Born in Ethiopia and separated from his family a few years later during the Ethiopian civil war, Samuelsson was then adopted and raised by a Swedish couple, who taught him his earliest lessons about money and work ethic.
In the span of his career, the 46-year-old Samuelsson has won awards both for his cooking at New York City’s Aquavit and later his own restaurant, Red Rooster, as well as for his books. These range from a memoir to several cookbooks, including the 2016 The Red Rooster Cookbook: The Story of Food and Hustle in Harlem.
In May, the New York City-based Samuelsson will open a London outpost of Red Rooster. He talked about his recipes for cooking up financial success.
Q: What were some of your first lessons about money?
Marcus Samuelsson: My mom came from poverty and understood the value of money. She was very responsible and looked at her bank account every day to make sure it added up correctly. Even when her financial situation changed for the better, she was always very smart with her money.
Reuters: Who else taught you the value of money?
MS: My uncles were fishermen. Where they stood with money could change swiftly because of the weather. If they went fishing on the roughest day, the price of the fish went up, and on good weather days, they might not go out because the prices would be so low. Even though they didn’t have a lot of money, they always ate well.
R: What was your first job?
MS: My first job was fishing, and it definitely shaped my work ethic. You wake up early and have to clean the boat and other equipment. You’d be out there all day sometimes battling a rough sea, and then you’d come back and collect your wages. There was also a social aspect of it that was fun. It definitely taught me the value of hard work.
R: What drove you to open your own restaurant?
MS: I was inspired by advice from my mom about cooking for people in the community where I lived. Up until that point, I had been cooking for the 1 percent. It just made sense to open a restaurant in Harlem – which was also where I made my home. I love that the clientele at Red Rooster are a mix of local Harlemites, the downtown crowd, and people from all over the world visiting. It’s very much in-and-of the Harlem community.
R: What has running your own restaurant taught you about finances?
MS: Humility. You can have a great day and then the next day will be the opposite because of the weather or something breaks in the kitchen. Being an entrepreneur is an endurance test that challenges you and your team.
R: How do you give back?
MS: Coming from a humble background, I wouldn’t be here without people being charitable, so I think about that all the time. I try to select charities across various matters including culinary education or clean water in Africa, or something else needing immediate action. In addition, I’ve also been involved with many organizations over the years and am currently a board co-chair at C-CAP (Careers through Culinary Arts Program), which prepares underserved youth for careers in the professional world of culinary and hospitality.
R: What life lessons did you father teach you about money?
MS: Growing up, my father made it clear that his money was his money and not mine. He was happy to help out, but never paid for everything. He taught us if we wanted it, we’d have to do it ourselves. When I wanted to visit Japan, my dad paid for half, but it was up to me to come up with the other half so I could travel. It took me a year to save for that trip, and it felt so good once I was on the plane knowing I had worked hard to make it happen.
R: What’s the best piece of advice about money that anyone ever gave you?
MS: Respect it.