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A First Taste of Ethiopian Food with Chef Marcus Samuelsson

Picture of Nikki Vargas
Travel Editor
Updated: 3 November 2017
On the original Culture Trip series, Hungerlust, our Travel Editor takes viewers around the world by exploring the various cultures that call New York City home. Whether learning about a family’s Vietnamese pho that has been passed down from generation to generation, or a Colombian mother’s determination to open her own arepa restaurant; each episode shows the heart and soul that goes into a plate.

On the latest episode of Hungerlust, Culture Trip heads uptown to Harlem to meet with the acclaimed chef, Marcus Samuelsson, and his wife, Maya Haile. You may have seen Samuelsson on CNN, MSNBC or playing judge on Iron Chef and Chopped; or perhaps you caught a glimpse of him showing Anthony Bourdain around the Ethiopian village he was born, on Parts Unknown. Chef Samuelsson—who was voted NYC’s Best New Chef by the James Beard Foundation—is a household name who has revived the culinary scene in Harlem with his popular restaurant, Red Rooster.

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Red Rooster in Harlem, NYC | © Amanda Suarez/Culture Trip

I meet Samuelsson and his wife, international fashion model Maya Haile, at Red Rooster one extraordinarily warm summer day in August. I am well aware of Samuelsson’s many culinary achievements, but it is both his and Maya’s Ethiopian roots that I am keen to learn more about.

Marcus Samuelsson—who was born Kassahun Tsegie—was born in Ethiopia back in the 1970s. During the Ethiopian Civil War, Marcus and his sister were separated from their family at a devastatingly young age, only to be adopted by a loving Swedish couple and raised in Sweden. Samuelsson—whose love of cooking was cultivated by his Swedish family—studied at the Culinary institute in Gothenburg before eventually coming to the United States in the 1990s to apprentice at Restaurant Aquavit. The rest, as they say, is history.

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Maya and Marcus Samuelsson | Amanda Suarez / © Culture Trip

As an adult, Samuelsson was able to reconnect with this Ethiopian heritage alongside his wife, Maya, who founded a non-profit organization, Three Goats, that aims to improve the well-being of families and children living in Ethiopia today. Sitting across from Samuelsson and Haile, the passion for their Ethiopian backgrounds is palpable. The two talk excitedly about the spices, flavors and traditions that surround Ethiopian cuisine. An admitted stranger to Ethiopian food, my first bite of the traditional dish—Kitfo—is hand fed to me by Maya (per tradition). The flavors prove powerful, simple and beautiful—much like the couple standing next to me.

Catch up on Hungerlust and watch episode 1: Vietnam, episode 2: Thailand, episode 3: Colombia and episode 4: Morocco!