Published by Random House
Publication date: June 26th 2012
Genres: Memoir, Non-fiction
The odds that Marcus Samuelsson would survive infancy were slim. That he would not only survive but would go on to become a world famous chef is almost beyond reckoning. And yet, he did. In his memoir Yes, Chef, he writes of his life, not just in the kitchen but from his childhood as the adoptee of a Swedish family to the pinnacle of his career, cooking at the White House for the Obamas, for their first state dinner. Along the way there are numerous highs and lows, all of which Samuelsson writes about with an attitude both brash and humble.
Born during the tuberculosis epidemic in Ethiopia in the early 1970s, Samuelsson’s mother died of the disease, leaving him and his sister, both ill, alone in a hospital in Addis Ababa. Her final gift to them had been trekking the 75 miles from their village to get them to a doctor. Of her, he says, “Her identity remains stubbornly shrouded in the past, so I feed myself and the people I love the food that she made. But I cannot see her face.” Within months of their recovery, a family in Sweden adopts them and they begin a new life in the small town of Göteborg. For the young Marcus, his passions are soccer and cooking with his grandmother, Helga. It is only when he is cut from the soccer team for being too thin, that he turns towards food and begins the journey of a lifetime. In Sweden, school is only mandatory until the 9th grade so, at 15, he decides to forgo high school and go to a food trade school instead. Here his induction to the world of cooking begins. From this point on the reader is captured, not only with descriptions of grindingly hard work but also with tales of his life and some of the experiences that change him, such as losing a dear friend in a car accident, which he witnessed, becoming a father at age 20, and not discovering his birth father was still alive until he was 30.
There is so much story to be told in Samuelsson’s life but the facts are only one facet of Yes, Chef. It is what goes on in his head and his perceptions that give the book its heft. The greatest of these, not surprisingly, is his experience of being a black man in an environment where people of color generally hold only the lowest positions. As he travels through Europe, to Austria and France, he faces, time and again, an attitude that ignores his abilities and focuses on his skin. While it may not be racism to the degree felt by blacks in America, it is still a strong undercurrent in the restaurant world.
We were, after all, part of an underclass, objects of a prejudice that showed up in the common vernacular of the kitchen. Just as in Sweden, the French term for low-level kitchen assistant is “negre”, which translates directly to “black”.
Additionally, there is the refreshing sense of a work ethic found throughout the book. At no point does Samuelsson invoke what has become a common refrain from today’s generation, “I deserve…” Whatever he is asked to do, he does, from the lowliest of scut work to coming in early and staying late. If his efforts were not rewarded, there was no whining. He simply continued to work and look for new opportunities, without resentment or placing blame- a mindset that seems to be lost these days. For him, as long as he was learning, it was worth it. When faced with an abusive butcher his only thought was, “I didn’t care because I was learning to butcher from one of the best and once that knowledge was in me, it belonged to me.”
It is surprising then, given Samuelsson’s desire to overcome or at least negate his skin color in the kitchen, that he would find his greatest fulfillment and recognition when he embraced it. At age 28, four years after becoming the youngest chef ever to be awarded three stars by the New York Times for his work at the restaurant Aquavit, he was asked by Gourmet magazine to travel to Ethiopia for a piece they wanted to do about him. In his race to excel as a chef, Samuelsson, who had traveled the globe, had never been to his homeland. This single trip would change not only his perceptions as a chef but as a man as well. After the trip, he began writing his homage to modern African cooking, The Soul of a Cuisine, which took seven years and thousands of travel miles to complete. He has since gone on to open a culturally diverse restaurant, Red Rooster, in Harlem, where he now lives.
Whether you like fine dining and food or not, this book is a satisfying read. If you are a foodie, his descriptions of flavors, menus and recipes are exquisite and hunger-inducing. On the personal front, his writing is warm and honest. He owns his life, including all the mistakes, and makes no excuses for who he is. Samuelsson is not a man who felt anything was owed to him but a chance. And when given that chance he proved himself, time and again, working tirelessly to create his own opportunities and forcing the world around him to notice.