Seven years ago, Gate Maya Haile—who goes by Maya—was rushing out of the tiny New York City apartment she shared with seven fellow models when a cooking segment on Ellen caught her attention. She paused to watch talk show host Ellen DeGeneres interview chef Marcus Samuelsson. “He was telling Ellen how he was born in Ethiopia and how he loved to cook with his grandma,” Haile recalls. “I had tears in my eyes.”
Strangers at the time, both Haile and Samuelsson were born in Ethiopia and raised in northern Europe—Samuelsson in Sweden and Haile in Holland. About a month after the Ellen appearance, a mutual friend introduced them at a housewarming party in New York City. “Marcus and I talked about sports, Europe, and basketball. We had a lot in common,” Haile says. The pair exchanged numbers and Samuelsson invited Haile to play basketball the following morning. “He called me at 7 a.m. and asked me if I wanted to play!” she says, laughing. “Then he called me again after the basketball game.” Although Haile never made it to the court that morning, their common upbringing provided the initial spark that turned into a courtship, and then, marriage.
Samuelsson needs little introduction these days. The multiple James Beard Award–winning chef, restaurateur, cookbook author, philanthropist, Top Chef Masters winner, and pioneer of Scandinavian cuisine in the U.S. has most recently been hailed for his latest restaurant endeavor, Red Rooster, in Harlem (since it opened in December 2010, it has topped critics’ lists, including The New York Times’ Sam Sifton’s Top 10 Restaurants of 2011). But behind many top chefs and restaurateurs stands a talented significant other.
In Samuelsson’s case, that significant other towers. It was her above-average height—5’11’’—and slender frame that originally drew Haile to the United States from Holland, where she was working as a nurse. Haile caught her first big break in Manhattan during a stop for her daily caffeine fix, when a modeling scout spotted Haile, then 21, at a Starbucks. Twenty-four hours later she was on-set for her first photo shoot, trading scrubs and a stethoscope for silk and stilettos.
Haile’s beauty is striking: Pin-thin, she was dressed in cutoff jean shorts, a black tank top, and oversize sunglasses when I met her at Red Rooster. Though she embodies every physical quality you’d expect of a top model, the stereotypes end there. The clichéd ditziness has been swapped for an eloquent, strong, and ambitious woman who is poised to make it big in multiple arenas.
Haile first signed with the Elite modeling agency and is now with Next. In 2011 she also signed a five-year contract with L’Oreal New York.
Haile’s parents, grandparents, and 11 brothers and sisters didn’t initially look highly upon the glitz and glamour of the modeling industry. “Culturally, [my family] doesn’t think modeling is really a career,” she explains. “It’s not like being a doctor or having a real profession to them. They wanted me to be able to pay my bills and not have to worry about money.”
But soon Haile was gliding down catwalks in New York, Milan, and Paris, and with each job she booked, her family’s apprehension subsided. “I was only planning to stay in New York for a week,” she says. “But now I’ve been here for six years and my family is so proud.” Although her modeling career was reason enough to stay, her relationship with Samuelsson made it impossible to leave. The pair dated for three years before getting married in a traditional ceremony in Ethiopia in 2009.
Samuelsson and Haile have made names for themselves in a city that’s notoriously unforgiving to both aspiring restaurateurs and models. The pair live in Harlem, and are so enthusiastic about the neighborhood that Samuelsson chose a spot not far from their home for Red Rooster. When, after a few delays, the restaurant opened in late 2010, food enthusiasts and skeptics alike wondered how an upscale eatery would fare in a neighborhood better known for its mom-and-pop shops and casual cuisine. One year after Red Rooster opened, Samuelsson hosted President Obama for a Democratic fund-raising bash that pulled in $1.5 million.