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Marcus Samuelsson Dishes on His 25 Beard House Dinners

Hilary Deutsch

November 09, 2017

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Photo: Matt Dutile
Photo: Matt Dutile

At the historic James Beard House, we’re lucky enough to play host to hundreds of chefs from across the globe with over 200 one-of-a-kind events each year. While many of these top toques have had encore performances throughout our 30-year history, chef, restaurateur, and philanthropist Marcus Samuelsson takes the cake, having cooked at the Beard House a record-breaking 25 times. We chatted with the multiple James Beard Award winner about the evolution of his cooking style, what the Beard House means to him, and his favorite protein to cook with.

What's the story behind your Beard House menus?
Cooking at the James Beard House is always an exciting opportunity for me and I see it as a big celebration. With each invite, I want the menu to reflect a point of view, to focus on the flavors, and to bring a narrative to the experience. The first few dinners happened when I was at Aquavit, so that narrative was all about Scandinavian cuisine. When I came back to cook in 2012, I had just opened Red Rooster Harlem and my cooking style had changed, as did my profile of ingredients, so it was very much a reflection of that. 

Do you have a favorite dish or ingredient used in each menu?
One of my earliest experiences cooking was with fish since I grew up fishing in Sweden. Therefore, I always like to have a salmon or trout represented on the menu. And I like using the whole fish—the skin, bones, and broth—it all makes a delicious dish. For meat, I tend to lean towards duck because I love how delicate the meat is. I'll usually pair the meat with a seasonal vegetable to balance out the dish. I try to mix it up each time, so I'll have some traditional dishes and some creative riffs on classics.

How has your style of cooking or approach changed since your first Beard House dinner? And why?
Throughout the years it's always been about the flavors and the technique, but one thing that changed is the narrative. When I started cooking at the Beard house the narrative was focused on Scandinavia, then Harlem, and you'll also see some French and Japanese influence too. I’ve always loved working with fermented foods and love cooking with fish. Miso is another ingredient I'm very fond of. It's a great marinade and gives a wonderful umami flavor to foods.

What’s your favorite part about cooking at the Beard House?
I think of it as not just a restaurant but also a home. I think about all the times I've cooked with Mildred [Amico, former James Beard House program director] and working with the servers and sommeliers. I see myself as a representation of everyone in the kitchen and it brings such great memories to think of these celebratory nights. I also think about the amount of students we've worked with over the years and how they are now out there cooking around the world from Harlem to the West Coast to Sweden and beyond. 

Want to cook like Marcus at home? Make his recipe for Helga’s meatballs with lingonberry preserves and braised cabbage.

Hungry for more? Take a peek at some of our favorite menus from Marcus's dinners over the years.

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Hilary Deutsch is digital media coordinator at the James Beard Foundation. Find her on Instagram and Twitter.