Berbere is a seasoning that is as common to Ethiopian cooks as salt is to American ones. Ethiopian-born celebrity chef, reality TV star and restaurateur Marcus Samuelsson says that “berbere is in every Ethiopian’s DNA.” But Samuelsson IS berbere — a blend of many things.
He explained his love of the spice Saturday night when he took the stage at the Howard Theatre.
Samuelsson created the theater’s menu and won the Food Network show “Chopped All-Stars: Season 2.” He has also appeared on “Iron Chef America” and “Top Chef.” At the theater, he performed a cooking demonstration for a crowd of approximately 200 fans while discussing his new memoir, “Yes, Chef.”
The book takes readers through a harrowing tale of survival: When Samuelsson was a toddler, his tuberculosis-ridden mother walked 75 miles to the hospital in Addis Ababa, carrying Samuelsson on her back. (And he wasn’t the only tot in tow: She also brought her daughter, Samuelsson’s older sister.) Around her waist, she carried berbere and a little bag containing chickpea flour. When this flour is mixed with the spice and water, Samuelsson writes, it is transformed into a portable life sustaining meal called shiro.
Now he uses berbere in his haute cuisine as well as in the fried chicken the audience sampled during his talk Saturday night.
The spice is a blend of many things such as dried chilies, paprika, ginger, cardamom and cinnamon.
When asked how he gets inspired to cook, he looks confused: It’s clear he has never had a problem coming up with a meal.
“I am a chef,” he says. “It is who I am! It is my craft . . . My first vocabulary was cooking.” That vocabulary grew to include Swedish, French, German and Italian as he apprenticed and cooked in kitchens across the globe.
While Samuelsson is a world traveler, he values having his food featured in the states. His menu at the Howard Theatre, near the U Street corridor, differs from his more extensive one in at his new restaurant in Harlem, Red Rooster. But he says both areas are experiencing the same rebirth and believes it’s important to have restaurants in communities that care about the history of the people.
So where does a world-renowned chef get his drive and entrepreneurial spirit? From his Swedish mom, who adopted him after his biological mom died. “I was more afraid of disappointing my mother if I lost my job . . . I couldn’t go home!” he says.
Follow Shari Sheffield on Twitter @ShariSheffield.
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