Sunday, March 10, 2013

Yes, Chef: A Memoir by Marcus Samuelsson

Most of us probably wouldn’t know who Marcus Samuelsson was if it weren’t for his celebrity created on the Food Channel’s Chopped and Bravo’s Top Chef and Top Chef Masters. Yes, he is the youngest chef ever to receive a three-star review in The New York Times (from food critic and author Ruth Reichel), and he has won the cooking equivalent of an Academy Award (the prestigious James Beard Award), but it’s his appearances on television that have made his life of interest to non-foodies.
I was initially curious about Samuelsson (pictured) because his ethnicity seemed out of place in the culinary world. Name five famous black chefs. Name five famous chefs from Ethiopia (Samuelsson’s country of origin) or Sweden (his country of upbringing). Name two. Therein lies the intrigue about this interesting character and his very interesting background.

Samuelsson’s story begins in Ethiopia where he, at the age of 3, his mother and older sister, all of them sick with tuberculosis and too poor to afford transportation, walk 75 miles in the desert to a hospital in Addis Ababa. I was immediately struck by the determination and courage it must have taken his mother to do that. I can’t imagine being healthy and walking 75 miles with two healthy children. In fact, Marcus’ mother, 28, died within days of arriving at the hospital, but her children survived because of her sacrifice. Click on Read More Below...

In a fortuitous twist of fate, Ann Marie and Lennart Samuelsson, a homemaker and a geologist living in Göteborg, Sweden, soon adopted Marcus and his sister. Samuelsson became interested in cooking at the elbow of his grandmother and the seed was planted. From there the story skips across Europe as the author attends culinary academy and migrates from restaurant to restaurant honing his craft, and how he eventually makes his way to New York City to become the renown chef of Aquavit.

Reoccurring themes throughout the book include the brutality in European kitchens where abuse of the staff is apparently the norm, Samuelsson’s awareness of his ethnicity and how that has impacted his course in life, and the author’s driven and focused pursuit of culinary perfection. As an aside, at one point in the book Samuelsson mentions a chef from Berlin named Heidi that he’s met while working in an Austrian restaurant. I immediately contacted my Berliner chef friend Heidi who used to work in Austria to ask, “Was that you!” “No,” she said, “I wish it was.” That would have been an extraordinary idiosyncrasy, but then I guess there are lots of chefs named Heidi from Berlin.

I found it peculiar that Samuelsson only mentioned his ghostwriter Veronica Chambers in the acknowledgements rather than on the cover.  Regardless, the rather uninspiringly titled Yes, Chef is an inspiring and unique story well told that I believe you will enjoy, as did I.

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