Famous chef says failures are real lessons

Vince Peluso

Samuelsson’s speech part of Schwebel lecture series

Chef Marcus Samuelsson gave a cooking demonstration after his lecture in the Kiva yesterday. Samuelsson came to Kent as a part of the 14th Annual Schwebel Guest Lecture Series. PHOTO B Y BRITTANY ANKROM | DAILY KENT STATER

Credit: DKS Editors

World-renowned chef Marcus Samuelsson had plenty of accomplishments to brag about in his visit to Kent State.

However, when Samuelsson took the podium yesterday in the Kiva, he didn’t stress the importance of his successes, calling his failures more important.

“When you talk from the success point of view, I always feel the most important things are failures, are your rejections,” he told the crowd. “I probably have just as many rejections and failures as I do successes. I wrote 30 letters to 30 French restaurants before I got my start. I had no computer, so I had to write them longhand. We wrote in English and my dad said, ‘You don’t speak French and they don’t speak English, so you’re not going to get the job.’ But I kept writing.”

Samuelsson eventually got his break, which he largely attributed to the importance of networking and luck, and began working at Georges Blanc, a three-star restaurant in Lyon, France.

After working in France, Samuelsson decided he wanted to come to America to experience the diversity of foods the American culture provides.

“I look at this guy Bobby Flay, who was cooking southwestern food. He’s from Brooklyn; what does he know about cilantro?” Samuelsson said with a laugh. “But I liked that; I was fascinated by all these people that weren’t from a certain continent that had fallen in love with a flavor. And that was me, too.”

Samuelsson actually competed against Flay and lost on an episode of the television series “Iron Chef America.”

Samuelsson described himself as a rare black Swede. Originally from Ethiopia, his biological parents passed away at a young age and he was raised in Goteborg, Sweden, by his adoptive parents.

At the beginning of his career, he said people were shocked when they found out he was black.

“People would be shocked when they saw a Swedish chef cooking French that was black,” he said. “As time went on, I noticed that I was always the only black person in the room. My father prepared me for that, but I found that I needed to work somewhere where it’s a little more diverse. It doesn’t necessarily mean there had to be more black people, just more diverse.

“There also were no women in the kitchen and if they were they were in pastries, and that was not how I wanted to run my kitchen when I got the chance.”

Amie Abouhassan, senior hospitality management major, said she was impressed with the speech.

“It was awesome,” she said. “I can’t really describe it any other way. I found myself watching and listening to him and not looking at the clock. To have someone like him come talk to students is awesome.”

Before his speech, Samuelsson conducted a question-and-answer session with students and also stopped by the May 4 Memorial outside Taylor Hall.

Following his talk, he conducted a cooking demonstration where he cooked a rack of lamb and couscous.

“I was star-struck, so to say,” Abouhassan said. “To have a major celebrity chef like him come up and start cooking on our campus was really great. I think it says a lot about his character for him to come to a campus and talk to students and cook in front of them.”

Samuelsson attended the Culinary Institute in Goteborg and said he enjoys visiting American campuses.

“I was born in Ethiopia, and the goal was always to go to school,” he said. “So in America, I think we take that for granted. When you see a school like this, you have to think of how privileged you are, even in bad times, to be able to get an education.”

Samuelsson, who said his favorite cooking memory is making ginger snaps with his grandmother, is the executive chef at the highly-successful Aquavit restaurant in New York City and is also the co-founder and chief creative director of Townhouse Restaurant Group, a restaurant management and consulting company.

He was named the “Best Chef: New York City” by the James Beard Foundation in 2003 and has written four critically acclaimed cookbooks. He told the crowd about his experiences with his most recent book, “The Soul of a New Cuisine: A Discovery of the Foods and Flavors of Africa.”

“I decided I really wanted to know more about African food because of my heritage,” he said. “So I thought I’m going to take this on, and I’m going to write a book about African food.

I remember the day that I went into my agent’s office and said I wanted to write another book, and she said, ‘Excellent.’ I said it’s going to be about African food, and she said I could write about anything except Africa because there was no market for an African book. So, I said we will make a market for it because I felt if I didn’t take a stab at it, then who would?”

Contact College of Education, Health and Human Services reporter Vince Peluso at [email protected].