Marcus Samuelsson was born in Ethiopia and grew up in Gothenburg, Sweden after being adopted when his biological mother passed away from tuberculosis when he was just three years old. Today, Samuelsson is one of the most accomplished chefs in the world. At the age of 24 he became the youngest chef to receive a three-star review from The New York Times and currently owns several restaurants around the world.
This Friday at 8/7c, Samuelsson will star in the latest episode CBS’ Undercover Boss. CBS Local’s Matt Weiss chatted with Samuelsson earlier today to discuss going undercover, benefiting his community and his grandmother’s special meatball recipe.
MW- Hello there Marcus, how’s it going?
MS- I’m good, doing really good!
MW- So first things first, I want to talk to you about the Red Rooster in Harlem. Our corporate office is located right in New York City, I haven’t made it to the Red Rooster yet, but it’s one of my boss’ favorite restaurants in the area. He loves going there and he’s told me nothing but good things about it.
MS- Oh yea, we have a lot of fun there, you have to come up some time.
MW- I definitely will, it’s on my to-do list for sure. So I’ve heard from him that the whole space, and the bar in particular, has this great energy to it. What’s it like for you to walk around inside knowing you’ve created this awesome environment for your customers?
MS- Well it’s really amazing to see the staff and the customers, they have this incredible relationship. Between the regulars and the visitors, especially a weekend like this when we have Harlem EatUp! so it’s not just regulars from Red Rooster but we actually have all of Harlem packed with foodies. We have about 12,000 people coming to eat and dine with us this weekend for our eat-up at Morningside Park so it’s one of those weeks and weekends where you think, “Wow food has really made an impact in this community.” We’re holding up the flag to make sure food culture and Harlem as a whole is thriving better than ever.
MW- Speaking of the Harlem EatUp! Fesitval, which you are a co-producer of, how would you describe it to someone who’s never been but wants to head over and check it out?
MS- It’s an awesome, inclusive festival with something for everyone. You can bring the family we have a free section, there’s a ticketed section and all these great new restaurants plus the traditional restaurants you’ve heard about in Harlem, they’re all going to be there. Not only that, we have Carla Hall hosting and we have world-class chefs giving cooking classes for free. It’s going to be great weather this weekend, you can have great food, great drinks, you’re going to be in an incredible and unique part of town and you’re going to look around and go, “Wow this is why I live in New York City.” That’s what you can expect this weekend in Harlem at Morningside.
MW- And aside from being a fun way to spend the day Harlem EatUp! also gives back to the community. Can you talk about your mission with that and how you’re helping people in the community?
MS- Harlem EatUp! is really about teamwork from the whole community. The churches have been amazing, all the entrepreneurs, all the small restaurants have been amazing getting the word out. Harlem Park To Park was a really great network with over 120 businesses in Harlem to get the word out and then we give back. We go on food deliveries through City Harvest and it’s really one of those things where the best of New York City comes together. We are fortunate enough to have a very successful restaurant and a great festival so it’s our job to do this. We want to do a couple of things – provide great jobs, create environments people want to be around while feeling welcomed and then to give back to the community as much as we can. Whether that’s through food programs, creating farmer’s markets or helping to get better lunch programs in schools. I feel really fortunate that Harlem EatUp! can be part of all of that and really serve a purpose.
MW- Absolutely, it’s a great cause. You’re also going to be there serving up food yourself, is that right?
MS- I’m there all weekend man! We’re doing panels, we’re doing cooking demos, I’ll definitely be there. Not only will I be there, all the best of Harlem comes out. We’re going to have personalities, a DJ playing music, basketball, it’s really a big block party in the park man, it’s fun. It’s like a family reunion that’s what Harlem EatUp! is.
MW- I know you were taught how to cook by your grandmother Helga and her meatball recipe is very special to you. Are we going to be able to try Helga’s meatballs this weekend?
MS- They will definitely be on the menu at Red Rooster. It’s one of those recipes that you’d never dare to take off the menu. Each time I eat them or make them I think, “Wow, this was the starting point.” I really loved my grandmother’s meatballs, those meatballs have taken me all over the world.
MW- Meatballs are one of my favorite dishes, so when I make it up to Red Rooster that’s what I’m ordering, 100%.
MS- We’ll have a plate ready for you!
MW- Switching gears a bit now, you’re going to be on the upcoming episode of Undercover Boss, what was it like going from Marcus Samuelsson the world famous chef to Vijay the insurance salesmen.
MS- I love Vijay, man! He really wanted to learn! (laughs) It was crazy though from the makeup to the clothing, it was an adventure and definitely a lot of fun.
MW- How long was the transformation process every day to become Vijay?
MS- It was five to six hours every day in the chair between hair and makeup. Even your personality changes, you look at yourself in the mirror and you are really a different person. It was a lot of fun walking by my neighbors who didn’t even recognize me and it was fun to be Vijay walking around in Harlem. It was definitely different than walking around as the boss of Red Rooster walking around Harlem I’ll tell you that!
MW- Were there any close calls on breaking your cover?
MS- So many! Definitely when I saw my staff they were like, “What’s going on? I recognize this voice.” But the hair and the makeup was a great cover for me and the guys who do Undercover Boss are so good, they have it down. I was so inspired by people that I met. Someone like Roy, he’s got his own food truck with his wife and they’re going to be at Harlem EatUp! this weekend. To be able to give them a platform, not only financially but also visibility to each one of the food entrepreneurs is something that I really enjoy, continuing the mentorship.
MW- Well this is certainly a big week for you. Harlem EatUp! goes through this weekend and Undercover Boss airs on Friday. Thanks for the time, it’s been great talking to you and I’m going to make it to Red Rooster for those meatballs soon, I promise.
MS- Thank you Matt, thank you for having me!