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Aquavit's Chef-Owner Taps Spicy African Roots in New Mercato
Aug. 1 (Bloomberg) -- Marcus Samuelsson's personal comfort foods run hot and cold from opposite ends of the world.
We're in the kitchen at Aquavit, the sleek Scandinavian restaurant in midtown Manhattan that's celebrating its 20th anniversary this year.
The slim, curly-haired chef-owner arranges slices of cold pickled herring and potatoes on a square plate before dashing to the stove to saute chunks of beef, onions and soybeans with butter and berbere. That's an Ethiopian spice mixture of ground chili peppers, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, garlic and nutmeg.
Born in Ethiopia, Samuelsson was 3 years old when he lost his parents to a tuberculosis epidemic that swept through the country. He and his sister were adopted by a couple from Goteborg, Sweden.
In his 20s, he returned to Africa, reconnected with his extended birth family and became fascinated by the ``very elegant cuisine'' of the continent -- and appalled that the West had scant knowledge of it.
Samuelsson worked for eight years on his book ``The Soul of a New Cuisine: A Discovery of the Foods and Flavors of Africa'' (Wiley, $40), which was released late last year.
Now 36, the chef is furthering his vision via Mercato, an African-inspired restaurant he's opening in Manhattan's Meatpacking District in September.
``When we eat in Africa, everyone's done something for the meal,'' he says, his coal eyes alight beneath his long dark lashes. ``Someone got the water, somebody made the fire, somebody actually made the spice, the berbere, pounded by hand. We pray before the meal and then we eat together.''
Book: The Soul of A New Cuisine By Marcus Samuelsson
He wants to bring that familial feeling to Mercato, and maybe ``people will feel they want to come back because they feel they are a part of it,'' he says as he digs into our shared bowl of spiced beef.
The restaurant is named for the open-air market in Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa.
``I love going there,'' Samuelsson says of the labyrinthine marketplace. ``Everything happens there. It's the meat market meets the spice market, the fruit market, the wine market. We drink honey wine, we all eat together.''
Samuelsson hopes Mercato will do for African cuisine what Aquavit did for the food of Scandinavia.
Named Aquavit's executive chef at the age of 24 in 1995, Samuelsson elevated his childhood cuisine to fine dining. In 1999, the James Beard Foundation named him ``best rising chef.'' Four years later, the group honored him as the ``best chef in New York City.''
On Aquavit's menu are dishes such as seared octopus and beef tartar or foie gras ganache with quail, but today it's the plate of chilled herring that brings back memories of summers on the Swedish coast with his father's fishing family.
``My grandmother would boil some potatoes and we'd open a jar of herring she'd pickled earlier,'' he says. ``Then we went out and got some chives in the garden, chopped them up, added some yogurt and sour cream and that was the meal.''
At his home in New York, Samuelsson enjoys hosting family- style meals for his friends as well.
``My parties are always outside. I have a pretty big patio, a humongous grill,'' he says. ``My friends are very mixed. I make a smorgasboard of dishes that reflect their countries. I make ceviches, great salads, potato gratin, stir-fried rice, leg of lamb, roasted chicken.''
His friends open their homes to Samuelsson too, introducing him to dishes they themselves grew up with.
``I enjoy home-cooked meals when my friends tell stories about what they cook,'' says Samuelsson, who doesn't enjoy it as much when his friends try what he calls ``complicated chef-y stuff'' they watch other people do on TV.
``If it's not yours, it just doesn't translate. You're from the Philippines, make me sinigang,'' he says, referring to a sour soup of crushed guava or tamarind simmered with meat or seafood. ``If you grew up in Puerto Rico, show me how to make sofrito,'' a sauce of tomatoes, onions, garlic and other herbs used as a base for stews and rice dishes.
``Don't make it too complicated,'' Samuelsson adds. ``I think if everybody takes the time, makes the effort, puts thought into it, has fun with it, the most simplistic dishes taste really good.''
(Yvette Ferreol is a writer for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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