For his latest restaurant, Marcus Samuelsson departs Harlem for Bermuda's pink sand and turquoise coves. Writer Jacob Baynham finds out what inspires the guru of the island's new flavor.

By Jacob Baynham
January 06, 2016

Soaking up the sun by Hamilton Harbor

Photo: Cedric Angeles

Marcus Samuelsson just wants to watch some soccer.

It's almost noon in Bermuda, and the sun is bright against the pastel storefronts of downtown Hamilton. Samuelsson climbs the stairs to Flanagan's Irish Pub and slides into a barstool just in time to watch Everton upset Chelsea in a Premier League match.

"This is great," he says. "I love the highs and lows."

Samuelsson tends to root for underdogs. He was a competitive soccer player himself until a coach cut him for being too small. As the game winds down, the barman catches his eye. Samuelsson is dressed in a madras plaid shirt and pink pants. He's been in the local spotlight thanks to his glittering new restaurant, Marcus', in the Hamilton Princess hotel, and the barman has a question for him.

"What's your favorite meal to make when you are cooking at home?" he asks.

"Meatballs," Samuelsson says. "I'm a chef today because my grandma taught me to make meatballs. What about you? What do you like to make?"

"Oxtail stew."

"In a pressure cooker?" Samuelsson asks.

The barman shakes his head. "I'm scared I'll blow the roof off."

"With oxtail, pressure's the best, man," Samuelsson says. "Just put it under cold water before you open the lid. And you can make the best pasta with the leftovers. It's even better the next day."

It's casual home-cooking advice from one of the world's top chefs. But Samuelsson is just as happy to talk food as soccer. He could do it with anyone. "Now I see why you got the restaurant," the barman says.

Samuelsson smiles. The game's over, and he's on his feet. It's lunchtime, and he's headed up the coast for the best fish sandwich in Bermuda.

Samuelsson's journey to Bermuda—like his path to celebrity chefdom—entailed equal parts serendipity and hard work. Born in Ethiopia, he survived tuberculosis at age 2. His mother had carried him the 75 miles to a hospital, where she died. A sympathetic nurse helped arrange the little boy's adoption by a Swedish family.

A young Samuelsson fell in love with food over fresh mackerel and roast chicken in his grandmother's kitchen. When his dreams of playing professional soccer fizzled, he turned to cooking. Diligence and ambition propelled him from culinary school to apprenticeships in Europe's finest restaurants. He took a job on a cruise ship and saw the world. When he finally landed in New York, he became the youngest chef to earn three stars from the Times. He was 24.

Now 45, with strands of gray creeping into his curls, Samuelsson is still ascending. In 2009, he cooked President Obama's first state dinner. In 2010, he won Bravo's show Top Chef Masters. Samuelsson now owns two popular Harlem restaurants, Red Rooster and Streetbird, with 27 restaurants across the globe.

"It's such an honest trade," he says. "You work hard, somebody tips you. You do a good job, someone tells you. If you don't, they tell you that, too."

Samuelsson opened Marcus' in the 130-year-old Hamilton Princess, Bermuda. "We do well when there's some history before us," Samuelsson says. "Now it's up to us to create the next wave."

Bermuda is only about three hours, door to door, from Samuelsson's Harlem home. There's plenty to love here. White rooftops stairstep down to pink beaches, and whistling pines garnish the coastline like sprigs of fennel. "It's nice," Samuelsson says. "It's quiet. It's always better weather than where you came from."

The weather is key. The restaurant sources its produce from the tail end of the prawn-shaped island; some of Bermuda's best growing months are in winter. As for the seafood, Samuelsson buys it straight from the fishermen. A daily haul might include wahoo, rockfish, blackfin tuna, snapper, or Bermuda lobster. Often, the restaurant buys the lot.

Bermuda also speaks to Samuelsson in its diversity. A mix of Caribbean, British, and Portuguese cultures, the cuisine is a literal melting pot. It's the sort of place a self-described "Swediopian" can feel inspired.

