Marcus Samuelsson, a Chef, a Brand and Then Some
Marcus Samuelsson, dapper in a Ralph Lauren tuxedo and patterned scarf, is working the celebrity-couture crowd at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
It is a Monday evening, just around 7, and Mr. Samuelsson — hotshot chef, food impresario and kinetic force behind Red Rooster Harlem, one of Manhattan’s restaurants of the moment — is displaying his usual verve.
On the red carpet, he snaps a picture of his glamorous wife, the model and philanthropist Maya Haile, with Beyoncé. In the European sculpture gallery, he is chatting with Kanye West and several of the New York Knicks. At the Temple of Dendur, he is dining with André Balazs, the hotel owner, and Chelsea Handler.
The next morning at 10, Mr. Samuelsson, in a fresh shirt and tux trousers, is sitting in a sound studio some 60 blocks downtown, painstakingly recording the audio version of his new memoir, “Yes, Chef.” Six hours later, in a vintage, red velvet tuxedo jacket, he is overseeing an intimate dinner for 350 at Gotham Hall on behalf of Queen Silvia and Princess Madeleine of Sweden.
And the morning after that, Mr. Samuelsson is back uptown to work the lunch rush at Red Rooster, that culinary mosaic of Southern, Swedish and Ethiopian comforts on Lenox Avenue in Harlem.
Such is the wild and frenetic life of the modern celebrity chef, that strange amalgam of food savvy, marketing acumen and business skill all wrapped, in Mr. Samuelsson’s case, into a media-ready package. At 41, he has exploded not only onto New York’s food scene but also onto its cutthroat food business scene.
Yes, there is Red Rooster and five other restaurants. But there is more — much more. A forthcoming cookware collection for Macy’s. A new line of teas. Deals with American Airlines and MasterCard. Appearances on “Top Chef Masters,” “Chopped All-Stars” and “The Next Iron Chef.” Two Web sites, FoodRepublic.com and marcussamuelsson.com, not to mention four cookbooks and the memoir. His growing, multimillion-dollar enterprise stretches from New York to Chicago to California to Stockholm, and employs more than 700 people.
It is a time-tested recipe. Mr. Samuelsson is the figurative heir of Julia Child and Wolfgang Puck, but he is hardly the only one. Mario Batali, Todd English, Tom Colicchio, Alain Ducasse, Bobby Flay, Lidia Bastianich, David Burke — the list of marquee names in celebrity chefdom is long. Many of these chefs have built sprawling empires of restaurants — Mr. Batali has 25 — and have captured the popular imagination with TV shows, iPhone apps and assorted products.
The question for Mr. Samuelsson and other rising stars is how far and how fast they can push a personal brand. The more business ventures they start, the less they can personally control the quality. It is a quandary that any successful entrepreneur faces as a business grows.
“We constantly have to edit, curate, sift through our brand,” Mr. Samuelsson says. “Where is the stretch? Where is the perfect fit? Where does it make sense? You have to be a Baryshnikov.”
It is a challenge, but the financial rewards can be big. Successful restaurants in major cities can bring in $10 million a year, more for hot spots like Red Rooster. But chefs can easily double their income with endorsements, books, consulting jobs and just about anything emblazoned with their names.
Mr. Puck, who got the initial idea for a line of frozen foods from Johnny Carson, a regular at his Spago restaurant in the 1980s, today oversees a $400 million-a-year company. Some $30 million of that comes from consumer products like soups and sauces. His line of appliances and cookware generates $50 million. “Cooking is an evolution,” he says. “If you don’t change, you fall behind.”
Food snobs bristle, but even the most elite chefs — ones formally trained in French cuisine, for example, or those with Michelin stars — often branch out beyond the kitchen. Eric Ripert is the celebrated chef at Le Bernardin, which has been awarded a four-star rating by The New York Times since it opened in 1986. He also has a show on YouTube. Ferran Adrià, who won three Michelin stars for his avant-garde cuisine at elBulli, on the Costa Brava in Spain, is consulting on food trends with PepsiCo, the maker of soda and Fritos. He helped develop a line of Lays potato chips in flavors like chicken.
Any chefs worth their toques want to serve great food. But the business reality is that few chefs succeed simply by making the best fois gras terrine or black cod with miso.
“If you want to grow, you need to exploit who you are as a chef,” says Susan Ungaro, the president of the James Beard Foundation.
At Red Rooster, Mr. Samuelsson never seems to stand still. On a recent evening, he is at the front of the house, reminding a hostess to “activate,” or engage with customers. Then he is meeting and greeting in the dining room. A group of 20-something women asks to be photographed with him. Then he is back in the kitchen, picking bones from red snapper, telling servers to have dish towels ready and moving a trash can out of the way.
His remarkable New York success story, however, started a world away, in Ethiopia. Mr. Samuelsson was born in a village there, and after his mother died during a tuberculosis epidemic, he and his sister were adopted by a white family in Goteborg, Sweden. Eventually, he worked his way up through restaurant kitchens and landed in New York.
As the chef of the Scandinavian restaurant Aquavit in Manhattan, he earned a three-star rating from The Timesin 1995, at the age of 23. Four years later, the James Beard Foundation crowned him as the industry’s rising star, and in 2003, as the best chef in New York City.
Then the bottom fell out of the economy in 2008. Merkato 55, a pan-African restaurant he opened in the meatpacking district of Manhattan, never really jelled. “I wanted to do it so bad, but I didn’t do my homework,” he says.
