MGM National Harbor restaurateur Marcus Samuelsson

Marcus Samuelsson joined the ranks of celebrity chefs overseeing hotel-casino restaurants when his 200-seat Marcus eatery opened with Maryland's MGM National Harbor in December. Born in Ethiopia and raised in Sweden, Samuelsson, who won the 1999 Rising Star Chef award from the James Beard Foundation, is known for New York restaurants such as the Red Rooster as well as for winning season two of Bravo's "Top Chef Masters" and regular appearances as a judge on the Food Network competition show "Chopped." He spoke with senior editor Danny King last month.

Q: Does your notoriety put more pressure on you and your restaurant to perform?

Marcus Samuelsson
Marcus Samuelsson

A: People want value and great food, and if you're on TV it puts more pressure on you. If you come in and think, "I have a lot of Instagram followers so my restaurant's going to be packed," it's not going to work like that. If you really love working with people and if your goal is to add value, that will keep you in business longer than any notoriety.

Q: Is there any competition at MGM National Harbor between yourself and the other well-known chefs who've opened restaurants there, such as Jose Andres and the Voltaggio brothers?

A: The Voltaggios are great. They're local, and they know the community, so we share notes. You lean on other [restaurateurs] as a chef, and you have multiple conversations, whether they be at National Harbor, New York or Sweden.

Q: What kind of food are you serving at Marcus?

A: It's a brasserie style of dining that sets you up for great American comfort food. Some of the dishes were inspired by the South, but with Maryland, you're right by the water and you have crabs. So while there's more of an African influence at the Red Rooster, there are more DMV (D.C.-Maryland-Virginia) influences at National Harbor. Sammy's (the restaurant's lounge area, named for Sammy Davis Jr.) has almost a "Rat Pack" feel, with more of a focus on craft cocktails.

Q: How's business? What's the breakdown of tourists vs. locals?

A: It's been amazing to watch the buy-in from the community. It reminds me of when I opened the Red Rooster. It's probably 60% locals from the DMV. We're doing about 450 covers a day, which takes a lot of training to do.

Q: Do you limit your menu for in-room dining?

A: No. I felt like, "Let's not stop. You're in the casino, you want to be able to celebrate." You don't want to put limits in a celebratory environment. So everything seen on the menu can be [served] in-room. We have a separate line in the back that can do that.

Q: Your menu has items with Red Eye Gravy and Comeback Sauce. Why the unusual names for food components?

A: Part of reading a menu should be fun. Part of comfort food should be, "I should recognize everything." Part of it is, "I should be in on the joke." Comeback Sauce is a dressing roasted up from chilies. We use it on sandwiches, burgers, many other items. It's almost like our Sriracha.

Q: Unlike many other celebrity chefs, you haven't overseen a restaurant in Las Vegas. Why?

A: I've been fortunate enough to have a lot of opportunities to go to Vegas. But this is a Vegas casino outside of Vegas, and I was holding out and waiting for the right opportunity. This is a very special project, and it means a lot.

Q: How often are you at the Marcus restaurant?

A: For the past three months my team has been down there, and I go down there every other week. It's a big project with a lot of challenges. We have 12 people from our organization and a staff of 150, which is our largest.

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