In the mid-1940’s, Frida Wasser escaped from a concentration camp and made her way to Denmark. She waited there for winter, when an icy land mass formed connecting the country with its neighbor Sweden and walked the hour and a half across. “Thousands of people did this…. Once you came to the Swedish side, you were safer,” explains chef Marcus Sameulsson, Frida’s nephew. During the war, the train stations and ports in Sweden swelled with soldiers and immigrants. Young Swedes “ran down there after school because you didn’t know what would happen,” he adds. Here, Frida befriended another young woman, a local named Ann Marie, whose family ultimately adopted her.
This is how chef Marcus came to have a Jewish aunt. Marcus, who was born in Ethiopia and raised in Gothenburg, Sweden after being adopted, says his aunt Frida shifted his family forever. “[She] opened up the door for a whole dialogue [about] what a family can look like,” he says. So, in the 1970s, when his mother Ann Marie wanted to adopt, it was a familiar idea.
Frida not only changed the family’s idea of adoption, but impacted the way they related to the Jewish community. World War II wasn’t relegated to text books when Marcus was growing up. He recalls visiting Auschwitz as a child and conversations about otherness in their home. “Otherness comes to you in many ways,” he says. “For us, it was very real.”
Diversity has been a keystone of his life and career, most notably in Harlem, where he’s helped energize the neighborhood’s culinary scene with his restaurants including Red Rooster and the annual Harlem EatUp! Festival. This year, he collaborated with the Jewish Food Society and the JCC Harlem, for a neighborhood Shabbat dinner with chef Andrew Zimmern, restaurateur Sivan Baron, and spice blender Lior Lev Sercarz.
“Harlem is extremely diverse,” Marcus explains. “For me, it was very Harlem to be part of a Shabbat dinner like that.” He wanted the dish he served “to be of the culture,” he adds. So, he drew inspiration from New York’s legacy of Jewish delis using a pastrami spice blend to form a crust on seared tuna and served with Israeli couscous studded with scallions, mint, basil, parsley, and finely chopped preserved lemon rind.
To recreate more of our Harlem Shabbat dinner, serve Marcus’s recipe just after Andrew’s poached salmon, a recipe that comes from his grandmother’s Upper West Side kitchen, which was just a couple miles south of Harlem.