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Photos by Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette
Marcus Samuelsson, center, guest chef for Blessings in a Backpack, checks on dinner preparations at Sycamore Hills.

Celebrity TV chef gives back at Blessings

Marcus Samuelsson holds up a tray of cornbread.
Samuelsson checks on the dinner preparations in the kitchen at Sycamore Hills.

– Born in Ethiopia, adopted and raised in Sweden, owner of one of the hottest restaurants in New York – Red Rooster Harlem – and best-selling author.

And now chef Marcus Samuelsson has been to Fort Wayne.

The celebrity chef who is a regular judge on "Chopped," won "Chopped All-Stars" and has appeared on other popular cooking programs was the featured guest chef for this year's Blessings in a Backpack fundraiser at Sycamore Hills Golf Club on Tuesday night.

Fresh off a whirlwind book tour for his autobiography, "Yes, Chef," which has been on the New York Times' best-seller list since its release in late June, Samuelsson has tried to squeeze in a number of philanthropic events as well.

Last weekend it was a fundraiser for The Apollo Theater in the Hamptons; the weekend before it was a stop in San Francisco with fellow chef Chris Cosentino for the SF Chefs festival. So coming to Fort Wayne was a no-brainer, especially for such a worthy cause. Event treasurer Paul Sauerteig said Samuelsson donated half of his usual appearance fee.

Each Friday, Blessings provides a backpack full of food to underprivileged children in Fort Wayne elementary schools to take home for the weekend for themselves and, in many cases, for younger siblings who are not yet in school and who do not get school-provided meals.

"Being a chef, you have to give a lot and you get a lot back, but you have to give a lot," Samuelsson said. "If you are not ready to give, you can't be a chef.

"The Blessings cause is fantastic. Food is something we take for granted sometimes, but there's still 10 million kids in America that go to bed not knowing where their next food, their next dish, is going to come from."

And the folks at Blessings were thrilled to have him here.

"It's exciting to get such a highly respected and now popular chef. He is on the launch pad to great, great things," Sauerteig said, adding that 144 donors committed to the event even though they try to cap it at 125.

Sauerteig added that all of the Blessings events with guest chefs – Cat Cora, Charlie Trotter, Rick Bayless and Michael Symon have all lent their skills in previous years – have gone better than expected. The chefs prepare meals using local produce for guests who buy $750 tickets, and all the proceeds go to the charity.

"We have just had good luck catching (chefs) on a meteoric rise," he said. "And (Samuelsson) is right with them, a talented chef and just a great human being. A great guy."

Samuelsson served, among other things, braised short ribs with onion rings dusted with the staple Ethiopian berbere spice blend; corn pancakes with chili-covered gravlax (raw salmon, cured in salt, sugar and dill); and an heirloom tomato-watermelon-Virginia ham salad.

He said he was glad to join the local Blessings fraternity.

"I am looking forward to the dinner tonight; it's going to be amazing," he said, fresh back from an afternoon visit to the farm of Roanoke restaurant Joseph Decuis.

"I am excited to be a part of the chefs who have done it before and happy to follow in the footsteps of those chefs."

Samuelsson had been to Indiana, Indianapolis specifically, before for similar events, but his short visit to Fort Wayne – flew in just before noon and was to fly home right after the event thanks to a generous Blessings donor who volunteered a private jet to the cause – was more fruitful.

The flamboyant chef, decked out in a blue shirt and matching rolled-up pants, brightly colored canvas shoes and a striped painter's cap, had a photographer with him at the farm to shoot some pictures for his next cookbook.

He said he had fun and even brought back some old-fashioned rum-butter hard candy he picked up along the way to share with everyone in sight at the country club.

"Every place you come to, you can learn something," he said when asked about the farm. "It's amazing; the respect for culture and nature and the commitment to excellence, the way they raise the pork, the way they raise the beef is excellent.

"It's all about trying to keep something and make something beautiful. We saw that with the fresh vegetables and saw that with the bulls and horses and chickens and turkeys. It's not about mass production."

Samuelsson probably wishes he could mass-produce himself, given his busy schedule. In addition to the book tour and charity work, he is set to open a café, American Table, soon.

So the farm visit allowed the chef to slow down a bit – a rarity – but he said he wouldn't have it any other way.

"What we do is not normal, but it is something I am committed to and it's my profession," he said. "It's something I truly appreciate."

Those involved with the charity and the children who will be fed through funds raised by Tuesday's event probably feel the same way.