Marcus Samuelsson: The Yes, Chef Review
“A chef’s life is one of service, even in the age of Top Chef and Food Network stars. It doesn’t matter if they send a fancy town car to pick you up, you can’t sit on your butt in a comfy leather armchair and cook an incredible meal.” – Marcus Samuelsson
My Quickie Summary: Marcus Samuelsson takes us on a culinary exploration around the world, making stops along the way to reflect on family, race, and of course, food.
Their Summary: Marcus Samuelsson was only three years old when he, his mother, and his sister—all battling tuberculosis—walked seventy-five miles to a hospital in the Ethiopian capital city of Addis Adaba. Tragically, his mother succumbed to the disease shortly after she arrived, but Marcus and his sister recovered, and one year later they were welcomed into a loving middle-class white family in Göteborg, Sweden. It was there that Marcus’s new grandmother, Helga, sparked in him a lifelong passion for food and cooking with her pan-fried herring, her freshly baked bread, and her signature roast chicken. From a very early age, there was little question what Marcus was going to be when he grew up. Yes, Chef chronicles Marcus Samuelsson’s remarkable journey from Helga’s humble kitchen to some of the most demanding and cutthroat restaurants in Switzerland and France, from his grueling stints on cruise ships to his arrival in New York City, where his outsize talent and ambition finally come together at Aquavit, earning him a coveted New York Times three-star rating at the age of twenty-four. Yes, Chef is a tale of personal discovery, unshakable determination, and the passionate, playful pursuit of flavors—one man’s struggle to find a place for himself in the kitchen, and in the world.
Thoughts on the Book: When my older sister asked me about Yes, Chef, I told her don’t bother, but strangely enough, I never stopped reading it. I honestly enjoyed Samuelsson’s reflections on food, his experiences in various kitchens/restaurants around the world, and his coming to grips with who he was race wise and as a man in general. I will admit that his deciding not to take part in his daughter’s life until she was 14 was a little disturbing for me, but that’s more than likely due to my own personal issues with the subject. This book had a few definite emotional moments, including Samuelsson’s meeting his father for the first time and his rise to earning the respect of well-known chefs. Although Samuelsson is Ethiopian by birth and grew up in Sweden, he makes it clear that he has found comfort in New York (Harlem to be exact) and within the confines of the African American community. Samuelsson makes literary references, interesting observations on race and life, and as you near the memoir’s end you find yourself cheering for his many successes. And what’s crazy is when I finished the book, I visited his blog, downloaded an episode of Top Chef Masters Season 2, and just stalked him online for a moment (he’s kinda sexy in SOME of his pictures). If you can convince yourself to push on beyond the initial few chapters, this book presents a worthy story. As a matter of fact, I couldn’t decide whether to give it 5-stars or 4 or Goodreads. I think 4.5 works, but that’s not an option. While I couldn’t understand why this book had made so many “Best of” and recommended lists last year, by the final page, I definitely got the picture. As a person who loves eating out and enjoying good food, especially foods I’ve never heard of or tasted, this book really introduced me to new delicacies and made me want to read Samuelsson’s cookbooks (see below). If you enjoy cooking, food, and rooting for the underdog, then this is a book to consider.
Excerpt: By the middle of the following summer, I was staring to feel pretty well established. Our staff was solid, business was good. Paulie had worked super hard for me over the last six months, and I wanted to reward him by sending him out to stage. Stages are one of my favorite traditions in the restaurant world. First of all, half of who we are as chefs has to do with the chefs who came before us. So the stage shows respect for wisdom. Second, the fact that if you do well for your chef he’ll send you away still strikes me as one of the most generous professional acts I’ve heard of. If you were at a law firm and they wanted to reward you, they’d probably give you a bonus or some time off. But in cooking, serious cooks understand that there’s nothing more valuable than the chance to learn something new.
“How would you like to spend some time working for Bobby Flay? I asked Paulie.
“Are you fucking kidding me?” he answered.
I took that as a yes.
I called up Bobby and told him I had a young guy who was really good; would it be OK for him to spend a week in Bobby’s kitchen?
“Let me think about it,” Bobby said. “I’ll get back to you.”
A few days later, I got his answer. “No.”
I hung up the phone in shock. I thought I had pull. I had no pull. Not only did I not have pull, but I had to go back to Paulie and explain how much pull I didn’t have. It took me a long time to realize that a great review from Ruth Reichl had signaled only that I was a talent to watch. In order to be a fixture on the New York dining scene, to be able to call someone like Bobby Flay and ask him for a favor, I needed to show I had staying power. Sure enough, a year later, when Felicia Lee wrote a nice piece about me and my food for The New York Times, Bobby was the first to call and congratulate me.
Marcus Samuelsson on Writing: “It’s one thing to live your choices, but another thing to write them down. It’s a good exercise.”
Marcus Samuelsson’s Cookbooks:
Back to reading, y’all!