Sunday, September 9, 2012

Yes, Chef Review

Yes, Chef  
Author: Marcus Samuelsson
Publisher: Random House
American release date: June 26, 2012
Format/Genre/Length: Novel/Autobiography/336 pages
Publisher/Industry Age Rating:
Overall Personal Rating: ★★★★

He was born Kassahun Tsegie in a poor village in Ethopia and orphaned at the age of three, along with his older sister, Fantaye. Their mother, Ahnu, walked them the many miles to Addis Ababa, all three ill with tuberculosis, where somehow she got them into one of the already crowded hospitals. Unfortunately, Ahnu did not survive, but the children did. Meanwhile, in Sweden, a loving Swedish couple, who’d already taken in a half-Jamaican, half Swedish daughter, Anna, wanted a son. And this is where the story of Marcus Samuelsson truly begins.


When they arrived in Sweden, Marcus was three and Linda five. He remembers little of his native country from that time, although he’s forged other memories since, in his adulthood. The Samuelssons already had Anna, their eight-year-old foster child. So when the two new children arrived, they were not the first children of color in the family. Their new parents were Lennart and Anne Marie, who gave them unconditional love. It was Anne Marie’s mother, Marcus’ grandmother Helga, who gave him a love of food.

At first, Linda was very protective of her little brother, and Anne Marie learned to go through her in order to make contact with the little boy. But with time, as Anne Marie worked at making herself understood by her new daughter, Linda learned to hold on less tightly.

Marcus and Linda called them mormor and morfar—“mother’s mother” and “mother’s father”.  Mormor’s house always smelled of food. Helga originally hailed from the province of Skåne in Sweden’s chief agricultural region. From a young age, she involved Marcus in her cooking. It was a special time for them, one that was not shared with his sisters and he never questioned why not. From this attention and devotion grew his great love of flavors and his feel for all things culinary.

From a young age, Marcus was seriously into soccer, along with his best friend Mats. They dreamed of being professional players, and played on teams together for years. However, this was not meant to be, and Marcus was stunned when he was dropped from the team at the age of sixteen, due to his size. That is when he decided that food would be his life.

His culinary journey began when he applied for and was accepted into Ester Mosesson. After graduation from the school, he became a kitchen boy at Belle Avenue, where he was exposed to many things he’d never seen before. He worked long hard hours and absorbed everything that he could. He was excited when he was given the chance to work at a restaurant in Amsterdam, but his father was skeptical, because of the city’s reputation for drugs, so he passed on the opportunity, to his boss’ dismay. But he didn’t say no to the next chance, and ended up in Interlaken, in the Alps, a thirty hour journey from home.


The first time I ever saw Marcus Samuelsson was on the TV series Chopped, where he is one of the regular judges. I heard that he was Swedish, as his name surely attests, and that he owns a restaurant in Harlem, but other than that I knew nothing. So when I became aware of his autobiography, I was eager to delve into it.

This is one fascinating book, well told. Marcus is obviously as much at ease with words as he is with flavors, and you quickly get caught up in his amazing story. He is very honest about the things that he’s done in his life, the people’s he’s met, the places he’s seen. He isn’t proud of everything, but then who is? We live, we learn. And having learned, we move on.

Life in Sweden, although much easier than it would have been for him in Ethiopia, was not perfect for a young black man, and he struggled at times in a land of very blonde, very pale people where he stood out because of his dark skin. For example, when he applied for a position at the local McDonald’s, and then told his friends that he had, they looked at him like he was crazy. He was blatte—dark—and they didn’t hire those kinds of people. Neither did they hire him.

Working in a kitchen, if you’re determined to succeed, is not easy, and you give up a lot in order to make it. Marcus was still very young when his then girlfriend informed him she was pregnant. She expected nothing from him, which was fine with him. But his parents insisted that no matter what else he did, he would send support to the mother for the child, no matter if he knew someone who was excused on account of not having the money. That was no excuse in his eyes, and he never failed to send the money, even if he had to borrow it from them to do so. And when he was ready, he forged a relationship with his daughter.

Part of Marcus’ education included working in kitchens in other countries. His knowledge of languages stood him in good stead, although his German wasn’t the strongest. Some kitchens were stricter than others, but he learned the most from those that were hardest on him, and expected more from him. During an interim period between two kitchens, he got the opportunity to work on a cruise ship and he took it, traveling to exotic places he never dreamed he’d be able to visit. And every place he went, he was eager and curious to explore the food and learn the flavors, building his extensive repertoire as he went, dreaming of a time when he could combine flavors in his own way, as he wished to do.

There have been ups and downs in Marcus’ career. Sometimes in the same place, such as Aquavit, where he became head chef at a young age. But no matter what the curves that were thrown at him, he came back stronger than ever. One of the highlights of his career involves the Obamas, as well as finding and meeting his birth father.

Marcus Samuelsson has come a very long way, and it’s been an amazing journey, which he relates so well you feel like you’re taking it with him. I feel like I know him all the better for having read his words. You don’t have to be a chef to appreciate his story, but if you’re interested in food and flavor, you will certainly learn things from him. I know I did. I recommend this book to everyone. It’s a can’t miss story.

As Marcus says, “Each one, teach one.” Words to live by.

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