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April 20 2014

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Marcus Samuelsson, Food’s Most Fashionable Man

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Chef Marcus Samuelsson has a string of impressive accolades for his achievements in the food world, ranging from multiple honors from the James Beard Foundation to becoming the youngest chef ever to get two three-star reviews from The New York Times to beating out 21 other chefs in Bravo’s Top Chef Masters competition. But the New York-based chef has got fashion cred to match—Samuelsson made Vanity Fair‘s International Best Dressed List last year, along with Kate Middleton, Tilda Swinton, and Carey Mulligan. He was also hand-selected by Bono and Ali Hewson to star in their Fall ’11 menswear campaign for their clothing line Edun. (Fittingly, Bono and Hewson hosted the party to celebrate the campaign launch at Samuelsson’s Harlem restaurant Red Rooster. Trust us, fashion folk made an exception to their juice cleanse diets that night to try some of his award-winning comfort food.)

Over the weekend, Samuelsson guest-cooked a four-course dinner at Sole East Resort’s The Backyard Restaurant in Montauk to celebrate his latest accomplishment, his memoir Yes, Chef. The book chronicles his incredible journey, from becoming orphaned in Ethiopia at a very young age to growing up in Sweden (where he learned to cook from his new grandma Helga) to cooking President Obama’s first State Dinner. Samuelsson took a break from the kitchen (where he was cooking up gravlax, striped bass, berbere roasted chicken, and more—all dishes he writes about in his tale) to talk with Style.com about the tome, his personal style, and his thoughts on the relationship between food and fashion.

What has the response been to the book so far?
The other night we did a dinner at Red Rooster so people could have a dialogue about the book. So many people are interested and excited about it. Whether they are chefs or not, I just want people to identify with it. When you cook recipes from a book like we did at Red Rooster and at the Sole East dinner, it is so interesting to get other people’s take on it [the book] and I also think they get a richer experience tasting the food and flavors mentioned in my story.

What food in particular holds the most sentimental value to you?
Meatballs, for me, will always remind me of being 7 years old and cooking them with my grandmother. It is not the fanciest, but it was a taste that was with me until I came back to Ethiopia.

The relationship between food and fashion has always been an interesting one. What do you think about that relationship?
I think there are a lot of similarities. You have to travel if you want to be a great designer or a great chef. You have to work for a big chef, you have to work for a big designer for a while before you go do your own thing. I have a lot of designer friends, like Jason Wu, and it is the love of the craft that we share. Real designers do it for the love of the craft and the same thing with chefs—they would cook regardless.

Whether or not the fashion world is ready to embrace food, they have certainly embraced you. Do you have any hopes of doing something more full-fledged in fashion anytime soon?
My wife [model Gate Haile] is in the fashion world and I am inspired by her and I am around it all the time, but nothing yet. When I design dishes, I think about style; it will always interest me but nothing concrete has come up yet. My mom is the one who really got me into style. It was very important to her that when we left the house we looked good.

What is your fashion philosophy?
I think about it as style, not fashion. Clothing is very much about where I am from. I will wear a scarf from Ethiopia, or be inspired by something from Holland (like a really nice vintage piece)—clothing is a part of me. The most stylish people are working people, like rural Masai people or a man on a fishing boat. I am not inspired by what is on the runway. Of course, there are style icons, like David Bowie or Bob Marley, and I respect them because they are not fashionistas, they were what they were and made it cool. Why wouldn’t you dress up and show that you care about how you present yourself? I find it fascinating; in Holland, our customers don’t mess around, they come into the restaurant and they look good.

I know you are just celebrating the launch of your book, but I have to ask, what’s next for you?
I am just starting things really, between Ginny’s [the supper club he opened beneath Red Rooster in March], the book, and Red Rooster. All of those are still in their beginning stages. Of course I look in the future and think about those things, but I want to take the summer to work on the book tour and meet people and get their response.

Photo: Courtesy Photo

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