Acclaimed Iron Chef Marcus Samuelsson is back, sparking his glowing talents on the new Netflix show, Iron Chef: Quest for an Iron Legend, which premieres June 15, as eight episodes. Netflix worked its unique magic, reigniting and reimagining Iron Chef America, which had been at the Food Network for years. The result is a dashing competitive extravaganza — fresh, fierce yet friendly, and utterly fabulous. Samuelsson shares the Kitchen Stadium arena with stellar Iron Chefs Curtis Stone, Gabriela Cámara, Dominique Crenn and Ming Tsai. They face off against seven formidable challenger chefs for the final Legend title. One happy certainty: There are a wealth of talented, smart, personable, wildly creative chefs. Lucky us.
Samuelsson’s backstory is moving and motivating. He was born in Ethiopia as Kassahun Joar Tsegie. Two years later, a tuberculosis epidemic raged. Along with his mother and older sister, he was sick with the disease. Against all odds, his ill mother walked more than 75 miles, likely without shoes, from their tiny poor village — carrying him under a blistering sun; it would have taken days — to the hospital in Addis Ababa. Her children lived; she died. In 1974, as a three-year-old, he was caught up in the tragedy of the Ethiopian Civil War, separated from his extended family. He and his sister were then adopted by a Swedish couple, Anne-Marie and Lennart Samuelsson, who gave him and his sister new names and lovingly shifted their trajectory. Growing up, Samuelsson was inspired by his grandmother and her cooking, He studied at the Culinary Institute in Gothenburg, Sweden, then apprenticed in Switzerland, Austria and at New York City’s Restaurant Aquavit. There, he rose to executive chef at age 24, and soon received a three-star review from The New York Times — the youngest chef ever to attain that honor. Winner of multiple James Beard Foundation awards, Samuelsson’s impressive achievements can be head-spinning. He served as guest chef for President Barack Obama’s first State Dinner. His restaurants garner accolades galore: Red Rooster Harlem and Ginny’s Supper Club, both in New York City; Red Rooster Overtown in Miami; Streetbird in Las Vegas, at New York City’s Yankee Stadium and in Nassau, Bahamas; Marcus at Baha Mar Fish + Chop House, also in Nassau; Marcus B & P in Newark, New Jersey; Marcus Montreal in Canada; Kitchen & Table in multiple locations in Sweden, Norway and Finland; Norda, Eatery Social Taqueria and Ama Nikkei, all in Sweden; and Skyroom Helsinki in Finland. A frequent and fan-favorite TV personality, Samuelsson has competed in, judged and hosted a range of shows, among them Top Chef Masters, Chopped All Stars and The Taste. He headlined two seasons of No Passport Required, traveling the United States to showcase its bounty of immigrant cuisines and cultures. His cookbooks include New American Table, The Soul of a New Cuisine, Marcus Off Duty: The Recipes I Cook at Home, Red Rooster Harlem: The Cookbook and The Rise: Black Cooks and the Soul of American Food. And his New York Times bestseller, Yes, Chef, is a riveting memoir (here is an excerpt) about his harrowing early years and incredible rise. Now, amid a jam-packed schedule, Samuelsson took an engaging time-out to talk with me about gratefulness, joy, working hard, giving back, cooking, traveling and family pride.
Quest for an Iron Legend
Laura Manske: You have already won the prized Iron Chef achievement. What draws you back to this Netflix version to compete again?
Marcus Samuelsson: It’s amazing for me to be with Iron Chef again. This is the highest level cooking show in the world. I know what it means in my industry, but also for viewers. All of us in hospitality have [been through] a very tough, challenging time. Two years of pandemic. So being part of Iron Chef now was a healing process for me. When you cook in [Netflix’s] Kitchen Stadium you are alive, you are going for it! I am doing it for all the cooks and chefs in my restaurants. It’s inspirational. I also hope that it will bring viewers and families together [and] that the joy and ambition of cooking comes through the screen. I’ve truly enjoyed the journey.
Manske: What one thing made you happiest during filming?
Samuelsson: To be with the other Iron Chefs. I know how privileged I am to be part of this.
Manske: What one lesson did you learn this season?
Samuelsson: It was a reaffirmation of my love for the craft. When you’re cooking, you’re burning so many calories, the adrenaline! [On Iron Chef, it is] a difficult scenario, because I don’t know [ahead of time] what the secret ingredient [to incorporate into recipes] will be. That forces me to think quickly and evolve. I enjoy that! It’s stressful and I’m sweating a lot, yet it’s fun.
Manske: What takeaway do you hope viewers understand most?
Samuelsson: I came to this country with $300 and a big idea that I could help out in any kitchen. I wanted to work hard. I got a lot of work ethic from my parents and grandparents. I come from very humble beginnings. I was born in a hut, basically the size of two restaurant tables. And if I could [become a success], well, whatever your goals are, you can do it. I had incredible mentors who pushed me — in front of me and behind me and next to me.
Manske: You’ve been a mentor as well to young chefs.
Samuelsson: It’s an unwritten rule for chefs to mentor young people. One way I have focused on that is with Careers through Culinary Arts Program (C-CAP), which [helps] underserved youth. [My teams and I] work with high school students. We raise money for their scholarships to culinary schools.
Manske: The relationship between chefs and their staffs has changed a lot in recent years. Historically, some chefs wanted to be feared. There is now a shift in the industry that in order to grow a solid team, it is essential to energize, mentor and educate them.
Samuelsson: Yeah, we definitely, as an industry, know that we still have a lot of work to do and we are willing to do the work. The majority of chefs are working hard to be the best leaders they can be for their kitchen staffs — by encouraging and being inclusive and sharing knowledge.
Manske: Your most vivid food memory as a child?
Samuelsson: Cooking with my grandmother, Helga. She is the reason that I get to talk to you now. She was very instrumental in my life. Although she’s not among us any more, I still think about her every day. She taught me so much about food. Together, we went mushroom foraging, lingonberry picking. We pickled herring. There was constant feeding from my grandmother. There was always something [to do] in the kitchen.
Manske: Your favorite food?
Samuelsson: I love a good pizza. Living in New York, it’s not just about the slice. It is everything about the pizza experience. Going late at night after [my restaurant] service ends, maybe with one of my cook friends, to eat pizza together. Or making pizza with my son Zion. It’s really a communal (activity) for me.
Manske: Where have you traveled that you like most?
Samuelsson: I love every time I go to Japan. I always learn things. Also, Africa. There are always experiences [that touch on] my identity. Every time that I go to Ethiopia, I learn more about myself and can pass on [those thoughts and facts] to my family.
Manske: Where would you most like to travel that you have not yet been to?
Samuelsson: Buenos Aires. I’d bring my son. We would watch a soccer game of Superclásico and cheer and get super excited.
Manske: Fantasy question. With whom would you like to dine once? It can be someone living or dead.
Samuelsson: Easy! Prince.
Manske: What personal mindset uplifts you?
Samuelsson: Every day, I remind myself: ‘Today is a great day to make my parents proud.’ I tell my children: ‘Today is a great day to make your parents proud.’ My parents and grandparents, my children, my wife — I think about my family every day.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
For more sweet and savory details about the show, check out Alton Brown Reveals Netflix’s New Supersized ‘Iron Chef’ Culinary Competition and New ‘Iron Chef’ Thrills: Michelin-Starred Curtis Stone Fun at Netflix.