Late Thursday afternoon, I was twittering away when I saw a tweet by @MasterCard that read “#NYC @marcuscooks fans, what is Marcus Samuelsson’s favorite sport? Use #pricelesstrivia in your response!” I responded with what turned out to be the correct answer, “SOCCER”! After about 10 minutes or so I received a message from MasterCard saying that I was correct. I had snagged two tickets to a priceless cooking demonstration and four course dinner with the season two winner of Top Chef Masters, Marcus Samuelsson. I was excited to say the least. Marcus is a chef, restaurateur and author. The event was being held at 7:30 PM at the Astor Center on Lafayette Street in NYC.
We were lucky to drive smoothly into the City over the George Washington Bridge and down the West Side Highway. We pulled up into the parking garage next to the Astor Center. We were the first guests to arrive. So we sat smack dab in the middle of the “kitchen theater” right in front of the stove. There were MasterCard aprons on our seats, which we put on. Our seat was set with two forks, one knife, one spoon and four wine glasses. There was also a sheet of paper with the names of the wines we would be enjoying with dinner along with their tasting notes.
At about 7:20 PM, Chef Marcus Samuelsson dressed in a black chef’s jacket with the emblem of his new restaurant, The Red Rooster stitched on the left side. He was prepping his mise en place. At 7:30 pm, a young lady from MasterCard took the floor and formally introduced Chef Marcus Samuelsson to the assembled guests.
From the start Marcus made the event fun and interactive. He started out by talking a little bit about what he is currently doing, namely opening The Red Rooster in Harlem. He also talked about his newest cookbook, New American Table, which we each received an autographed copy of. Marcus explained how America truly is a melting pot of cuisines. He also went over a few products that everyone should stock in their pantry, including: coriander, red wine vinegar, raisins and good olive oil to name a few. He also said that “copying is a big part of being a chef.” This means that it is okay to follow recipes or emulate your chef heroes and other culinary masters.
Marcus started his cooking demonstration with a green curry shrimp. This was the dish he served at President Barack Obama’s first state dinner last year. He chose a young woman from the audience to come up and give him a hand with making the green curry. As this was happening, our first course was being served, which was a ceviche taco. It was an interesting interpretation. The taco part was not an actually taco, but a small rice cake. The ceviche itself was fresh and lemony with a hint of heat. At this point, Marcus explained the four things he looks for in a dish, which are aesthetics (how does the dish look?); texture (what is the mouth feel of the dish?); flavor driven (are all the ingredients being used correctly to get the point of the dish across?) and temperature (does the chef want the inside to be hot and outside cold?). These are aspects we should all take into account whether we are preparing the dish or eating it.
Marcus continued preparing the green curry shrimp. He said it is important to toast the curry spices before you use them. He combined the ingredients a blender and blended it to a paste. This was the green curry that would be added to the shrimp. Marcus then told us what the process was like to be chosen as the chef for the state dinner. He explained how he had to submit his menu weeks in advance. He said that he decided to go with a mainly vegetarian Indian inspired menu because the guest of honor was India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Marcus said it was the first time that a state dinner’s menu did not feature French cuisine.
Our second course arrived, which was the green curry shrimp with a watermelon and tomato soup. The shrimp were sweet and the subtle spice of the curry accentuated that sweetness. I really enjoyed the cold watermelon and tomato soup. The soup was a beautiful orange color. The taste was fresh and vibrant. There were little melon balls floating in the soup which were a delight for the taste buds.
Green Curry Shrimp with a Watermelon and Tomato Soup
As we were eating our green curry shrimp, Marcus opened the room to questions. The first question that asked was what his worst experience in the kitchen was. He explained that it was as a commis (kind of like a paid intern in the kitchen) in Switzerland. He was preparing an asparagus terrine for a New Year’s Eve party. He said that he translated the ingredients wrong and ended up using the wrong kind of gelatin. Gelatin is what keeps a terrine together. So with the wrong ingredient, you will have a disastrous product. He said that the ends of the terrine were fine. However, as he made his way to the center instead of serving slices of asparagus terrine he was serving asparagus canelles.