Samuelsson takes about 100 pictures with strangers every day. People approach him everywhere he goes—on the street, at the beach, on their way to the bathroom.

"I love your restaurant," they say.

"You're doing a great job here, chef."

"You are the best thing ever," one woman swoons.

iPhones emerge. Samuelsson squeezes in and smiles. A beautiful smile. A patient smile, even when his mind is busy. "Food is easy," he tells me, after taking individual snapshots with an entire family in the hotel lobby. "It doesn't put you in two different corners. It's not politics."

And meeting so many strangers does have benefits—he can ask them where they eat. That kind of field-work led him to Art Mel's Spicy Dicy, a tiny lunch joint that turns out Bermuda's most famous sandwich—a tower of fried fish, slaw, and hot sauce bookended by slabs of raisin bread.

"It's a sandwich that doesn't make any sense," Samuelsson says. "But it's good. It's delicious. That's why nothing beats a sandwich. It's so homegrown."

Local knowledge is what steered him to Wahoo's for fish chowder, a dish best enjoyed with tangy sherry peppers sauce. Insiders pointed him in the direction of the best fish cakes, at The Spot in Hamilton. And he's found fellow soccer fanatics at the Swizzle Inn, where the merry patrons graffiti the walls while sipping rum swizzles—a heady punch of rum and juice that's been going down easy since 1932.

"As a chef, you dive into a place," Samuelsson explains. "But when I look at the food, I don't want to do it exactly like they've done it for years."

This was his challenge. How could he craft a menu that honored Bermuda's flavors but presented them in a fresh, new way? It's the kind of question that makes Samuelsson hungry.

The answer is revealed to me in courses during a dinner at Marcus'. The restaurant is at once casual and chic. The bar resembles the bridge of a ship. A wood fire grill crackles in the open kitchen, and an arc of windows overlooks Hamilton Harbor. There are notes of Africa and Scandinavia, and original art by Nelson Mandela, Shepard Fairey, and Andy Warhol.

"I wanted to marry Bermuda and the water with an urban, contemporary feel," Samuelsson says. "It has that boat-just-came-in feel, mixed with leather and rock and roll."

The restaurant is humming, and the cooks are an orchestra of motion. Samuelsson talks about food like music. He uses words like "tone," "progression," and "crescendo." The first appetizer is an overture of his heritage: a plate of Swedish cured salmon rubbed in berbere, an Ethiopian spice mix, served atop rolls of rice. It's a play on sushi, with avocado mousse instead of wasabi, and it's classic Samuelsson—luring with the familiar, and then delighting with the unexpected.

The meal continues with his variation on fish chowder. He's taken all the usual ingredients and rolled them into crispy croquettes. The taste is recognizable, but the crunch is satisfyingly new.

A skillet of jerk pork belly is next, with baked fava beans and a fried quail egg on top. Then it's the broiled Bermuda lobster—artistic, leggy creatures that Samuelsson brushes with curry—and a pan of paella with clams, hefty head-on shrimp, and Cajun dirty rice. I guessed there would be fusion. But these dishes also have humility, humor, and soul.

When the evening's tempo slows, Samuelsson comes out of the kitchen and sits. He's wearing a daisy-print shirt, unbuttoned at the top with sleeves rolled. He spoons paella onto a plate. Watching him eat is an unexpected pleasure. I usually eat fine food gingerly. But Samuelsson is acquainted. He uses his hands. He eats like he watches soccer: with absorption, abandon.

The bar sends out a round of Darker "n" Stormiers, Marcus' take on the Bermuda classic, with house-made ginger beer and Gosling's rum. Samuelsson is animated, talking about community ovens in Ethiopia, tacos in edgy parts of Veracruz, and the new farmers' market in Harlem. He's all there.

Cooking has been Samuelsson's passport since he was young, and his food is transporting. But long before I scoop up the last crumb of rum cake, I've realized that Marcus Samuelsson is not a man in transit. He's arrived. He's here to stay. And Bermuda's all the brighter for it.