Sitting down with Marcus Samuelsson: Food, family and the importance of cooking at home

WASHINGTON — With three New York restaurants under his belt, a New York Times best-selling book and regular TV appearances, it’s hard to imagine that chef and
restaurateur Marcus Samuelsson has an
abundance of downtime. But when he has some, he
spends it cooking with his family in his Harlem brownstone.

Now, Samuelsson is offering a glimpse into his kitchen by sharing his favorite at-home
meals in his new book, “Marcus Off Duty: The Recipes I Cook at Home.”

Samuelsson says his home kitchen is just as important as those in his restaurants — if
not more. He
first learned how to cook in his grandmother’s kitchen. Now, he takes great pride in
teaching the next generation how to cook.

But if the notion of “home cooking” invokes images of bland poultry dishes, a basic pot
roast or a traditional stew, think again. For starters, Samuelsson’s food is
influenced by his background: He was born in Ethiopia, grew up in Sweden and was
trained in French techniques.

But beyond that, the food he cooks at home, along with many others, is a
reflection on the ever-expanding American pantry.

Think of a pantry 20 years ago, Samuelsson says in his book. “I imagine it like an
iconic Andy Warhol painting — tomato soup, corn flakes, ketchup, shortening.”
Today, many pantries are stocked with a variety of ethnic ingredients — Sriracha sauce,
kimchi, anchovies, udon and more.


“We’ve become much more diverse; we have stuff like miso and fish sauce and mole, and
all of that stuff is coming into our homes,” Samuelsson tells WTOP. “This book is not
restaurant food; it’s delicious food, and it’s going to make you and your family feel
good. It’s almost a bridge in to the way we cook in America today, and also how we’re
going to cook tomorrow.”

That’s why Samuelsson’s book swaps traditional and outdated at-home American recipes
for eclectic dishes such as his grandmother’s Swedish meatballs, kitfo (an Ethiopian
tartare) banh mi sandwiches, lamb lasagna, harissa-crusted turkey and chicken and

“Home cooking can be defined in Swedish meatballs with mashed potatoes, because that’s
what I grew up with, but I also feel very at home today with, let’s say, a nice seared
catfish with some succotash,” Samuelsson says.

“[Home cooking] is just food that makes you feel familiar, and food that you’re not
intimidated by. But also for me, has a deeper meaning; it’s warm, it hugs you right
away. There’s complexity there, but the intimidation factor is probably gone.”

Samuelsson’s book doesn’t stop at a collection of recipes. Sprinkled between the
photographs and colorful illustrations are tips for home cooks — ranging from how to
stock a pantry to how to re-purpose leftovers.

“We throw away 40 percent of our food, and as a chef, I feel I need to sort of guide
people with what to do with leftovers,” Samuelsson says.

“Today, we’re 7 billion people in the world, and we’re going to be 9 billion people. We
can’t keep throwing away 40 percent of our food. If we know what to do with leftovers,
that number will go down. … It’s the right thing to do.”

Another unexpected component of Samuelsson’s book is the music playlists that
accompany each section. So when the reader is cooking dill-spiced salmon
or bourbon shrimp with baby spinach, they know they should be listening to Salt-n-
Pepa’s “Push It”
or “Angie” by the Rolling Stones.

“When you hear music, it just speaks to you. It doesn’t matter where you’re from, what
music you like. And that’s what I want to convey with food. It should speak to you,”
Samuelsson says.

“Food is also feel-based. Yes, it’s nurture and nutrition. But also, you eat comfort
food at home because you want to feel a certain way, and music is sort of one of the
best ways of describing that.”

Playing music while cooking is a great way to entice the kids into the kitchen,
Samuelsson says.

“I’m here to speak to you today just because my grandparents showed a lot of patience
and taught me how to roll those meatballs or taught me how to make the gingerbread, not
buy the gingerbread,” Samuelsson says about teaching kids how to cook.

In the kitchen, kids can learn to count; they can learn the basics of science; and they
can learn how to identify tastes of sour, salt, sweet and bitter. Want to start cooking
with your kids? Samuelsson’s best advice is to take off the kid gloves.

“Don’t cook down on your kids. Eat the same food, cook the same food, maybe you pull
back a little on the chilies or maybe a little bit of salt,” he says.

And yes, the process might take 20 or 30 more minutes, but Samuelsson says that is 20
minutes off the iPad. He emphasizes that quality time is priceless.

“All of the stories I learn about my family, I learn in the kitchen, either at the
dinner table or as we went along cooking [dinner]. There’s all that time where you

With his book, Samuelsson hopes to take the anxiety out of preparing meals at home and
inspire others to bulk up their pantries and get creative in the kitchen.

“Eat well; cook at home. It should be fun; it should be comforting and fun. It
shouldn’t be stressful.”

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