Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Book Review: Yes, Chef: A Memoir

My introduction to Chef Marcus Samuelsson came courtesy of Top Chef Masters. I was watching the program in support of Susur Lee, one of Canada's most renowned chefs, and found myself cheering on Samuelsson equally during the final round.

Why? He just seemed likeable. And honest. And not pretentious is the way so many other chefs come across on these shows.

Now, I am not a 'foodie' or whatever moniker is in fashion these days. I like food to be simple, and which can be described in 3 words or less. I'm one of those people who doesn't really like dressing on salads, as I want to taste the true flavors of the components without a mask. I want lettuce to taste like lettuce, and not overly slicked with vinegar or oil or anything else. Knowing this about myself, I was interested to see what I would discover through Samuelsson's Yes, Chef: A Memoir.

Would it be stuffed with self-importance? Would it be condescending towards my simple food choices? And what is the spice mixture on the cover?

My only other experience adventure in the sub-sub-genre of celebrity chef autobiography comes from Anthony Bourdain. I really enjoyed Kitchen Confidential mainly because that world was so new to me. I even enjoyed the television show that was based on it; well, I enjoyed the supporting cast anyway. But unlike Bourdain's tales you will not find booze benders, drug binges, or high profanity in Yes, Chef save for a few youthful follies. Instead, you'll find a heart-warming albeit somewhat tragic tale bouncing from Ethiopia to Sweden to Germany to France to the United States and back to Ethiopia.

Samuelsson was born in Ethiopia where he was hospitalized at age three with tuberculosis along with his older sister and mother. Following his mother's death, a white middle-class couple from Göteborg, Sweden adopted Samuelsson and his older sister. It was his grandmother Helga who inspired Samuelsson’s love of cooking early on, as he spent many hours beside her in the kitchen learning the Swedish dishes that would come to influence his career in later days.

After the heartbreaking news he would not become a professional soccer player ("I sometimes think of myself more as a failed soccer player than as an accomplished chef."), Samuelsson fully embraced a career in the culinary arts. He went to restaurant school, worked in kitchens around Sweden and Europe, and completed stints on cruise ships. All of these experiences fueled his desire to mix food and cultures, to experiment beyond the standard definitions of what is considered "the best food."

I knew I truly liked Samuelsson when he stated: “Who lied? Who started the lie that France had the greatest food in the world?” Yeah, who did? I'd really like to know too.

His rise to chef stardom happened in New York at Aquavit, a famous New York restaurant specializing in Nordic cuisine where he became head chef at age 24. This event shaped many of his experiences that came after, including the opportunity to travel to Ethiopia and connect with his neglected culinary roots. It is here Samuelsson meets his father for the first time, and realizes the full strength of the familial bonds shaping his life and his cooking.

Narratively, Yes, Chef begins to peter out in the later chapters when the focus switches to more current events such as cooking for the President of the United States, marriage, and his restaurant Rooster in Harlem. They are not as fluid. Perhaps it is because the topics are too current, too "of the now" that they lack the weighted reflection and introspection shown in the previous chapters.

The story of Marcus Samuelsson is of someone who tried, stumbled, tried again, succeeded, and repeated. Samuelsson has made mistakes; he admits it. He doesn't try to make excuses or bend the truth to make himself sound like a better person than he really is. This honesty is what makes the story such an engaging and inspiring read.

What also makes it inspiring is the threaded theme of how crucial mentoring is for youth (and I would say for everyone). A large part of his success can be attributed to the mentoring provided by family, friends, and colleagues along the way. Samuelsson himself takes time to mentor young people in his neighborhood, inviting them over to his apartment to cook with him. Who does this? Really, who does this?

Overall, I admire the reserved nature of the Yes, Chef, which I suspect is also Samuelsson at his core. We are allowed in pretty far but there is still a palpable, respectable distance. This is no 'look at me, how brilliant I am"; it is "here I am and my journey thus far. Take me for what it is and for who I am."

Okay - yes, chef.

Read an excerpt from Yes, Chef: A Memoir

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