Marcus Samuelsson was the winner of Top Chef Masters Season 2, scoring a total of 17 1/2 stars in last night's finale to beat out Susur Lee and Rick Moonen. He won $100,000 for the UNICEF Tap Project, which provides access to clean water to villages in his native Africa, and was kind enough to take some time to speak to us this morning.
Where did you watch the show?
At one of my partner's house. Just all the people I work with, my team, my friends—you know, all the Marcus Samuelsson group. We were about thirty people watching it, just having a great time.
Did you have a Plan B for when the cable went down? I saw on Twitter that you were having problems.
I thought it was a joke! I thought they were just messing with me so like, I wasn't even worried. And then they were like, dude, it's not—it's not even a joke. I was like, get the goddamn TV on. So it was funny. And then eventually one guy—one computer guy, one smart tech guy—hooked it up, you know? But if not, with thirty, where are we going to go from here? We can't just jump into a bar. But it was funny. It was great.
So about the foie ganache that you had in your last dish: What's the genesis of that? Were you saving it for the finale? Do you have a recipe for it or was it totally off-the-cuff?
Of course, of course. That dish is a signature dish of mine that I've been doing for a while, but I didn't save anything for the finale because you didn't know what the challenge would be. But you know, I felt like I cooked truly based on what the story would be—first food memory and all of those different things.
So the last dish, the biggest challenge, I felt like I had to be honest with Africa, and for me it was also about having people go there and taste something different. Just like Rick Moonen said: "I'm not familiar with these flavors yet." And that's something you have to overcome, with African food; it's not that it's not good, or anything like that, it's so much in the unknown. I knew it was a big risk to do a brand new dish in the end but I felt also like if I was going to be honest to the story and what the challenge was, it wasn't about me just cooking another yummy dish. I can do that. But it was following what we were given as a challenge.
Tell me about this website you're working on.
Yeah, it's gonna be a fun project. It's in the works and you know, it's called Food Republic and I have no idea when I'm going to launch it. It's just something that, um? food and how you communicate your passion. I think the food dialog right now in America is extremely passionate, people are jumping into it on all kinds of levels—whether it's chefs, whether it's blogging, whether it's people who just want to participate. And I just, like, want an editorial space, want to add something to that landscape.
Between that and your cookbooks and your TV stuff, are you trying to be the next Martha Stewart?
Well, I think I'm just going to be busy being Marcus, right? Between that and Red Rooster in Harlem, it's a big, big challenge for me and it's something that I—I live in Harlem and it's something I'm extremely passionate about. I'm excited about that. But as any chef: you want to have balance control, you want to have a great restaurant like Red Rooster, you want to have a good book. With the New American Table, I feel I have that. Communicate on a great platform—so with Food Republic, we have that.
It's about building, and working on TV gives you the opportunity to tell a different narrative. And so for me as a chef it's about having balance control and keep communicating, giving people a way to access me on different levels, you know? It could be in a casual space, it could be in a high end dining space, it could be through internet, it could be through TV.
So, Food Republic: is it mainly going to be you, or are other people going to be involved?
No, no, no, I mean, I'm a co-founder but obviously, it's an editorial space, so it's actually not by? It's not at all—you will see. I am the idea behind it but it's much more editorial than that.
Going back to Red Rooster: What made you decide to move to Harlem and open a restaurant there?
I live in Harlem and I feel like I have the opportunity to have a great restaurant in Midtown and a great restaurant in Stockholm—but I live in Harlem, I have access to food, and I feel like it's my responsibility to bring food that's affordable to our neighborhood, has the farm-to-table approach, and gives, inspires people in the neighborhood to come in. You know, they can walk in, they can make reservations, but it's access; doing something that's affordable. An American restaurant that has great seasonal food. That's all. It's like, why not Harlem?
You know, it's been an up-and-coming neighborhood for a long time in terms of real estate, and restaurants are the next leg of that. And it's a beautiful neighborhood—it's historic. It's one of the most famous neighborhoods in the world. It deserves to have really great restaurants as well, such as Sylvia's has been doing for generations.
We didn't really see you interacting with people so much on the show; you seemed to be more business than to make friends. Is there anyone in particular you feel like you bonded with?
We spent maybe twenty hours together; the way it was cut maybe doesn't tell that story, but we all got really close. We interacted well. Obviously when you're in the room with Jonathan Waxman and Susan Feniger—they're incredible people, very rich in terms of characters, and you just want to? I felt like they're extremely warm and you just want to sit back and listen to them, because they're just incredible warm people.
Jonathan took us out—he knows LA better than anyone, right? So he took us out. Even if we finished at one o'clock, Jonathan made sure we went to Animal, he took us to Church & State, or he took us to Mozza Bar. And it's just, he's just an incredible host. I just really loved hanging with all of those guys.
Who did you think was your biggest competition throughout the season? Who were you most worried about?
I think it changed throughout. I think all of those chefs were really, really strong, the guys that were there. And mind you, there were a lot of chefs that I knew before I even got there. Guys like Wylie Dufresne, these incredible chefs. I thought there was a lot of fantastic, fantastic chefs. I thought Jody Adams was an incredible cook—she knows every aspect of the kitchen really, really well. But everybody cooked from their different strengths, so you know. Rick is very strong, he's done it before; I've never done this cooking before.
But I wasn't really thinking that much about the other chefs. So I do what I can do and what I can understand of the challenge, and I feel like I will do extremely well. And I can't control who it's going to be, who it's not gonna be; I'll do the best I can, I'll worry about that, you know?
· The Winner of Top Chef Masters Season 2: Marcus Samuelsson! [~EN~]
· Eater Live: Liveblogging the Top Chef Masters Season 2 Finale [~EN~]
· All Marcus Samuelsson Coverage on Eater [~EN~]
· The Chefs of Top Chef Masters Season 2: A Field Guide [~EN~]
· All Top Chef Masters Coverage on Eater [~EN~]
· All Top Chef Masters Exit Interviews on Eater [~EN~]