The Swedish Chef.
The phrase may still make some people think of the Muppets, but increasingly it’s another image that comes to mind. Aquavit. New York. White House dinners.
Born in Ethiopia, Marcus 'Joar' Samuelsson was adopted by Swedish parents when he was three-years-old. He had a typical Swedish childhood in Gothenburg, dining on meatballs and spending summer evenings wandering in nature.
Now the 45-year-old has world-famous restaurants in New York, Chicago, Bermuda, Gothenburg, and Stockholm, and when The Local snags him he's in the middle of opening his latest concept in Malmö.
But even in Harlem, New York – the place he currently calls home – his roots affect everything he does.
“I take my Swedishness with me in everything I do,” Samuelsson tells The Local.
In the kitchen that means “having a relationship” with pickling and preserving, great seafood, and game meats.
“When I think of Sweden, I think about direct access to nature,” he says, “Sweden also has four very strong seasons, and that is reflected in the food.”
Swedish crayfish. Photo: Carolina Romare/Imagebank Sweden
Along with distinct seasonal flavours, Samuelsson says that aesthetics are vitally important in Swedish cuisine.
“We have a great sense of art, aesthetics, and craftsmanship,” he say. “Maybe we don’t make a lot, but what we do make, we take pride in. Beauty matters.”
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But, beautiful or not, cooking has never “just been meatballs” for Marcus.
“Husmanskost may be our weekly diet, but we are much more diverse than that,” Samuelsson clarifies. “Sweden’s cuisine has changed widely due to migration and immigration. The Turks and Greeks who have been here for 50 years are just as much a part of new Sweden.”
Sweden has its own versions of falafel and kebab, and Samuelsson is quick to note that the generations of immigrants and the cuisine they brought are also part of the “New Scandinavian Cuisine”.
The world is changing and becoming more and more globalised, and food has to keep pace. Samuelsson says that Swedes have always been good at adapting, both with people and palates.
“Sweden is not the same country now as when I was growing up,” he says. “It’s much more diverse today. And all these great innovations we have are a product of our diversity.”
As an international chef opening restaurants over the world, Samuelsson says that air travel is “key” to running his business, and to the development of new culinary ideas.
Marcus Samuelsson's Red Rooster restaurant. Photo: Monika Sziladi
“Especially for countries like Sweden that are a little off-centre, it’s very important,” he says. “I come to Sweden four or five times a year and you need to be able to travel quickly.”
Although Sweden still has a ways to go– to travel back home to Gothenburg, Samuelsson has to stop in Copenhagen or Amsterdam – he says that the country’s small-town mentality has helped boost its connectivity.
“We feel that we are a small country, but we also have a large middle-class population and we learn English very early,” he explains. “So our connectivity is based on our curiosity, but also that you learn very early on that you have to get out of Sweden, you have to see the world.”
Bigger countries like the US or Germany are more internally sustainable in a sense, whereas Swedes tend to travel outside their borders for both business and leisure, Samuelsson says.
“It’s key that people can trade and they can go on vacation. We need that international freedom. But then we come back, inspired by what we saw, informed by our travels.”
The chef says it’s “exciting” to see Sweden being shaped in a different way – and to be on the forefront of the change with his cutting-edge cooking.
“Sweden, and Swedish food, is not as homogenous as you might think,” he says.
“I’m constantly evolving my Swedishness, and I always pull in my African roots as well. I have a sense of pride in that, but it’s also very international. I’m always thinking about those three: Sweden, Harlem, and Ethiopia.”
Photo: Monika Sziladi
He adds that he’s glad Swedish food is finally “on the map”, after working to get it there for so many years. And with a little luck, Sweden’s new flourishing culinary reputation will lead to a whole new awareness of Sweden.
“That’s also why trade is so important. If you work with food, you already know about the new Scandinavian dining scene,” he says.
“But it’s just one way in. If you hear about Volvo, if you listen to our music, or go to IKEA or H&M, maybe that’s how you enter Sweden – but either way, you discover this country that you are really going to fall in love with.”