The Gourmet Q + A:
Marcus Samuelsson

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Q. How did you decide what dishes would be traditional?

A. I felt that there always has to be something light and something very hearty and big. There always has to be something where you can sit here by yourself and eat for $26 and have four different tastes, with a beer; and also something for the occasion of celebrating and being fabulous. But it can’t be an African hit machine; then people won’t learn anything.

Q. If there’s one spice that you think Americans should know from the African kitchen that they’re not familiar with, what would it be?

A. I would say piri piri is one of these things. When you’re in Portuguese-African Brazil, or Lisbon, or Mozambique, sometimes piri piri is used as a condiment. Sometimes piri piri is just spices from a jar, and sometimes it’s made with garlic, olive oil, cilantro, parsley, and some light chilies. That’s almost like chimichurri in Argentina, or sofrito in Puerto Rico. So many people already know those flavors, but they take on different names. I can see three billion people digging that.

Also, it’s not necessarily for the average person, but chefs will love the berbere because it has a smokiness and a depth that can translate into tuna tartare, racks of lamb, whatever suits you.

Q. What’s this?

A. This is an item that we’re going to have for dessert: pistachio lassi. Desserts were the hard part, because desserts are not necessarily what you see in Africa. Most desserts there are fruit purées or fresh fruit. South Africa is the one that really has a dessert tradition. This is malva pudding, which you find in South Africa.

Q. You typically see lassi in Indian cuisine.

A. All through East Africa, you have Indian influences. Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, it’s all Indian-influenced, so there are lassis and kulfis. And it’s not sweet-sweet. That’s the whole idea.

Here we have plantain fries for dessert—you’re going to dip the fries in these sauces. We haven’t decided on the level of sweetness yet.

Q. I like it way too much for it to be popular. I’m not a dessert-eater, but I really like these. My guess is that people will want to have them sweeter.

A. These are the discussions that we’re taking on right now.

Q. Part of it is that your customers are going to have to participate with you in creating this. I always feel like the unspoken thing about restaurants is that it’s a conversation. Part of it is what you bring to it as a diner. One of the reasons why New York is such a great restaurant city is because you have a lot of diners who bring a lot of experience and excitement and are willing to talk about it.

A. You travel. What American city do you feel really excited about the food in?

Q. I still think New York is it, although Chicago has really interesting food. For ethnic food, Los Angeles is still the most interesting place in the U.S.—it’s is as close to Singapore as we have in this country. Huge neighborhoods where people never learn to speak any English at all and can live perfectly happily, and so you can have restaurants that serve only black goat soup. They have places that specialize in those weird Japanese curries that only Japanese people like—strange curry on spaghetti—and Chinese places that serve Islamic Chinese food. Really particular.

A. In Singapore also there are so many influences from other people, the Arabs and the Chinese and the Indian. Here, our aesthetic—especially on the East Coast in America—is very European-influenced. In a place like Singapore, what we would consider tacky is beautiful. They have pink desserts with blue, with gummy bears, with cooked veal. It makes sense there, but you can’t translate that and put that here. Chinatown has some of that, but we’re still too edited to what’s beautiful here, I think. Singapore doesn’t have that. It’s just, boom, there it is.

Q. You’re exactly right. Our idea of tasteful is very narrow. We’re still struggling out of the Puritan aesthetic. The people who settled this coast were people who believed that you shouldn’t enjoy things too much. Pleasure was a bad idea. You weren’t supposed to like your food. Nothing was supposed to be too bright. And we’re still struggling against that in some really serious way. It’s really interesting when you go down to Florida and you go into Little Havana, and suddenly there is no struggle.

But because of you, I think we’re going to start seeing people do articles on African food—at least I hope that’s going to happen. We have this big continent to discover.

A. Let’s face it, it has to also be travel-friendly. And now, thank God for South Africa; Morocco, Senegal, and Kenya will eventually calm down. It’s important that you have people feel comfortable, because just to read about it, they can’t do anything with that.

Q. People have to go there and taste the food; that’s how they learn to eat it.

A. Then the time will come when you can find the ingredients not just in the mom-and-pop stores, but when Whole Foods starts to carry them.

Q. Right—when you see injera mix in a bag.

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