Since rediscovering his Ethiopian roots, Samuelsson has made it a mission to bring African cuisine to America. "I realized how difficult it was to get information about African food in general. And I was like, wow I have to, I have to be part of changing that," he said.
He is changing that and clearly he is passionate about it. "We're talking about a continent that's just as rich and diverse as any continent, Europe, Asia or America. It's older than all of those, so it has a lot of history that is filled with different types of religions, different types of trading, different types of markets. If we only learn about cultures through war, AIDS and famine. It's not a simple way for families to really talk about a continent and it's not the only way to portray a continent. If you're going to talk about it, you got to show the good, the bad, the ugly and the pretty."
His latest New York restaurant, Merkato 55, debuted in February, and pays homage to his Ethiopian roots by featuring dishes derived from Africa, the Caribbean and South America.
The cocktails are named after different African dances; the decor is bright and colorful; and the imaginative menu includes a coconut avocado milkshake and shrimp piri-piri, a dish found in Portugal, Southwest Africa and Brazil.
One signature dish is an Ethiopian staple called doro wett. This rustic chicken stew is eaten with injera bread, a sour dough pancake used to scoop up the tender chicken bathed in a thick berbere sauce.
"When I eat injera bread, when I eat the doro wett, I think about where I'm from and my family in Ethiopia. And it just makes me smile and I love it. That's what makes it special. I think most immigrants think about their food the same way. It's the journey," Samuelsson said.
Although he has sampled food on nearly every continent, Samuelsson still prefers a home-cooked meal.
"When you get a home-cooked dish, it's a perfect blend between heart, soul and mind, right? And that's what home-cooking is for anybody, it's pure homesickness wherever you're from," he said. "Now we can go to fancy restaurants and we can do all these things. That's also beautiful. We need that to be inspired and learn about other cultures. But, if you ask the average person, the favorite meal will always be something that comes from their kitchen, from their culture."