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Chef Marcus Samuelsson on Fusion Thanksgiving

Globally recognized award-winning chef, philanthropist, TV personality and cookbook author Marcus Samuelsson has managed to successfully blend East African culture, art, fashion and music into the ultimate of dining experience.

Over the past two decades, Samuelsson has amassed a wealth of accolades: youngest chef to receive two three-star ratings (Aquavit); Top Chef Masters Season 2 winner; guest chef for President Obama’s first State Dinner; and, opened one of the country’s electrifying fusion restaurants, Red Rooster.

With the release of his newest cookbook, Marcus Off Duty: The Recipes I Cook At Home, the Harlem savant took time from his book tour to chat with JET about the meaning of Thanksgiving, incorporating Ethiopian heritage into his everyday style and which five side dishes are a must for the holiday season.

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JET: As a chef, what does Thanksgiving mean to you?

Marcus Samuelsson: To me, Thanksgiving means laughter and memories with others. Thanksgiving is amazing when you can spend it with your closest family and oldest friends, but some of the best Thanksgivings I’ve had have also been with new friends. It’s about being grateful for the life you have and the moment- and of course, cooking and enjoying lots of delicious food to celebrate.

JET: Your new book, Marcus Off Duty: The Recipes I Cook At Home, is perfect for Thanksgiving. What are your tips for the perfect holiday meal?

MS: Lots of spice to make dishes interesting, like my Harissa Roasted Turkey. I also love to make a warm, seasonal soup to start with, and my favorite drink around the holidays from Sweden- glögg, which is a hot mulled wine with spices and different liquors. It’s perfect as the weather gets colder. Another really important part is the right playlist so that everyone can relax and have a good time.

JET: From operating your successful restaurant Red Rooster to guest judging on Chopped and racking up wins on Top Chef All-Stars, how do you unwind and relax during the holidays?

MS: For me, the most important part is the people I’m with. My friends and family make me happy and relaxed, so I surround myself with loved ones over the holidays. I also love cooking at home while I’m ‘off duty!’ It’s fun, and I love when my guests can get involved and help.

JET: How have you been able to fuse your culinary background into traditional American holiday food?

MS: I love the traditional holiday food in America, but I tend to always make adapted versions of classics. I add harissa to my turkey, ginger in my brussels sprouts. The dishes I bring to the table are a reflection of where I come from and how I ended up here.

JET: Which five side dishes are a must during Thanksgiving?

MS: I would say brussels sprouts (with bacon, of course!), mashed sweet potatoes with a sweet component like maple, spiced pecans, mac-and-cheese, and a hearty green like collards or kale.

JET: If you could host Thanksgiving dinner for anyone, living or dead, who would it be and why?

MS: It would be Nelson Mandela. I would love to have cooked for him while he was here.

JET: You are known for incorporating your East African heritage, Harlem and love of art into your everyday style. How are those elements present in your food?

MS: There are certain spices I love to use in my food that are a reflection of Africa. I love making injera, tostadas, kofti, and adding berbere on my roasted vegetables and even in my chicken shake for fried chicken. My love of Harlem I think shows the most when you walk into Red Rooster- it’s both in and of the community and our doors are always open to everyone. It makes me happy to provide great food, music, and memories for the people in our neighborhood.

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Mac & Cheese & Greens

Serves 10 to 12

Mats Carestam is my oldest friend, and his mother was especially modern—she made American dishes that few Swedish mothers did. I lived for the days when I was invited to dinner at Mats’s house and his mother would plop a giant plate of creamy mac and cheese in front of me. I still love pasta covered with cheese. In this version, I’ve added collard greens—that soul-food influence again—but I cook the greens in coconut milk and flavor them with soy and mustard to add more layers of flavor to what’s become a familiar casserole. No matter how many times my friends have had this, they smile like kids when I serve it.

1/2 cup coconut milk
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon grainy mustard
6 slices bacon, cooked, drained, and crumbled
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
4 garlic cloves, peeled and halved
4 cups chopped well-washed collard greens

8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter
1/2 cup thinly sliced shallots
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
3 cups heavy cream
1 cup whole milk
8 ounces cheddar cheese, grated
4 ounces Gruyère cheese, grated
4 ounces Parmesan cheese, freshly grated
1/2 cup crème fraîche
1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1 teaspoon mustard powder
Kosher salt and freshly ground white pepper
1 pound orecchiette or other small, sturdy pasta, cooked until just tender

1/3 cup toasted bread crumbs
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
2 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1 tablespoon grated Gruyère cheese
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1. Bring the coconut milk and soy sauce to a boil in a small saucepan. Remove from the heat and stir in the mustard and crumbled bacon.

2. Heat the olive oil and butter in a large pot over low heat. Add the garlic and slowly toast to flavor the fats, about 5 minutes, then discard. Add the collard greens to the pot and cook, stirring frequently, until the greens start to wilt. Stir in the coconut milk mixture and cook, partly covered, until the greens are tender and the sauce has thickened, about 20 minutes.

3. Preheat the broiler. Oil a 9-x-13-inch baking dish.

4. Melt the butter in a large pot over medium-low heat. Add the shallots and cook until they’re tender and golden brown, 8 to 10 minutes. Add the minced garlic and flour and cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Slowly whisk in the heavy cream and milk, making sure there are no lumps. Bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, then add all the cheeses and the crème fraîche. Whisk until the cheeses are melted and fully incorporated into the sauce. Mix in the nutmeg, mustard, and salt and white pepper to taste.

5. Add the cooked pasta and collard greens to the sauce and toss to combine. Transfer to the baking dish.

6. Put all the ingredients in a food processor and process until the herbs are minced. Sprinkle the topping over the pasta. Broil until the topping is golden brown, 5 to 8 minutes.

Excerpted from MARCUS OFF DUTY: THE RECIPES I COOK AT HOME © 2014 by Marcus Samuelsson. Reproduced by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.

Marcus Off Duty: The Recipes I Cook A Home is now available at Barnes and Noble, Amazon and Indiebound. 

About Tyrus Townsend


Cultural expositor Tyrus Rochell Townsend has written for Essence, Uptown, Vibe,, The Atlanta Post, Bleu Magazine,  Details Style Network and numerous other publications. Read about his style musings at The Gentleman’s Daily and follow him on Twitter @gentlemansdaily and on Instagram at @tyrusrochelltownsend and @thegentlemansdaily.