Monday, April 22, 2013
A Review of 'Yes, Chef: A Memoir' by Marcus Samuelsson
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 Ababa. 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 at 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 fulfilled 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.
With disarming honesty and intimacy, Samuelsson also opens up about his failures-- the price of ambition, in human terms-- and recounts his emotional journey, as a grown man, to meet the father he never knew. Yes, Chef is a tale of personal discovery, unshakable determination, and the passionate, playful pursuit of flavors-- one man's struggle to find a place for himself in the kitchen, and in the world."
This is the first book in a while that I have read excitedly. Being in a reading slump is no fun, but this brought me back to the wonders of reading for fun (you might notice that a lot of the books I've been reviewing lately are books that have been assigned for school).
Right away, this book delves into Marcus' childhood. I loved reading about his interactions with his grandmother, his mormor. I loved seeing Swedish sprinkled throughout the pages, especially since it's a language that is so unfamiliar to me. In my head, I'm butchering the words, but on paper, they look lovely.
I loved how fearless of a writer Samuelsson is. He addresses topics like race, classism, sexism, and segregation without batting an eyelash. He also addresses Africa as a continent, which is quite an undertaking, mainly because it is seen as a lost cause or a waste of time to think about. He sheds light on things like poverty, the stark contrasts within the different countries themselves, but also what rich cultures each country (in this case, Ethiopia) has. I also love that Samuelsson tries to bridge the past and the present between these two covers.
It sounds like such a hefty read, looking at the paragraph above, but Samuelsson is such an articulate person that it reads quite easily. You might be uncomfortable at times because of the difficult conversations he tries to instigate, but don't let that stop you.
One thing that bothered me about this book was how alone Marcus seemed (this isn't to say that he was lonely-- I didn't quite pick up on that vibe). About halfway through the book, I was really happy that I've decided to go into teaching as opposed to the culinary arts. Cooking is a hobby of mine and I love it, but I could never do what Marcus did. He doesn't get a lot of sleep, he spends long shifts at the restaurant, works his butt off trying to make as few mistakes as possible. He's under so much pressure all the time. I don't understand how he doesn't develop an ulcer. He talks about the people he grew up with and who he worked alongside as he developed professionally, but just about everything that happened for Marcus was because of the things that he did. He decided to learn and reflect as opposed to going out for a drink every once in a while with the others from the kitchen. He decided to live away from his biological daughter in Austria. He depended upon himself in the kitchen and worked others just as hard as he worked himself.
I can't help but admire Marcus Samuelsson, but I also can't help but feel empty for him because he didn't have these things as many others in the world do (in some way, shape, or form).
If you're looking for a great memoir to read or are looking for a reading revival, definitely give this book a shot!
I give 'Yes, Chef':