Fortune: What does opening a new restaurant feel like?

Marcus Samuelsson: It is a homecoming. I have been in hospitality most of my life, so sharing this in my homeland is incredibly gratifying. Both Maya and I are thrilled and grateful for the hard work of many in making this a reality. I am nervous, but it is a good nerve; it signifies care and there is a lot to manage with a restaurant of this scale. Building this vision over two years with the Hyatt team has been a true partnership. Now, we are ready.

Q: What inspired the phrase 'Born in Ethiopia. Raised in Sweden. Inspired by Harlem.' on your restaurant's website?

Living in Harlem for 20 years with my family shaped this vision. Harlem, like Addis, has a strong sense of community, music, and spirituality. The cultural richness inspires me.

Q: How did you decide to open a restaurant in Addis?

I received calls from both government and private sectors, which was exciting. I had been looking to do something in Addis, waiting for the right project. Partnering with a school was crucial, providing students with work opportunities. When Hyatt showed interest, it felt right; knowing someone already committed to Addis was key for hospitality.

Together with Hyatt, we saw this as the right project where we could create something inspirational and educational, both for front and back-of-house staff. This was before even writing the menu. I must acknowledge the Ethiopian government's vision in this endeavour, and of course, my wife's input was invaluable, with her deeper understanding of local workings.

This was during the pandemic. Then we focused on design, menu, and training. These aspects are second nature to us and we relished the process.

Q: How did you adapt your business during the COVID-19 pandemic?

It was challenging on personal and business levels. We redirected to become a community kitchen, serving food to hundreds daily. This period was about restoring community spirit. We also had to adapt by moving our operations outdoors and finding new opportunities, which led to the opening of new ventures.

Q: Are you happy about the partnership arrangement with Hyatt?

It is a partnership where everyone has a significant stake. We want this to be a positive project for both us and Ethiopia. I do this to contribute, as does the Hyatt team. This is happening thanks to the hard work of over 200 people with great vision and leadership. We have a dedicated team that manages hiring, training, and selection.

Q: As a celebrity chef, how does your status influence your cooking and restaurant management?

My life’s journey - from Ethiopia to Sweden and then America - with cooking at its centre, has been full. I represent Ethiopia wherever I go. Being in the spotlight means choosing our projects carefully. Our restaurants are not just for customers; they are learning centres for our staff, helping them realise their dreams. Coming back to share my knowledge and contribute to a destination we can all be proud of is incredibly fulfilling.

Q: How has being raised by bold and dynamic women influenced you?

It has influenced everything - from my approach to food, style, and design. My relationship with food began with my grandmother, and this influence extends to our restaurants in the Bahamas, Atlanta, and New York, where most leadership positions are held by women of colour. This evolved organically, shaped significantly by my upbringing.

Q: Is opening a restaurant in your native land a way of giving back?

Definitely. Good businesses have multiple facets with consumers, practical, and philanthropic. I have partnered with the Chefs' Association here in Addis Abeba. Having had great mentors myself, I see this as an opportunity to guide others. Not everyone will be a star chef, but they can aspire to create a life for their families in hospitality. This sector is crucial as Ethiopia's tourism grows.

Q: Why choose the 47th floor of the tallest building in Addis for your restaurant?

We wanted to add an experiential element. It is about setting a hospitality standard, not just a place to eat, but to celebrate. The location, service, and food are all part of this experience. It is inspiring, whether you are local or a visitor. I knew immediately it would be "Marcus Addis". I envision the brand becoming a part of people's lives, similar to how the Red Rooster hat is worn in New York.

Q: Can you discuss the idea behind the interior design of Marcus Addis and the designers?

It was a collaborative effort. The planning started during the pandemic. We worked with a design team in Dubai, aiming to create a space that reflects Ethiopia - its past, present, and future. We are proud of the final design and our collaboration with Ethiopian artists like Mafi and Anna Getaneh.

Q: Considering the investments made in Marcus Addis, what is your timeline for reaching a break-even point, and how does this affect your business strategy?

It is too early to predict. We have a budget, but we need about six months to fully understand our operational structure. We are gradually introducing different meal periods, and once we are fully operational, we will have a clearer picture of our reach. We are catering to anyone celebrating a special occasion and seeking fine dining. Our primary clientele starts with professionals in Addis Abeba, and the diaspora visiting for business or pleasure. But it is about being inclusive and listening to feedback for continuous improvement.

Q: When did you start incorporating Ethiopian cuisine into your cooking?

I have always had access to Ethiopian food, whether in the States or Sweden. I first attempted Ethiopian cooking around age 10. My wife and our families have been my greatest teachers in Ethiopian cuisine. At home, I am playfully ranked as the fourth-best Ethiopian cook.

Q: How do you balance traditional authenticity and experimentation in your culinary style?

The key is creating delicious, modern, and experiential dishes. Our restaurant offers a unique Ethiopian experience with a twist in techniques and ingredients rooted in tradition. We do not claim to be a traditional Ethiopian restaurant; rather, we offer a modern Ethiopian experience.

Q: Over your 25-year career, what has been your biggest challenge?

Ensuring that our customers leave inspired and wanting to return. This goal is consistent across all my restaurants. Gathering a large team to work towards this objective requires teaching and achieving consensus on our core principles.

Q: Was human capital a challenge?

No! It is an opportunity and a privilege to teach hospitality. Seeing the potential in my team and having the opportunity to do this in Ethiopia is immensely rewarding, despite the time away from my family.

Q: As a chef of Ethiopian descent, how do you address the lack of diversity in culinary leadership?

Our industry needs improvement. I learned early on the importance of representation. Bringing more women and people of colour into the kitchen has been a priority for me. As a black chef with a significant following, I feel it is my responsibility to enact this change.

Q: How do you approach sustainability and ethical sourcing in your restaurants?

Sustainability involves multiple factors like portion size, waste minimisation, local sourcing, and thoughtful menu planning. We focus on local sourcing and community job creation. The majority of our team is from Addis, which is exciting.

Q: What is your approach to mentoring young chefs?

Passion and drive are essential. A chef needs to be passionate about cooking and people, and humble enough to learn. It is all about the combination of these qualities.

Q: How do you navigate cultural appreciation versus appropriation in your culinary creations?

My wife ensures I do not cross the line. As someone who has been an immigrant multiple times, I have experienced various cultures. While respecting traditions, we aim to create something delicious and innovative. It is about love, trying new ideas, and sharing them.

Q: What was your first impression of Berbere spice?

I did not try Berbere until my teens, but I loved it instantly. I have not gone a day without it since. Berbere, with its varieties, is a unifying element for Ethiopians globally.

Q: How do you handle criticism and public opinion in your industry?

Having been in media for half my life, I have learned to focus on my objectives and not let external opinions sway me. My craft and work ethic have taken me all over the world and I have to protect that. My reality is shaped by guest feedback which comes through many platforms including social media and our team's progress. It is about making Ethiopia proud, satisfying our customers, and supporting our staff on this journey.

PUBLISHED ON Dec 23,2023 [ VOL 24 , NO 1234]

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