"I thought every family, growing up, was Swedish, a little bit Korean, a little bit Jewish and a little bit Ethiopian," says chef Marcus Samuelsson, author of Marcus Off Duty: The Recipes I Cook at Home. (He also shared three ideas from around the world for expanding your pantry.)
Rebecca Sheir: At the very start of the book, you talk about your grandmother's kitchen, how that's where your journey with cooking began. Now you feel like you've come full circle. I love that phrase. What are your early memories of home cooking? How have you managed to come full circle from those early days?
Marcus Samuelsson: First of all, I would have loved to have had at least a week with my grandmother now. Wouldn't we all? She's not here, but she's sitting above and looking down on us.
She would be laughing because everything she cooked is hip now. If she would have known that fish liver, pigs' feet, pigs' ear and carrots would be the latest kale, coming from the latest Brussels sprouts, she would be like, "What's going on? You went to cooking school to cook what I taught you?" That's a statement right there. Sometimes we have to go back in order to move forward.
RS: You have a wonderful, multinational family.
MS: I thought every family, growing up, was Swedish, a little bit Korean, a little bit Jewish and a little bit Ethiopian. But you know what? It was an interesting time to grow up in the '80s in Sweden. If that's not America in 2015, I don't know what is.
I feel very fortunate that I was raised in a multicultural family, and it came through food. When we went to the summer house, we ate fish four days a week. We woke up at 6 a.m., we went out fishing, maybe we got 30 or 40 mackerels. We cleaned them on the boat. We cooked 10 for lunch, we preserved -- we smoked or pickled -- 10, we gave 10 away to our neighbors. Maybe we got a chance to sell four or five of them ourselves. So no waste, fresh, farm-to-table before the term even existed.
The garnishes were maybe wild chives that still grow outside of the house, potatoes and a little bit of yogurt. That was it. But I can't imagine eating fresher or more locally. We came out of not having money. People ate well. So being poor, but feeling rich.
RS: Extending that multiculturalism of your family, your cookbook is incredible. It's global; it includes everything from coconut lime curry chicken to lamb lasagne and Ethiopian tostadas.
MS: We have to stop just looking at European-American food. We have the whole world, and it's a better reflection. For me, nothing could be more American than just trying to find the best ingredients and make them ours. That's really what the cookbook is about. It has got to be yummy and delicious. You've got to learn something when you do it and you've got to have fun.
RS: I think a lot of people flipping through your cookbook might look at so many ingredients and dishes as "ethnic."
MS: I don't even know what that word means because everyone is ethnic. Everyone has ethnicity, right? What does it mean? Does it mean that black, brown people and Chinese people are ethnic, and white people are not? Every group, whether you're English and German, that's your ethnicity.
It has also become this sort of quasi word for explaining what's strange. We have balsamic vinegar, but we don't do sambal oelek? Come on. Mexican food, for me, is part of the American vocabulary today. Is that less ethnic or is that still ethnic? I don't even know where you get an ethnic passport. Is that in Canada or is that in Texas? I have no clue. I don't really care. I think it's delicious food you can find all over the world. Sauerkraut is just as delicious as kimchi with the right preparation.
Also, there are some values that we have to share and say, "Hey, this is actually better." Then there are some values we have to go back to. We are becoming more diverse, but we are also cooking much more throwback and vintage. We're being more local than ever. We're being both more global, in terms of where it comes from, but also local. We care about farmer Ben and his carrots. We didn't care about farmer Ben before.
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