In spite of yesterday's bleak weather, Beard on Books had a full house for JBF Award Winner Marcus Samuelsson's poignant discussion of his new cookbook, New American Table
. An Ethiopian who grew up in Sweden, trained in France, and fearlessly crossed the pond to the States in his early twenties, the chef has a refreshingly unique perspective on American cuisine and a moving affection for its regional cooking traditions. His new book is not only a tribute to our food, but a token of gratitude as well. "I put all of my chips on food when I was young, but my other big decision was to go to the diverse universe of America," Samuelsson remarked. "I wanted to be in a place where people wouldn't focus on my background, and I knew I could find that in New York City."
The chef recounted his determination to get to Manhattan (the French chef he worked for told him he couldn't "leave the macaron for the land of the burger") and the discomforts of city life he tolerated during his early years here (sharing his first apartment with a massage therapist, he slept on a massage table). He wrote eager letters to David Letterman and Oprah, promising that he could do great things at their restaurants (which didn't exist). "I'm still waiting to hear back from them," he joked.
After the success of Aquavit, Samuelsson wanted to travel and experience the diversity of America's food. "First I wanted to explore New York, so I watched my staff, who came from everywhere—the Mexican who made great guacamole, the Pakistani dishwasher who opened my eyes to the sweet rice dishes of his country, the Indian guy who first told me about Jackson Heights." Pacing the boroughs, on a mission to taste everything, Samuelsson was soon experimenting with foreign flavors. He eventually paid visits to every region of the country and sampled the local cuisine. New American Table was born from this curiosity.
But at the end of the day, Samuelsson's favorite food is linked to Sweden. "I love meatballs," he confessed. "The ones I had for school lunch in Sweden were always perfectly round and tasteless, but the rustic, big meatballs my mother made at home depended on the mood she was in. They were always different, and eating those along with the mass-produced ones from school actually taught me a lot about food."
During the question-and-answer session, a guest asked the chef to name the best African restaurants in New York. Samuelsson noted that Harlem is the place for the cuisines of Senegal, Mali, and Guinea, particular the stretch of 116th Street between Frederick Douglas and Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Boulevards. His Manhattan recommendations are below:
Africa Kiné (Senegalese)
256 West 116th Street
Patisserie des Ambassades (Senegalese, French pastries)
161 West 22nd Street
Queen of Sheeba (Ethiopian)
650 Tenth Avenue
Meskerem Ethiopian Cuisine
124 MacDougal Street