Marcus Samuelsson came to the US with $300, became a world-famous chef

2020 has been a devastating year for restaurant owners, and it’s not just your corner coffee shop or mom-and-pop restaurants that have been affected.

“It took me 25 years to build this and 10 days to break it down,” Marcus Samuelsson says of his restaurant empire, which was forced to shutter several locations for months at a time due to coronavirus-related restrictions.

The 50-year-old Samuelsson is one of the most famous chefs in the world: an entrepreneur and culinary star with a long list of TV and book credits as well as ownership of a namesake global hospitality group that includes over a dozen restaurants headlined by three locations of his Red Rooster restaurant brand.

Today, Samuelsson is running a restaurant group that was bringing in roughly $75 million in annual revenue across all of its restaurants before the Covid pandemic hit, according to a spokesperson, though that the business’ revenue is down roughly 80% in 2020 because of the pandemic, the spokesperson says. Red Rooster employs roughly 180 people at its Harlem location alone and was serving over 4,000 customers per week before the pandemic.

But Samuelsson has overcome countless obstacles before to reach the top of his industry, from a tumultuous childhood that saw him separated from his birth family in Ethiopia and adopted along with his sister to be brought up in Sweden to moving to the U.S. as an apprentice chef at the age of 24 with just “$300 … [my] life savings,” Samuelsson tells CNBC Make It. And now the pandemic.

No matter the obstacles, though, Samuelsson has navigated them all with an eagerness to visualize and achieve his dreams while discovering his voice as a chef by drawing inspiration from every aspect of his varied background.

From a hut in Ethiopia to Sweden to New York City

“I was born into a hut the first three [years of my life],” Samuelsson wrote in his 2012 memoir, “Yes, Chef,” of his early childhood in rural Ethiopia. “I lived in a hut that was the size of two restaurant tables and there [were] five, six people living in that hut.”

Before he turned 3 years old, both Samuelsson and his sister survived tuberculosis (a “miracle” he writes in the memoir) only to have the disease claim their mother’s life soon after she walked both children 75 miles from their village to the nearest hospital. Samuelsson and his sister were also separated from their biological father.

But “you’re looking at a person that had both luck, but also other people help me,” Samuelsson tells CNBC Make It.

Samuelsson and his sister were adopted by Swedish couple Ann Marie and Lennart Samuelsson, who raised them in Gothenburg, Sweden. Samuelsson’s love of cooking came from spending time in the kitchen of his adoptive grandmother, Helga.

The family ate fish “four or five times a week,” he says, and picked apples to make jam. “There was always herring to pickle or fish to smoke or something [like] lingonberries to forage. We were always outside or indoors cooking,” Samuelsson says.

It’s where Samuelsson first discovered how different ingredients and flavors combined to make delicious food.

“All of us can taste the same things actually. Salt, sweet, sour, bitter heat and umami,” he says. “The way you build as a chef, you do it through fragrance, you do it through aesthetic, and you do it through textures. And it’s all about reimagining and dreaming this, but also then pulling all the strings together to making a dish.”

Samuelsson began working in restaurants as a teenager and attended the Culinary Institute in Gothenburg before taking apprenticeships with high-end restaurants in Switzerland and Austria, as well as working in the three-Michelin-starred restaurant of legendary French chef Georges Blanc

“I always worked in restaurants or anything within hospitality and I became really good at an early age,” says Samuelsson. 

In 1994 at, Samuelsson got a job as sous chef (second-in-command under the executive chef) at acclaimed Swedish restaurant Aquavit, in New York City, where he had served a brief apprenticeship a few years earlier.

He arrived in the U.S. with only $300 in his pocket, he tells CNBC Make It.

Though, looking back, it was a huge risk he was taking by moving across the world but he was quickly inspired by the diversity of food options in a place like New York City, where he says you can walk down one street in a borough like Queens and see “Indian food next to Thai food next to Greek food [or] in the Bronx, where you have the Italian store next to the Nigerian store.”

Eventually, it was that culinary diversity in the U.S. that would inspire many of Samuelsson’s own restaurants.

Making it in the U.S.

In New York City, Samuelsson crashed at a friend’s apartment. One the four other roommates was a massage student, Samuelsson says, and so his first bed was actually a massage table. “That’s where I started, and then eventually one of the guys moved out … so, then the sofa became mine,” then eventually he got a bed, he says.

But just two months in, Samuelsson’s career took an unexpected leap forward when Aquavit’s executive chef died unexpectedly. Though Samuelsson was only 24, he was talented and had experience at highly-rated restaurants in Europe. Samuelsson took over and soon became the youngest chef to ever receive a three-star review from The New York Times.

“Hitting that main stage in Manhattan was something that gave me an enormous amount of confidence,” Samuelsson says. He began to see “a path that I can own my own restaurant … so, I started to write it down: ‘One day, I want to own my own restaurant.'”

Writing down his goal was something that Samuelsson felt would help him visualize his dream and ultimately achieve it, he says. It’s a practice he’d been doing his whole life, since he was a kid writing down ideas for recipes, even when he couldn’t always afford all of the ingredients.

“You write down ideas and then you write down visions and dreams, right? And it all builds from there,” he says. “Speaking on it, writing on it, was a huge part of claiming it, yes.”

Meanwhile, though Samuelsson’s promotion to executive nearly tripled his original salary, he still saved as much money as he could.

“I made [$75,000], but I was living on a budget like I was making [$28,000],” Samuelsson says, including continuing to live with roommates even after he eventually bought his own one-bedroom apartment.