Aquavit was suffering, too, both in New York and at its outpost in Tokyo. Mr. Samuelsson’s relationship with his longtime business partner and mentor, Hakan Swahn, began to fray. For Mr. Samuelsson, it was time to move on.
But the breakup was not easy — or cheap. Mr. Samuelsson had to buy back the rights to use his own name, at least on the Internet. Draining his bank account, he bought back the domain name, marcussamuelsson.com, from Mr. Swahn.
After the breakup, Mr. Samuelsson did a lot of soul-searching during what he calls “long, dark days of summer.” What did he do wrong? Why didn’t it work?
“If I used drugs, that would have been the time,” he says. Looking back, he says he has no regrets. “How you break up, it’s messy and it’s hurtful,” he says. “But we’re big boys. We move on.”
For his part, Mr. Swahn says of Mr. Samuelsson, “Aquavit certainly became a more renowned restaurant during his tenure and owes him a huge piece of its success.”
Without a restaurant of his own, Mr. Samuelsson focused on building his personal brand. In 2009, he starred in the second season of “Top Chef Masters” — and won. Shortly after the taping, he cooked President Obama’s first state dinner, in honor of Manmohan Singh, the prime minister of India, creating a menu of roasted potato dumplings with tomato chutney, green curry prawns, smoked collard greens and coconut aged basmati rice. He also scored a six-figure deal with Target in 2010 to design limited-edition dish towels and to appear at the opening of its Harlem store.
Such efforts proved crucial as he built his own business, the Marcus Samuelsson Group. The ancillary ventures helped provide cash flow and, more important, kept his own brand in the public eye.
He spent two years building a strategy with his co-founder, Andrew Chapman, a New Yorker with Swedish roots. As they envisioned it, the company would take a multipronged approach to food, with a business that included restaurants, media, products and community work. The cornerstone, Red Rooster, opened in December 2010.
Star Chef Samuelsson
At Macy’s flagship store in Manhattan, the Marcus Samuelsson show is in full swing. It is early July, and he is doing a cooking demonstration as part of the book tour for his memoir. Wearing a wireless headset, he moves through the kitchen, playing the role of television host as his sous chef cooks a meal for the audience.
“I knew that guy looked familiar,” says one shopper, who stops to watch the demo. “I saw him on CBS This Morning.”
Yet, for all of this, Mr. Samuelsson still faces the usual challenges of a small-business owner.
When he opened Red Rooster, his team didn’t expect 600 daily covers — customers, in restaurant-speak — and had to buy more refrigerated coolers to accommodate the necessary extra food. During a heat wave this summer, two air-conditioners broke down. The restaurant made do for a couple of days, serving free lemonade and iced tea. Before the sister restaurant, Ginny’s Supper Club, opened in the basement of Red Rooster early this year, Mr. Chapman, who is also the chief executive, had to run to the local Kinko’s to copy fliers for the launch party.
As it has grown, the Marcus Samuelsson Group has had to become more disciplined.
Mr. Samuelsson and Mr. Chapman have built out their executive staff. They hired Nils Noren, who had worked with Mr. Samuelsson at Aquavit, to help oversee the food-related aspects of the operation. He was a point person for a six-figure multiyear consulting deal with Restaurant Associates to develop a menu for corporate cafeterias, including those at Goldman Sachs, Condé Nast and Morgan Stanley. Christina Wang, a trained baker and former consultant at Booz & Company, brings her business acumen, with contracts, negotiations and the occasional Excel spreadsheet. They have also bolstered their stable of lawyers and accountants to add expertise in sponsorship deals, editorial content and other areas where the company is expanding.
The team now has weekly meetings, in part to make sure that members can keep tabs on Mr. Samuelsson and all of his ideas. He can find inspiration everywhere. On a recent trek to Roberta’s, an upscale pizza place in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, he saw a child selling lemonade and iced tea on the street corner, and decided he needed a similar stand at Red Rooster. He polled his Twitter followers to decide between vintage or modern dishes at the restaurant. (Vintage won.)
Mr. Samuelsson is trying to balance the culinary and the commercial. After investing $3 million in Red Rooster, he and his business partner are plowing the profits back into the business. They used some of the money to finance Ginny’s.
He is also looking at new projects, albeit selectively and with a less-is-more strategy. This fall, he is opening a casual restaurant in Alice Tully Hall with Restaurant Associates, called American Table Cafe and Bar by Marcus Samuelsson. The idea is to marry the cultural hub that is Lincoln Center with the broader urban area, and infuse it with a sense of fun.
But he remains obsessed with details. For American Table, he helped choose the seat cushions and refine the logo. He rejected one style of the Macy’s cookware, reasoning it was too heavy for someone like his grandmother.
Mr. Samuelsson says he wants to bring a sense of “democracy” to dining and to ensure high-quality food in multiple price categories. That is one reason he initially opted to develop a line of food for American Airlines — not for first-class passengers, but for those stuck in coach. He also plans to open the Nook at Red Rooster, a walk-up window where passers-by can buy coffee, pastries or hot dogs with shrimp salad for a few dollars.
He often seeks interaction with the broader community, whether at his restaurants, through the Internet, or on his daily subway ride. In Harlem, he has held free cooking classes for children and has helped expand the farmer’s market in the area. More than 70 percent of Red Rooster employees are local residents, many of whom had little experience with fine dining. The restaurant hired additional managers to get the employees up to speed.
“When you look at strategy, it’s not set up to be a pure moneymaking machine,” says Derek Evans, the media adviser for the Marcus Samuelsson Group. “It’s a passion machine.”