Marcus Samuelsson

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Marcus Samuelsson is an award-winning chef, author and restaurateur. His Harlem restaurant Red Rooster took its name from a song recorded by Big Mama Thornton and he credits all the artists in his Guest DJ set for encouraging him to take chances yet always maintain a high level of quality, from David Bowie to Prince. His autobiography, released earlier this year, is called “Yes, Chef”.

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Track List:

1. Massive Attack – “Unfinished Sympathy”
2. Queen and David Bowie – “Under Pressure”
3. Big Mama Thornton – “Little Red Rooster”
4. Eric B and Rakim – “Paid in Full”
5. Prince – “Mountains”

Photo by Aaron Fallon


Mathieu Schreyer: Hi, I’m Mathieu Schreyer from KCRW and I’m here with award-winning chef, restaurateur and author Marcus Samuelsson. Today we will be playing excerpts of songs he’s selected that have inspired him over the years as part of KCRW’s guest DJ project. Marcus, so your first track that you brought us is by an English band, Massive Attack

Marcus Samuelsson:  This song, “Unfinished Sympathy”, is so layered and complex.  It’s not just one note, it’s many, many music inspirations.  That’s why I loved it.  

MS: Would you say that layering relates to food as well?

MS: Exactly and, in all of these songs, they have some type of complexity to it.  Right, being a chef, you want to give something that is yummy and delicious and craving, but it sets this side bar, this side note, it’s almost a window into that person and that’s why music, this balance between music and food, has always been in front of me.  

Song: Massive Attack – Unfinished Sympathy

MS: So that was “Unfinished Sympathy” from Massive Attack.  We’re going to get to your second choice.  

MS: David Bowie for me, “Under Pressure” with David Bowie.  It was hard for me to pick one David Bowie song, but you know, I think David Bowie was for me really how I learned alternative, something different.  I just loved the fact that with David Bowie it’s visual, it’s the music, it’s the style, its so many different senses going on. I think he keeps on giving us influences, and it’s also originality in many ways.  You know, as a chef you take from something that you learned, maybe it was your upbringing, maybe it was from a chef that you worked with, but then you want to try to make an original dish, and (sings) ‘ding, ding, ding, da-da-ding ding, that is original. 

Song: Queen with David Bowie – Under Pressure

MS: We just heard from David Bowie with Queen doing “Under Pressure”.  We’re going to get into your next song by Big Mama Thornton.

MS: She wrote the name of my restaurant, “Red Rooster”.  So many people have covered Red Rooster, whether Sam Cooke, or the Stones. There’s also that energy where you think about where rock and roll comes from, it really has a deep, deep, deep black influences, and some of the first rockabillies were black ladies, just like Big Mama Thornton.  And when you hear this song, I always laugh a little bit, because it reminds me of where I am today in Harlem.  But it’s also been the inspiration for musicians from all over the world, things that we take for granted, these big sort of bands like the Rolling Stones and so on, they were inspired by a generation before them, and Big Mama Thornton is one of them. 

Song: Big Mama Thornton – Red Rooster

MS: What we work on really hard in the restaurant is to always tip our hat to the past, marrying that with the present, and that’s sort of how we create a future.  When you listen to a song like this, it’s really for me, when the past sort of can inspire us to the present and create something for the future.

MS: So do you use that in the way you create your menu and your food?

MS: Absolutely – how we honor Harlem.  You know this amazing neighborhood that is filled with storytellers, musicians, cooks and great people -- here these joys of life, these sensibilities of life, these ways of celebrating life, have always been there. And you know that’s one of the reasons why our restaurant is doing so well, cause it’s fun to go there, but yet, it’s inspired of a place, Harlem, and it’s in a place, Harlem.

MS: Give me one example of dish you would have created thinking about Big Mama Thornton.

MS: Well, even if you go back to a dish like fried chicken, what we called the fried yardbird, we do it lighter, we do it, you know, in a more modern way now because it’s a way to do it a little bit healthier, but it has to be delicious and it has to be just as craving. I think it comes from an era and it’s a throwback, but yet you can do it in a more modern way.

MS: So let’s get into, this is Big Mama Thornton doing “Little Red Rooster”. That was Big Mama Thornton doing “Little Red Rooster”.  Let’s get back to your list of great songs -- Eric B. &  Rakim, “Paid in Full”.

MS: You know, I knew when I got asked to do this, I knew exactly, this was the first song I put on.  When I was growing up, the first time I came to America was through playing soccer, and we stayed in Times Square. We were like 15 kids, with three coaches, and we’d maybe been in the hotel for one minute before we ran out to Times Square, and we were all wearing Adidas track suits, cause you know, we’re on a soccer team. And we walked all the way to Times Square and Eric B. & Rakim were doing a video that night in Times Square.  So we were just amazed. We thought this was happening every night in Times Square.  And LL Cool J. was there, and we were like, ‘Oh My God, we just watched them on MTV and here we are in Times Square.’  And I was like, that’s when I fell in love with America.  Like, “WOW”.  You know I’m a kid from Sweden, Gothenburg, we don’t have that type of spectacle in our streets. And, you know, at the time, this is late ‘80s -- Times Square is rough, there’s all types of stuff going on, but we just thought, this is the most beautiful place you could possibly go to - that was Times Square, watching Eric B. & Rakim, “Paid in Full”. 

Song: Eric B. &  Rakim -- “Paid in Full”

MS: So that was just Eric B. & Rakim doing “Paid in Full”.  Let’s get to your last song, but not least, from the mighty Prince, “Mountains”.

MS: Well, Prince is, if I have to point to one person that I’ve been most inspired by, it’s Prince.  From so many different ways of, again, opening up that door that Davie Bowie did in terms of alternative and being different and taking your own chances and always putting out quality content.  Every song for me, like this song for me, is just a build-up and there is like three songs going on in one song, but it’s all done so melodic and beautiful and that for me is the key to a great dish.  It’s just undertones so delicious things left and right, and that’s what this song is.  

Song: Prince – “Mountains”   

MS: If Prince were food, what would he be?

MS: I think he would be like an incredible, perfect sushi - raw, loud, but just very understated and quiet at the same time.  Like a perfect sushi meal.  

MS: What’s going to be purple in the sushi?

MS: The tuna

MS: The tuna, perfect (laughter). Marcus, than you so much for us on KCRW.

MS: Thank you so much for having me.  I appreciate it.

MS: For complete track listing and to find these songs on line, go to and subscribe to the podcast through iTunes.