Monday, April 15, 2013
Book Review: Yes, Chef by Marcus Samuelsson
Title: Yes, Chef
Author: Marcus Samuelsson
Publisher: Random House
Publication Date: June 26, 2012
Source: borrowed from the good ol' public library
Plot Summary from Goodreads:
It begins with a simple ritual: Every Saturday afternoon, a boy who loves to cook walks to his grandmother’s house and helps her prepare a roast chicken for dinner. The grandmother is Swedish, a retired domestic. The boy is Ethiopian and adopted, and he will grow up to become the world-renowned chef Marcus Samuelsson. This book is his love letter to food and family in all its manifestations.
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. But Samuelsson’s career of “chasing flavors,” as he calls it, had only just begun—in the intervening years, there have been White House state dinners, career crises, reality show triumphs and, most important, the opening of the beloved Red Rooster in Harlem. At Red Rooster, Samuelsson has fufilled his dream of creating a truly diverse, multiracial dining room—a place where presidents and prime ministers rub elbows with jazz musicians, aspiring artists, bus drivers, and nurses. It is a place where an orphan from Ethiopia, raised in Sweden, living in America, can feel at home.
You all already know how much I love food memoirs. I fell in love with them after I tore through most of Anthony Bourdain's. So it's no surprise that when I heard Marcus Samuelsson was releasing a memoir in 2012, I knew I would have to push it up my reading list.
For those of you unfamiliar with Marcus Samuelsson, he is one of the so-called "Food Network Stars". He is often a judge on shows like Chopped, and he also competes in other shows (like Next Iron Chef, which he totally got booted from too early, in my ever-so-humble opinion). I have always loved watching him cook on TV, because he brings some extremely unique international flavor to his dishes. This book gave me the opportunity to delve into the origins of those skills.
As a memoir, I think the tone was perfect. There are parts of the book where Samuelsson sounds a bit too cocky--but, he admits as much partway through it anyway. And you'd probably be pretty cocky too, if you had the rise to food stardom that he did. He's earned his swagger. However, despite the arrogance that occasionally leaked through, it didn't turn me off because Samuelsson also spends large sections of the book admitting to his life's mistakes. He may be near-perfect in the kitchen, but that has not translated to all areas of his life. He has cheated on girlfriends, been a terrible (though trying to reform) father, and had one restaurant venture that was a total flop. His ability to frankly tell all areas of his story (personal and professional, success and failure) brought a strong sense of honesty to the text. It also helps you envision Samuelsson's journey toward maturity throughout his life, which is crucial in a memoir that spans so much time.
One aspect of Samuelsson's personal journey that particularly fascinated me was his racial identity. He is truly a "man of the world": born in Ethiopia, adopted and raised in Sweden, culinary training in the US, Austria, France, Switzerland...the list goes on. In each situation, his racial identity was challenged and reshaped. For example, in Sweden, he says he is often seen as part of the "new Sweden", a more modern and multicultural population in that country. On the flip side, in the US, he is grouped either as an African American, or an immigrant, which carries different meaning than it does in other countries. He has taken these various histories and made them a part of himself. That is best illustrated in his latest restaurant creation, Red Rooster, which is based in Harlem and attempts to bring together the enormous variety of cultures there. Samuelsson places a high importance on helping black culinary students find success in the kitchen, and his passion for this shines through on the page.
And the food? (This IS a food memoir...I have to talk about the food!) The food will make your mouth water. Reading the descriptions of his various menus and kitchen experiments will have you running to the phone to make a dinner reservation, ASAP. Samuelsson's creativity with international ingredients is truly amazing, and it is intriguing to see how that skill developed as he moved to new restaurants and lived in different countries.
Overall: this is a fantastic memoir, for foodies and non-foodies alike. Even if you've never seen a single second of Marcus Samuelsson on TV, I guarantee that his personal journey will be enough for you to delve into his book. And the next time I'm in NYC, you better believe I will be trying to make a reservation at Red Rooster.
Other reviews of Yes, Chef:
A Foodie Bibliophile in Wanderlust
Black Girl Lost...In A Book
Have you read any good food memoirs lately? If foodie nonfiction's not your thing, do you think you'd give one a try anyway if the personal side of the memoir was interesting?