Saturday, July 21, 2012

"Yes, Chef," by Marcus Samuelsson

Readers of this blog know that one of the genres I enjoy is books about the restaurant world, and especially memoirs of chefs. I just finished a new example of this genre, “Yes, Chef: A Memoir” (Random House, 2012), by Marcus Samuelsson. This is the story of a man who was born in Ethiopia, was adopted as a toddler by a Swedish family, loved to cook with his Swedish grandmother, started working in restaurants as a young teenager, and at the practically unprecedented age of 24, became the chef at New York’s Aquavit and earned a New York Times three-star review for the restaurant. He was the youngest chef ever to receive a three-star review from the Times. Along the way, he worked in restaurants in Europe, and while in New York and elsewhere, he roamed the various neighborhoods and explored the cuisines and markets of many different countries and cultures. He also recently won the Top Chef Masters television competition, and planned and cooked for the first state dinner at the Obama White House. At a certain point, he felt the need to reconnect with his Ethiopian birth family and background, and with his black identity as well, so he went back to Ethiopia several times. His own path to success was not as direct and easy as the above description might indicate; he overcame many challenges and missteps along the way, both in his professional life and his personal life. Now, bringing together many aspects of his life, talents, identity, and character, he is the creator, owner and chef of the successful and well-reviewed Red Rooster restaurant in Harlem. One of his goals in life is to bring more attention to Harlem and its rich history and culture; another goal is to bring more black chefs into the restaurant world. This story is well written. Although no co-author is listed on the title page, the author mentions in the acknowledgements that “the real work of writing this book began when my friend Veronica Chambers agreed to help me tell my story….This is my story, but the fine touch on the words is all hers,” so it is not clear how much of the writing is his and how much hers. In any case, it is a readable and compelling story. Samuelsson has a unique and inspiring story, and his “voice” is both proud and humble, a good balance. He seems very likable, although I did question his decision for many years to support his illegitimate daughter financially but not see or communicate with her. Fortunately, he eventually, as he became more mature, established contact with her and built a belated relationship with her. I like the fact that he often acknowledges and thanks the people in his life who helped him succeed, not only as a chef but as a person, most notably his beloved and admirable Swedish parents. Now, back to the reason Samuelsson published a book in the first place: his life in and love of cooking. He is obviously a tremendously talented chef, and has been able to blend various aspects of his background, identity, and gifts to produce amazing, creative food and a wonderful experience for those who dine at his restaurants. A few years ago, I was fortunate enough to eat at Aquavit while he was still the chef there, and it was an impressive and memorable meal and experience.

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