By Emily Paster
Last week, Macy's Culinary Council, which is celebrating its tenth anniversary this year, invited me to attend a demo by celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson at the State Street Macy's store. Everyone knows Marcus Samuelsson from his many television appearances and, of course, from his Harlem restaurant Red Rooster. I have long been a fan of his and very much enjoyed his memoir Yes Chef. I feel a personal connection to Chef Samuelsson because he grew up in Sweden and my maternal grandmother was Swedish. One of the ways that my mother connected us to our Swedish heritage was through food, especially Christmas food, so I really loved reading Chef Samuelsson's descriptions of the food he ate growing up in Sweden and even recognized some of the dishes from my own childhood.
Seeing Marcus Samuelsson in person did not disappoint. It would be hard to overstate how engaging, charming and downright funny he was during the demo. He bantered with the audience, invited some people up to cook with him, answered cooking questions and even offered encouragement to the young chefs that were there. He was so down-to-earth as he shared how nervous he was cooking for the Obamas in the White House at their first state dinner and confessed that his favorite thing to cook is still his grandmother's meatballs.
Spending the day with Marcus Samuelsson as his sous-chef was seventeen year old Sara Opsenica, who has been battling non-Hodgkins lymphoma since 2011. A culinary student herself, Sara's dream is to cook with a prominent chef. Through Macy's support of the Make-a-Wish Foundation and Chef Samuelsson's generousity, Sara's dream came true. When Chef Samuelsson introduced Sara and told us about her courageous fight against her illness, there was not a dry eye in the room.
Marcus Samuelsson demonstrated several recipes, including a quick paella made with couscous instead of rice, Swedish meatballs and a Korean-style beef short ribs. We even got to try samples of the recipes he prepared! So often when a famous restaurant chef does a cooking demonstration, the recipes that he or she picks are not accessible to the home cook. This was not at all the case with Chef Samuelsson. He specifically chose recipes that were quick, adaptable and relevant for home cooks. He also talked specifically about issues of sustainability, such as making good use of leftovers to minimize food waste — something he learned from his Swedish grandmother — and eating smaller portions of meat.
During his demonstration and in answering question, Chef Samuelsson shared some cooking tips that I think any home cook would find helpful. Here are some of the tips I picked up:
- When making meatballs, use a combination of beef, pork and veal. The beef and veal provide flavor while the pork keeps the meatballs from being dry. When asked what to do for those who don't eat pork (ahem), Chef Samuelsson suggested replacing it with ground lamb or even dark meat chicken. Before forming meatballs, wet hands slightly so the meat doesn't stick.
- Meat cooked on the bone will always be juicier and tastier than boneless cuts of meat. This is exactly why I recommend cooking bone-in chicken breasts.
- When asked the secret to a juicy burger, Chef Samuelsson suggested that people try grinding or chopping their own meat. If that is too much to contemplate, he recommends buying meat with at least 25% fat content. Lean meat makes a dry burger, people. And lastly, let the burger rest for at least five minutes after cooking.
- In answer to a question about how to get kids to eat more vegetables, Chef Samuelsson suggested incorporating veggies into foods kids already love like pasta and tacos. He even offered a recipe for masked potatoes with carrots and apples. But at the same time, Marcus rejected the idea that there is "kid" food and "adult" food and encouraged us to cook together with our kids and to be more adventurous in the kitchen.
It was such a treat to watch this master chef at work. I just hope I get to eat at his restaurant some day.
Full disclosure time: I was compensated by Everywhere for this post on Macy's Culinary Council. During the holiday season, Macy's "Believe Campaign" invites children of all ages to mail their letters to Santa at their local Macy's in the red Santa Mail box. For every letter mailed, Macy's will donate $1, up to $1 million, to the Make-a-Wish Foundation.