I then asked Marcus what was his inspiration for becoming a chef and what advice would he give to an aspiring chef. Marcus answered the first part of my question by saying that while he was growing up in Sweden, he was very much a part of food preparation in his family. He said that he learned a lot from his grandmother. Besides learning the basics of Swedish cuisine, he also learned about pickling and the importance of fish. Marcus’ answer to the second part of my question was that you should start with a foundation in French cuisine and from there branch out to other cuisines before settling into the cuisine you want to focus on. He said that what you do not have in experience, you should make up with energy and hard work. He also stated that it is important to have food experiences and travel for food. He told a story about one of his great dining experiences. It was his dinner at one of Alain Ducasse’s restaurants in France. Marcus said that he took all the money he saved for a few months and treated himself to dinner. He said he came out broke, but that it was a food experience.
From there Marcus started on the main dish which was a fried chicken. He said that a good fried chicken takes time, 3 days to be exact. And when you fry the chicken you should do it two times, once at a low temperature then at a higher one. Marcus asked the question, “What do you look for in fried chicken?” He picked on my wife. She answered with tender and crispy. He agreed. He said the way to achieve the tenderness part is by curing the chicken and to achieve the crispiness was by double frying.
Our main course was the fried chicken with a mac ‘n’cheese inspired couscous. The chicken was so good, better than anything the colonel ever made. It was crispy and tender. I really enjoyed the coating of the chicken. It had a little heat but was also pleasantly sweet. The couscous was downright amazing. It was creamy and rich. It had a hint of saffron and chili. It was a perfect partner to the fried chicken.
As we were eating, Marcus started to tell us about his new restaurant The Red Rooster. The restaurant, which is located in the center of Harlem, is scheduled to open sometime this fall. Marcus actually said about 8 weeks or so. He praised Harlem and its rich culinary history. He said that every major city has a Harlem. These are places that need to be invested in. These are places where you can find up and coming cuisines. There are culinary renaissances awakening in these neighborhoods across the United States. He said that opening this restaurant is a risk, but you need to be comfortable with taking risks. He said that it’s even riskier to not work with your passion. And Marcus’ passion is food and his restaurants.
Before starting dessert, Marcus talked about how we are living in an exciting time to be a part of cooking and food world. He said that nowadays food is a lot more accessible to people, especially with the internet. He believes that it is important to invest a lot of time “online”, whether it is Facebook, Twitter, a website, blogs, etc. Marcus is actually in the process of putting together an online community called “Food Republic” where people can communicate through food and food related experiences.
For dessert, Marcus made a compote of stone fruit and berry. His compote consisted of peaches and blueberries. He said that summertime desserts should be fun and in a sense easy. The dessert that was presented before us was masterful. It was an oozing molten chocolate muffin with the compote and vanilla ice cream on top. This was a lovely dessert to finish out a picture-perfect evening with a true master chef.
As we were devouring our dessert, a few more questions were thrown Marcus’ way. One question was, “What does Marcus like to cook at home?” He answered by saying he likes to experiment with cuisines he does not know well. He was also asked where he likes to go to eat in NYC. He said that the occasion should drive where you go. He said he like original. He said people like Alfred Portale (Gotham Bar and Grill) and Tom Colicchio (Craft) are original. He was asked what the most versatile ingredient was. His answer was water. How true?! The question, “What is a tough cuisine to master?” was answered with that of Japan. Marcus said it takes many years of practice become great at that cuisine. And, of course, there was one “Top Chef” question. A young man asked if the time constraints were real. Marcus said that the time is “very real”. And wouldn’t that be the case for a chef. Timing is everything. You have to work under the clock at all times, whether it’s “selling” a table or opening a restaurant. You always have deadlines breathing down your back.
Marcus thanked all of us in attendance for coming out and being a great group. The event ended with Marcus going around the room, autographing our cookbooks and posing for pictures. Marcus is a great man and true food lover. His passion is so forthright and genuine. There should be more chefs like him out there. I hold Chef Samuelsson at the highest esteem and cannot wait to follow his progress. I am looking forward to dining at The Red Rooster in eight weeks (Marcus, if I can help in any way please let me know. I have a lot of free time on my hands), and I hope you are, too! Enjoy!
Living to eat,
P.S. Thank you, MasterCard MarketPlace!