TURNING POINTS—Steve Samson's Three Life-Shifting Moments
The chef of the upcoming Rossoblu looks back.
July 25, 2016
Turning Points catalogues three non-culinary moments that define a culinary life; for chef Steve Samson, who stands on the precipice of opening his most personal project ever, those moments are about identity — and one little push.
vs. Italy, Bologna, Italy, 1982.
My dad's an American guy, my mom is from Bologna; my grandparents live in a small suburb there. My dad was great at providing us the opportunity to go to Italy every summer.
This particular summer I was 14, turning 15. There was a World Cup that year. I never cared about soccer before, but this game was probably one of the most amazing sporting matches I’ve ever seen. Italy ends up beating Brazil 3-2, and people were going crazy. From the balcony of my grandparents' apartment, you could see the street. At halftime of that game, there was a van across the street that caught on fire. The streets were empty. Nobody came out, no fire engines came, nothing. We just sat there and watched that van completely burn.
I realized for the first time that summer that Italy was an important part of me — that I did all the same things American kids did, but every break I would go to a different country and experience this great culture. I was as Bolognese as I was Californian.
University, New York City, around 1995.
My dad's a doctor. My older brother's a doctor, my younger brother went through law school. I struggled, like a lot of people do, to find a career, just floating around until my late twenties. It was kind of painful for me not having any idea what I wanted to do with my life.
I decided that I was going to go to medical school after all, so I moved to New York to take all the science prerequisites through a program at Columbia University. I took the MCAT, and I made a really good friend, this really smart, funny guy. He helped me write my statement for my med school applications, which were of course all about my connection to Italy.
One night I was cooking dinner for him and his girlfriend. "You don't want to be a doctor," he says. "You should go to cooking school. That's what you want to do."
He takes out the New York City phone book. He opens it to 'cooking schools' and says, "Here's the number. If you don't call them I'm going to call them for you." So I did.
The second I set foot into a kitchen I knew it was for me. I devoted myself to it. I worked so hard. I was at a point where I thought maybe I was just a fuck-up. Maybe I was lazy. As soon as I got into the kitchen, I realized that it was going to be all right.
And I’m still friends with that guy to this day.
Market South, Los Angeles, fall 2014.
This new restaurant Rossoblu is really the culmination of everything I've done career-wise, and the whole process has been difficult and rewarding, unlike anything I've ever done. We met the guys who were developing City Market South at a dinner, where they had opened the building and lit it up. It was still really raw; they hadn't finished it yet. I saw it and thought: It could work here. We can really make it happen.
I tell this to every young cook, that the only advice I can really give is to become a chef, you have to develop a point of view. You have to be cooking the kind of food that really resonates within you. I've always done Italian food, but I've never really reached that point where I felt it. Out of nowhere it seemed so obvious: the kind of restaurant I wanted was about the kind of food I grew up eating. What could be more natural than that?
I'm sure some chefs are hyper focused from the start. It took me almost 20 years of cooking to realize what kind of chef I wanted to be. I feel really fortunate to know that.