'Nightline' Platelist: Marcus Samuelsson

Celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson travels the world for ideas and inspiration.

April 11, 2008 — -- He is the youngest chef to have received three stars from The New York Times.

He is a two-time James Beard Foundation Award winner. He has three Michelin stars. He was recognized as one of the "Great Chefs in America" by the Culinary Institute of America.

His name is Marcus Samuelsson and he is a culinary force to be reckoned with.

Clearly, he is not new on the scene, but what he brings to the palate is anything but old.

"I've always been very confident in my own capability. But it's a thin line between confidence and arrogance and you don't want to peak over and be arrogant about it. I'm confident. Just give me a shot, and I'll do well, " Samuelsson said.

But it seems as if he's always opened his own doors, not looking for any handouts. "It's always been positive doors open to me because I think I've had passion and positivity and work ethic. I think my parents gave that to me and my grandparents gave that to me," he said. "I've always been very lucky."

At 37 years old, Samuelsson has a resume that not only includes four restaurants, several best-selling cookbooks, a restaurant consulting company and a cooking show on the Discovery Home Channel, it also includes a few "most important" endeavors: being an ambassador for the U.S. Fund for UNICEF and a mentor to high school students participating in the national careers through culinary arts program.

Discovering Two Cultures

Samuelsson was born in Ethiopia in 1970. At the age of 3, his mother died after falling victim to the tuberculosis epidemic that had swept through his homeland.

He and his sister found refuge at a Swedish field hospital in nearby Addis Ababa.

Samuelsson and his sister were soon adopted by the Samuelsson family of Goteborg, Sweden.

"I was born in Ethiopia, and I was raised in Sweden and I think that will always shape me -- being adopted, being raised in Sweden. I couldn't imagine a bigger contrast of countries really," he said.

He remembers growing up Nordic fondly. "Our grandmother came to us after school. She always cooked or my mom cooked. I always got home cooking. Summertime we went up to the west coast and we lived in my father's birthplace, which was a fishing village. There you had to always work with food, whether it was smoking mackerel or fishing mackerel, or helping out with herrings. … Food has always been on my mind, and in my life as long as I remember. And maybe for the first three years it was a lack of food. We were not healthy when we came to Sweden, but it's always been -- food's always been really good to me."

But something called him back to Africa.

Samuelsson's sister decided to seek out their biological father.

"I never thought that I would meet my dad. It was really my sister that led that whole thing and was really more curious about that. I'm so grateful that she did. I have eight new sisters and brothers," he said. "It's pretty amazing, but I guess it was meant to be because they live out in the countryside, very basic, very simple, and now I'm connected to a very simplistic beautiful culture. It's complex in its simplicity."

Embracing Ethiopia

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."