Saturday, September 8, 2012

Yes Chef: A Memoir

By Marcus Samuelsson
New York, Random House, 2012
319 pages     Memoir

Marcus Samuelsson has this to say about being a chef: “We definitely are in the memory business: we are creating a memory with ingredients.” What a noble goal for a career—to make memories with ingredients.

It seems that chefs are the new breed of celebrities. They are everywhere. And now that I have read Marcus Samuelsson’s memoir, Yes Chef,  I see him everywhere. When I got on the airplane last night, his picture was on the brochure of the on-board food for sale. A colleague mentioned that she lived in Harlem. I asked her if she had ever eaten at the Red Rooster, Samuelsson’s restaurant, and she exclaimed, “We live right down the street and we can’t get in—no matter when we arrive--5 pm or 9 pm.” 

Marcus Samuelsson has a remarkable story to tell in his memoir, Yes Chef. He is in his early 40’s, so there is much of his story yet to be told. But, he seems to know that his life story is unique and eventful, and full of resolve, hard work, and what would appear on the surface to be a lot of good luck. But it is a much deeper story than lucky breaks, and Samuelsson acknowledges that his history has informed and guided his career every step of the way. He tells his life story every time he plans a menu or picks a spice to add to a dish. The menu of his restaurant tells his story, from the Ethiopian spices he inserts to the Swedish meatballs that are daily staples to the soul food of the Harlem neighborhood where he currently lives and works.

Samuelsson was born into an Ethiopian tribal family in 1970. When he was a toddler, he, his mother, and his older sister all contracted tuberculosis. In an act of uncompromising heroism, his mother walked 75 miles to the hospital in Addis Ababa with her toddler on her back and her young daughter by the hand. There were thousands of patients awaiting care at the hospital, but somehow that mother found treatment for her children before she died. I am haunted by that mother’s resolve and the magnificent gift given to those children. 

Samuelsson’s childhood took another turn when he and his sister were adopted by a Swedish professional family. He was raised in an atmosphere of love, acceptance, and purpose. He expected to be successful as a Swedish soccer player, but when he was deemed to be too small, he turned all his energies into becoming a chef. He says that throughout his career he continues to honor his birth mother and the family that raised him.

Trained as a classical chef in Switzerland, Samuelsson honed his craft on cruise ships, and other restaurants, where he took every position he was given and attempted to perform that task with great tenacity, no matter how lowly the job, including gathering herbs for the dinner menu at a famous resort. Because he was talented and clever, he was promoted quickly in each job. Finally, he landed a job as a chef at a famous Swedish restaurant in New York called Aquavit. When the head chef died of a heart attack, Samuelsson was chosen to take over the kitchen. Within 5 months, the restaurant was awarded a 3 star rating by the New York Times; Samuelsson was the youngest chef to be so honored.

Since that time, his career has flourished. His new restaurant Red Rooster is a fusion of all the tastes he has cultivated through the years, with a huge helping of the Harlem neighborhood as well. He mentions that early on he realized that classic cooking included ethnic cooking as well; that there was as much integrity in the cooking of his Swedish grandmother or his Ethiopian mother as the finest French chef. He speaks frankly of the difficulties Black chefs have breaking through racial barriers. He says: ““A hundred years ago,” he says, “black men and women had to fight to get out of the kitchen. These days, we have to fight to get in.” In many ways he identifies with the African American experience, but he is also an outsider in that community. One reviewer says, “There’s a kind of alienation, finally, that can come from being an atypical black person. Like Barack Obama, whom he thanks in his acknowledgments, Mr. Samuelsson hasn’t had anything like what could be called a standard black American experience and has sometimes suffered for that reality. He’s too white for some, too black for others.”  Yes Chef tells of a man who knows that he is in the right place in his world, but there is part of him that we don’t know and probably are not supposed to know.

 Last week I edited a dissertation about multicultural education. The author asserted that immigrant students attempt to succeed in school as a way of honoring their parents, who sacrificed much to bring them to the United States. They feel duty-bound to succeed in school. The reader of Yes Chef has the same feeling about Samuelsson. By succeeding in his chosen career, he continues to honor those who sacrificed much to help him succeed. The book is as much about them as it is about him.

Two good reviews in the New York Times:

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