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. Yes, Chef chronicles Samuelsson’s journey, from his grandmother’s kitchen to his arrival in New York City, where his outsize talent and ambition finally come together at Aquavit, earning him a New York Times three-star rating at the age of twenty-four. But Samuelsson’s career of chasing flavors 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 Red Rooster in Harlem. At Red Rooster, Samuelsson has fulfilled his dream of creating a truly diverse, multiracial dining room—a place where presidents rub elbows with jazz musicians, aspiring artists, and bus drivers. It is a place where an orphan from Ethiopia, raised in Sweden, living in America, can feel at home.
Before reading this book I had never heard of Samuelsson, as his rise and career in front of the camera came after I moved halfway across the world. I’m glad that I now know who he is but I feel oddly disconnected from him as a cook… not what I was expecting from a food memoir.
Things were fine for the first half of the book as he recounts his childhood and early forays into cooking, but later I felt like I was missing out. “And then there was that time on Iron Chef Masters“, he seems to say, with precious little detail. “Grueling 18 hour days.” Doing what? How much time did you have to plan? Was the format the same as the original Iron Chef? I shouldn’t have to look up the show on Wikipedia to understand what’s going on.
While Anthony Bourdain (Kitchen Confidential) is rooted in the physical act of cooking – chopping like mad, the slam of pans on the stove – Samuelsson is a chef from the neck up. He chases new flavors, develops menus, hunts down the perfect ingredient for his next signature dish.
At times this mindfulness is good. I liked learning how he negotiated being a black man in so many different cultures, from the Ethiopia of his birth to the Sweden of his youth to the New York he now makes his home. It’s interesting to hear the reasoning behind decor choices and music selections. Sometimes, though, I just wanted to be thrown into a service. It doesn’t happen much.
Samuelsson has made some decisions he feels awful about but he owns them as well as he can. Would I be as mad as Zoe? Hell, yeah. But at least he knows he deserves every stinging barb thrown his way.
As you can probably tell from this choppy review Yes, Chef leaves me with mixed feelings. I want to visit Red Rooster but I probably won’t be recommending this book to my foodie friends. It’s for those who love auto-biography and rags to riches stories. Nothing wrong with that, but I do lean more foodie myself.