Marcus Samuelsson bridges the gap between food and culture
“I might be the only Swede-iopian that you’ve met.”
This opening sentence of chef, author and Food Network personality Marcus Samuelsson’s keynote speech “A Night with Marcus Samuelsson: A Career of Chasing Flavors” succinctly summed up the following hour. Samuelsson took the stage at Miami University’s Harry T. Wilks Theater in Armstrong Student Center on Wednesday, March 29.
Samuelsson, who has been a mainstay on Food Network shows like “Chopped” and “Iron Chef,” framed his talk around the intersection between food and culture. He went through his own life and career, highlighting the challenges he overcame to reach his current successes.
Born in Ethiopia, Samuelsson lost his mother to illness when he was around 2 years old. He and his sister, age 5 at the time, were almost orphaned, but the two were rescued by a nurse at the hospital.
“The nurse that took care of us, she broke the law in order to save us,” Samuelsson said. “She took us in. I’m not suggesting they should break the law, but there’s actually two times in my journey where someone broke the law for the better.”
The two were adopted three months later and moved to Sweden, where they joined a culturally diverse family that included people from all walks of life. There, Samuelsson was exposed to different foods and styles of cooking.
Samuelsson used the example of Swedish meatballs to illustrate this point.
“I know Swedish meatballs from three different places,” Samuelsson said. “School lunches — tastes like a furniture store. My mom, who did the fast Swedish meatballs … or my grandmother’s, that were actually rolled, they were in different shapes, but they were delicious.”
For the remainder of his speech, Samuelsson described his journey as a chef across several different countries, from Japan to Switzerland to France and eventually to New York City, where he currently resides. Throughout, he peppered in pieces of advice and wisdom he picked up on his travels.
One such observation came when he was discussing collaboration.
“I always get confused when people say, ‘I’m self taught, I did this on my own,’” Samuelsson said. “What? Who did anything on their own? Very few people. And also, that doesn’t sound like fun.”
Samuelsson also highlighted how his time in New York, specifically Harlem, has impacted the way he perceives and enjoys food.
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“If I wanted the best cornbread, it was at an after-church program and had nothing to do with a restaurant,” Samuelsson said. “If I wanted to find the best jerk chicken, I’d go to certain parks post-basketball game, and that’s where they were blasting Jamaican music … and that’s where they serve the best jerk chicken.”
Samuelsson ended his prepared remarks with a story about his experience of simultaneously competing on the competition show “Top Chef” while also creating the menu for former President Barack Obama’s first White House State Dinner.
He left the audience with an encouraging sentiment.
“I think all of you guys will have your own moments,” Samuelsson said. “It might not involve a president, or it might. But it’s gonna be your moment.”
The lecture portion of the evening closed with an audience Q&A. Samuelsson answered questions about the late Anthony Bourdain, advice for living in New York and what sets him apart from other chefs.
Following the talk, a reception was held in the Armstrong atrium where Samuelsson signed copies of and took pictures with his newest book “The Rise: Black Cooks and the Soul of American Food.”
Samuelsson’s was the final lecture of the academic year for Miami University’s Presidential and Career Leadership Series. Sponsored by the Center for Career Exploration and Success, the guest lectures are intended to offer students exposure to a variety of different careers and experiences.