ADDIS ABABA — World renowned Ethiopian-born chef Marcus Samuelsson has opened his first Africa-based restaurant in the capital Addis Ababa to showcase fusion cuisine inspired by his unique upbringing.
The location of the eatery, which opened last month, is emblematic of the heights reached by the chef since leaving Ethiopia as a child — it’s on the 47th floor of the nation’s tallest building, the headquarters of the Ethiopian Commercial Bank.
Samuelsson is now an internationally acclaimed chef, but his early years were shaped by unrest. His life as a toddler in Ethiopia was disrupted by the 1974 Ethiopian civil war that paved the way for the communist rule of Colonel Mengistu Hailemariam.
The chef, who turns 53 later this month, lost his mother during the conflict and was separated from the rest of his family to be adopted by a Swedish couple soon after and grew up in Gothenburg, Sweden. He moved to New York at 23 to work as a sous chef and swiftly worked his way up to become one of the youngest chefs to ever earn a coveted three-star review from the New York Times.
The new restaurant, named Marcus Addis, features delicacies from all over the world but its menu is designed to retain a traditional Ethiopia flavor that brings out Samuelsson’s global culinary experience.
“I am proud of my Ethiopian roots,” Samuelsson told Semafor Africa. “I want my new restaurant in Addis Ababa to be a vehicle for job creation, capacity building, a training hub that works for — not against — traditional local Ethiopian restaurants.”
The celebrity chef has a growing list of fine-dining restaurants in Montreal, London, New York and his signature eatery – Red Rooster – in Harlem. As for now, Samuelsson is determined to make his restaurant in Ethiopia the signature act of his homecoming.
The dishes are all influenced by his Ethiopian and Swedish background, combined with his adult life in New York. They include his favorite local dish Kitfo — a minced meat full of spices complemented by Ethiopian herb butter which he calls “the ultimate celebration dish of Ethiopia — and fried chicken with a side of Doro Wot, Ethiopian traditional chicken stew and the cuisine of Sweden.
To Samuelsson, the opening of a modern restaurant in Addis Ababa has been in the making for almost a decade, anchored by his dream of a memorable homecoming. To pay homage to Ethiopian culture, the restaurant has teamed up with a number of Ethiopian designers, including Anna Getaneh, a former international model.
“I want my cuisine to be delicious and to be rooted in modern-day Ethiopia,” said Samuelsson.
The move in Ethiopia for Samuelsson comes at a time when the Horn of Africa nation is keen to revive an economy that has experienced sluggish growth even while grappling with multiple challenges including recurrent regional conflicts that have put a damper on investment.
His sweet homecoming has come just as some international brands are making their exit in the wake of a challenging time for Ethiopia’s overall economy, including the hospitality sector.
Whereas Ethiopia once witnessed over a dozen new hotel deals annually, few investors are currently willing to open new eateries. Burger King and Pizza Hut are essentially the only new international restaurant chains in the last two years.
In addition, access to financing is limited due to the struggling economy. Securing funds has become a herculean task.
But Samuelsson hasn’t flinched at the opportunity. Unlike many other international investors, he has obvious emotional connections to Ethiopia including his biological father and many half-siblings who live near Addis. He also has support from an Ethiopian government keen to have a good story to tell with this global superstar as the face. And he has support from an international brand in Hyatt Regency who will help manage the restaurant.
This gives the government and some investors hope that Ethiopia’s hospitality sector will recover from its slump.
Marcus Addis will be used as a “vehicle to teach” and improve local hospitality standards, Ethiopia’s National Bank Governor Mamo Mihertu told Semafor Africa. He said he hopes it will “secure world class training and create employment opportunities here at home and abroad while complementing the local hospitality sector.”
Room for Disagreement
Samuelsson has received a barrage of criticism on social media from young Ethiopians since the opening of his new restaurant. Some are skeptical, others alarmed by what they see as his alliance with the national government which has been entrenched in regional conflict in different parts of the country. The sharpest recent criticism has centered on Samuelsson’s visit to the inauguration of a new luxury government-backed resort alongside Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.
There has also been outcry over his seeming endorsement of Abiy’s call for Ethiopia’s second-generation diaspora to visit the country and support such government-initiated projects. “Behind the PR stunts & luxury resorts lies a dark truth — war, genocide, famine and mass atrocities”, said the Ethiopian American Development Council in a post on X.