change that. He refers to the text's accessibility in terms of conversation. "It's what you and I are doing right now," he explains, "We're creating this dialogue."

C-House and Samuelsson are just as approachable as the recipes in the book. "I want people to feel comfortable coming here in their jeans and still be able to enjoy a good meal," he says. It doesn't take more than a quick glance around the room to see that everyone here does indeed fit that description. The crowd includes everyone from denim-and-t-shirt types to young professionals sporting the expected attire. Whether they're curled up in the restaurant's sleek, cushioned banquettes or parked with the morning paper at C-House's communal table, the space's understated interior provides a perfect backdrop for each guest.

Before opening C-House, his first Chicago—and first American—venture, Samuelsson sampled a wide variety of the city's culinary offerings. It was chefs like Charlie Trotter, Takashi Yagihashi and Rick Bayless, combined with authentic ethnic spots (like Uptown's smattering of Ethiopian joints) that served as fuel for C-House. But Samuelsson's greatest culinary influence goes back to his grandmother's Scandinavian roots. "She made everything from scratch," he says with a smile, "even her own liquor." He went on to explain that, in Sweden, his grandmother's dishes were quite literally referred to as "poor man's cooking." Peasant food, however, is far from what you get at C-House. Even the simple dishes here arrive looking like a page pulled from Gourmet magazine, which, incidentally, recently featured Samuelsson.

The lauded chef has also appeared in other national publications like USA Today, Food & Wine and Bon Appetit and at 37, is the youngest to ever receive two three-star reviews from the New York Times. Flattering and extensive as his resume may be, those successes don't add up to Samuelsson's biggest achievement, which he says is continuing to be able to work, especially in the midst of a stressed economy. When he first left for New York to apprentice at Aquavit in 1991, he had little more than $300 in his pocket.

But passion, skill and an eye for aesthetics quickly turned that $300 into a priceless experience. With three restaurants, three cookbooks, a line of cooking tools and a television show under his toque, Samuelsson is still as humble as his grandmother's Scandinavian recipes. "I love cooking. I even like peeling carrots," he says and explains that there's a certain joy envisioning the end result as a beautiful carrot soup.

Samuelsson's attention to detail from start to finish might have something to do with his affinity for painting. "It makes you think about positive and negative space," he says, as he reaches over for my notepad and pen. He begins to draw a diagram. Something similar to a brainstorming session—an outline that brought me back to my old writing classes with charts of plots, themes and motifs. But, unlike the ever-changing subjects in my own scratchpad, the main element of Samuelsson's diagram always begins with flavor. From there he extends three separate branches: one for texture, another for the season and then one more for fish/seafood. The flavor tree then expands to a myriad of subtopics, all working together to form one plated masterpiece.

When he's not busy crafting new dishes, instructing courses all over the world and revising recipes, Samuelsson hikes it to the local soccer field, where he says the energy and adrenaline of the game is similar to that rush you get in the kitchen. "The pulse of being on a team is similar to the pulse in the kitchen. It's an energy that's hard to translate."

This article was first published on Centerstage.

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