His frugality was a symptom of his experience as an immigrant, he says. “Immigrants often know that ‘this can easily be taken away from me.'”

Going out on his own

In 1997, Aquavit owner Hakan Swahn made Samuelsson a partner in the restaurant. Over the next decade, Samuelsson helped Aquavit launch outposts in cities like Stockholm and Tokyo, as well as a Japanese-themed restaurant called Riingo in New York in 2003, the same year the James Beard Foundation named him the best chef in New York City.

In 2008, he and Swahn opened a high-end, Pan-African restaurant in Manhattan’s trendy Meatpacking District, called Merkato 55, that never really took off amid the onset of the financial crisis and closed a year later.

Samuelsson says he hadn’t done his homework — “I didn’t know how much African [cuisine], how much Blackness” to feature on the menu at Merkato 55, where the menu featured Ethiopian influences from Samuelsson’s childhood, dishes from other regions of Africa and Caribbean dishes.

Though it “stung like hell,” looking back, Samuelsson says the failure of Merkato 55 was a learning experience. He was “searching for my voice” as a chef, especially in terms of figuring out how to blend different cuisines — a hallmark of his later restaurants. And he learned how much preparation it takes to open a successful restaurant.

“There would be no Red Rooster without Merkato 55,” Samuelsson says.

By the time Samuelsson struck out on his own to open Red Rooster in 2010 with current business partner Andrew Chapman, he says he’d been studying the historically Black neighborhood’s culture and community for seven years before attempting to open shop in Harlem. He even moved to the neighborhood in 2005 with his wife, Ethiopian-born model, Maya Haile.

That meant studying the Great Migration, he says, where millions of African-Americans moved from the rural South to cities like New York in the first half of the 20th Century, with one of the effects being that Southern “soul food” cuisine found a foothold in African-American communities like Harlem.

Rather than checking off a list of visits to acclaimed restaurants to learn about a region’s cuisines, as he might do in Europe, Samuelsson says he had to take a more patient and open-minded approach to learn.

“Black culture lives [all over],” he says. “The lady who makes the [best] cornbread, she might volunteer for the church … The best barbecue person might be in the park on Saturdays, but then you go on Saturday and he’s not there … What’s cool is also really hard to catch.”

(In Samuelsson’s new cookbook, “The Rise: Black Cooks and the Soul of American Food,” he writes about his own story and the story of how Black culinary culture has helped shape American cuisine.)

“That southern food coming up north, that’s what we celebrate [at Red Rooster],” says Samuelsson, where the menu features soul food classics such as hot honey fried chicken and shrimp with grits. The menu also includes items inspired by the many immigrants who settled in Harlem, including Samuelsson himself, with dishes paying homage to Caribbean, Italian, and Swedish cuisines, among others.

When it came to turning his ambitious project from dream to reality, Samuelsson says he relied on a mix of money from his investors as well as his own savings, which included his earnings from more than 15 years as a high-end Manhattan chef and his television appearances.

Samuelsson says he and Chapman initially pooled over $1.5 million between them that they thought would be enough to launch Red Rooster. When the startup costs of opening the restaurant eventually topped $3 million, Samuelsson says that Chapman’s family (who own a real estate investment group in Manhattan) stepped in when “we were really out on a limb” and provided the rest of the initial funding.

Red Rooster proved to be an immediate success, with rave reviews from publications like The New York Times, which called it “among the most important” new restaurants in the city and the “rarest of cultural enterprises, one that supports not just the idea or promise of diversity, but diversity itself.” The restaurant maintained a healthy buzz long after opening, too, helped by the Obamas’ high-profile visit in 2011.

From there, Samuelsson and Chapman were able to build out the restaurant empire, relying mostly on “cash flow” from Red Rooster and their subsequent locations to grow, says Samuelsson, though the partners did eventually bring on L+M Development Partners, a real estate group run by investors Ron Moelis and Sandy Loewentheil, as strategic investors in 2014 to help further expansion.

Navigating the pandemic

Despite his success, though, Samuelsson’s business has not been immune to the coronavirus pandemic that’s laid siege to the U.S. restaurant industry as a whole. The National Restaurant Association forecasts that $240 billion in restaurant sales will be lost this year due to effects from the coronavirus pandemic. 

Samuelsson had to close the doors of the Red Rooster in mid-March and turned it into “a community kitchen,” he says. Red Rooster served over 250,000 meals “for the neediest, for the first-responders,” says Samuelsson, who adds that his restaurant group partnered on that effort with famous chef Jose Andres and his nonprofit, World Central Kitchen.

“Serving the community is giving me a purpose and a rhythm,” Samuelsson says.

Red Rooster is now once again open for takeout, and indoor dining at 25% capacity. But “the restaurant community, as we knew it, pre-Covid, it’s going to take five, six years to build back. There’s no other way to look at it,” Samuelsson says.

“But I can’t put my head in the sand for five, six years. We’ve got to work.”

Of course, many other restaurateurs are not in as fortunate positions as a famous chef like Samuelsson, which is why he is joining forces with other prominent chefs like “Top Chef” panelist Tom Colicchio to form the trade group the Independent Restaurant Coalition. The group has lobbied the federal government to pass legislation aimed at helping U.S. restaurant owners facing significant revenue losses as a result of the pandemic. The group is currently pushing for a $120 billion bill that passed in the House of Representatives on Oct. 1 and has bi-partisan support in the Senate but has yet to receive a vote.

Correction: This article has been corrected to show that Samuelsson is now 50 years old.

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