Marcus Samuelsson Doesn’t Care About What’s Trendy When it Comes to Taste
Take a moment to think about the last thing you ate. For me, it was a frozen banana rolled in organic chunky peanut butter and lightly sprinkled with coarse sea salt that smelled like a sandwich from my childhood.
I presented it to myself on a crappy plastic plate that was reminiscent of a piece of ‘fine china’ from my first Fisher Price tea set. It was cold on the tongue with a warm, nutty finish that stuck to the top of my tongue even after taking a sip of water. A riveting dish, I know, especially after having navigated a four-course dinner-cum-dining experience from the mind and hands of chef Marcus Samuelsson in collaboration with Pure Leaf Tea’s forthcoming Tea House Collection just the night before.
Samuelsson, who you might know as a judge on Top Chef, worked with the tea brand to define what components evolve food consumption into an ultimate taste experience. He defines taste as the combination of four elements: aesthetic presentation, fragrance, temperature, and texture. As guests of his inspired meal, we were led through four rooms that each contained a bite combined with a multi-sensory experience based on one of the aforementioned principles.
Take the first room for example, where we were greeted by visual artist Kamil Nawratil, who designed an interactive LED projection based on the molecular structure of oranges. The green particles reacted when you waved your hand or plate across the table, visually and sonically.
Before we embarked on this mind-blowing journey, I had the pleasure of sitting down with chef Samuelsson to discuss how he developed these pillars of taste, how moving to Sweden to live with an adoptive family during the Ethiopian Civil War influenced his relationships with certain ingredients, and what he thinks about the “unicorn” trend in food.
Celebuzz: Let’s start with the basics. How do you define taste?
Marcus Samuelsson: Well tonight we’re going to redefine taste. I think about taste in terms of aesthetic, temperature, texture, and fragrance. When you think about taste in these buckets, which I’ve been thinking about and defining for a long time, it helps you understand the essence of taste and helps you experience it differently. If you have a cold, you can’t smell anything and therefore, you can’t experience the taste. If something is served at the wrong temperature, it’s not going to taste right, especially if you’re talking about tea.
As people who experience a lot of stuff, we have many ways to edit whether we’re going to be excited about something or not and I think that what’s been so fun about working with Pure Leaf is that they have been really, really curious and committed to finding the best craftsperson to take us on the most exciting journey to tell the story of flavors and tea.
CB: Given that you were raised in diverse global settings and later moved to New York City, how have your varied cultural experiences shaped how you think about food?
MS: Globally, you find tea in so many places, whether it’s the procedure of sitting down for tea, or drinking tea, or, in England, where you have high teas. I’ve been fortunate enough to live in many different countries like Japan, so something like Fuji apple is something that I’ve both worked with and experienced. Living in Europe, something like Valencia orange and Sicilian lemons are things that you think about. For me, the poignant experiences were when I went on vacation or when I was studying food. Something like wild blackberries we had in our garden at home in Sweden, so I’ve experienced every ingredient in different aspects of my life.
We’re all part of several communities in which we express ourselves. Breaking bread is one defining the drumbeats of one’s own community. I’m always inspired coming back from Africa about some of the most organic, simplistic ways of hearing sounds and eating food. When I’m in Sweden, it’s more minimalistic, yet the commitment to quality is there. When I come to New York, it’s all of the above on top of each other. This is how people dress, this is how they want to experience things through their sound, and this is how people want to eat together.
CB: How do you stay inventive as a well-traveled chef after finding a place in the industry?
MS: As a chef, you never stop evolving. You’re curious about how you can do flavor combinations that are exciting and interesting. That’s something that Pure Leaf is also committed to. There are easier flavor combinations they could have gone to, but they didn’t. They used bitter sage combined with wild blackberry, which takes a lot of manicured curiosity to develop.
My customers at Red Rooster come from Harlem, New York, and over the world. That customer base has traveled or they explore food online, so they’re very demanding. In Harlem, they’ll tell you right away if they like it or not, which is great. So I get the most inspired by my customers because they decide if they don’t like it and will go somewhere else. I think that’s a very honest relationship you can have because, sometimes, you need to get checked. If you’re committed to having this open dialogue, as humbling as it is, you’re going to get better.
CB: Have you found new ways of incorporating tea into your cooking through your partnership with Pure Leaf?
MS: Tea is an incredible taste enhancer and you can think about it in many ways. If you go to Southeast Asia, in Burma for example, they use tea leaves in salads. Where I grew up, we smoked tea a lot for fish. As we have done with these recipes here this evening, we’ve used these flavors, the core inspiration for the broth and the marinade so you will imagine them and re-experience them in a whole new way.
CB: What are your thoughts on something like the unicorn food trend that sacrifices taste for mainstream likeability and phenomenon?
MS: As a chef, you don’t really think about what’s trendy. You kind of have to think about things in terms of seasonality and really cook based on your own curiosity. Think about how long tea has been around. It’s not a trend, so tea gives you an opportunity to create more and more flavors. I do look at travel patterns because food changes through massive immigration, massive tourism, massive trading, which are things that take longer time than conventional ‘trends.’
Seasonality is really the key to cooking. We’re coming off of heartier stews and bigger meals to brighter spring ingredients, like peas and ramps, which lead up to rhubarb and radishes, then suddenly, you’re in summer. That clock is just a natural beat that nature gives us.
CB: Speaking of which, what are the spring ingredients that you’re most excited about right now?
MS: Think about something as simple as collard greens. Now I might cook them with mustard and I just kiss the mustard with the greens in the pan because it’s lighter. Ramps, of course, if I do something with pesto or something with vinegarette, I’ll char the ramps or pickle the ramps. I want to shave raw asparagus into everything, and that will eventually become corn. We think about the moment we’re in. Eating something like rhubarb when it’s in the height of their season is something that is just rubbery in its off-season. I think that making people aware of those micro-seasons will help them enjoy this collaboration.
Marcus Samuelsson is a chef and restauranteur who has 11 bars and restaurants worldwide, including Red Rooster (Harlem), Streetbird Rotisserie (Harlem), and Marc Burger (Chicago). You can buy his memoir Yes, Chef on Amazon. Pure Leaf Tea House Collection is now available in grocery, convenience, mass market retailers and select club stores nationwide, or online via retailers at PureLeaf.com.