Marcus Samuelsson's Yes, Chef—reviewed

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  • Random House
It seems inevitable that Marcus Samuelsson's memoir, Yes, Chef, will someday become required reading in cooking schools, if only for its emphasis on the necessity of humility and hard work in the kitchen.

"To get ahead in that culture," Samuelsson writes, "you have to completely give yourself up to the place. Your time, your ego, your relationships, your social life, they are all sacrificed." The best thing a young chef can do is to remain invisible.

Until, of course, he's ready to step into the spotlight. When he was 23, Samuelsson took over as the chef at Aquavit, a Swedish restaurant in New York. Less than six months later, Ruth Reichl, then the restaurant critic at the New York Times, awarded it three stars. Ten years later, in 2003, Samuelsson won a James Beard Award for best chef in New York City. Then he won Iron Chef. Then he was selected to cook President Obama's first state dinner. Then he opened Red Rooster, his signature restaurant in Harlem. Now he's the sort of celebrity chef people recognize on the street.

Earlier this month, Yes, Chef won Samuelsson his second Beard award, this one for writing and literature. It could be argued that anybody with a life story like Samuelsson's could write a kick-ass memoir. But give the guy some credit for doing more than just connecting the dots.

So. Samuelsson was born in a small village in Ethiopia. His name was Kassahun. When he was still a baby, he, his older sister, Fantaye, and his mother, Ahnu, all contracted tuberculosis. The three of them traveled 75 miles, Ahnu and Fantaye on foot, Kassahun in Ahnu's arms, to Addis Ababa. Somehow Ahnu managed to get them admitted to the hospital, but she died shortly after their arrival. Kassahun and Fantaye were subsequently adopted by a Swedish couple, Lennart and Anne Marie Samuelsson, and renamed Marcus and Linda.

Although Samuelsson learned to cook as a boy from his Swedish grandmother, his earliest aspiration was to be a soccer star, and he didn't become serious about a career as a chef until he was cut from his team for being too small. A strong competitive streak goaded him into mastering a chef's skills (knives, etc), but cooking with his grandmother gave him a sense of flavor and texture.

"Looking back," he writes, "my grandmother's food was my introduction to rustic cooking. It had more levels of flavor than a twelve-year-old boy could understand. She didn't know how to build textures the way chefs build texture, but she got it. In her body, she knew how to create those levels."

Celebrity chef on the street
  • marcussamuelsson.com
  • Celebrity chef on the street
Some of the most satisfying passages in Yes, Chef are about the simple mechanics of cooking and, as Samuelsson puts it, "chasing flavors." The most thoughtful ones are about the racial politics of upper-class restaurants, where black chefs are still a definite minority. And the most awkward are the ones where Samuelsson discusses his personal life.

He bravely owns up to fathering a daughter with a one-night stand when he was 20 and to his failure to have any contact with her, aside from paying child support (assisted, during his lean years, by his parents), until she was a teenager, but it's clear he would much rather be back in the kitchen. Even his wife, Maya Heile, remains a vague presence, kind and beautiful and understanding of her husband's insane work hours, but with less personality than some of his kitchen colleagues. And what should have been one of the pivotal events of the book, Samuelsson's first meeting with Tsegie, his biological father, lacks force, mainly because of Samuelsson's shyness about pressing Tsegie for details about where he was when Ahnu made her long trek to Addis. (If he ever did find out, he's decided not to share.) Yes, the man is a chef, not a journalist. And, as a document of the education of a chef, both in the kitchen and in business, Yes, Chef is instructive.

Samuelsson is still only 42, relatively young, and Yes, Chef feels like a pause to catch his breath and look back on his rise from obscurity to celebrity and a small business empire. (Besides Red Rooster, he owns six other restaurants in the U.S. and Sweden, including Marc Burger here in Chicago, on the seventh floor of Macy's at 111 N. State.) In an e-mail interview, he writes, "No matter how old you are or where you are in life, you should write your memoir. It's just a great record of where you've been and where you want to go."

And where does he want to go? In that same e-mail interview, he's cagey. "We're about to open Uptown Brasserie and Street Food at JFK airport and Yes, Chef comes out in paperback on the 21st," he writes. "After that, we're adding new summer items to our Nook at Red Rooster and just doing our day-to-day affairs in Harlem. I'm always chasing new flavors wherever I travel and I'm looking forward to tasting what my Chicago compadres are up to. As for the next Red Rooster, who knows?"

He probably does. He's just not saying.

Marcus Samuelsson will be reading from Yes, Chef on Sat 5/18 at 4 PM at Snaidero Showroom in Merchandise Mart.

Aimee Levitt writes about books every Friday.

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