Yes, Chef: A Memoir
Confessions of cosmopolitan chef Marcus Samuelsson
Reviewed by Kate Thornberry, Fri., Aug. 3, 2012
by Marcus Samuelsson (Random House, 336 pp., $27)
Ever since Kitchen Confidential, the reading public has developed a taste for books about chefs – especially memoirs, and preferably ones of the tell-all variety. (Strange as it is to say, becoming a chef is probably not a bad move for a would-be writer these days!) Marcus Samuelsson, the winner of Top Chef Masters on Bravo, has thrown his hat into the ring with this memoir, and the consensus is that he's created yet another winner.
The book is immediately engaging, as Samuelsson begins with the heartrending story of his childhood. Born in Ethiopia, he and his sister were tragically orphaned and then adopted by a Swedish couple. The story follows him through his interesting years of growing up both black and Swedish. Samuelsson decided to become a chef in his teens, after realizing that his slight frame wouldn't take him to his first choice of a career in pro soccer. The memoir then follows him through his rigorous training as a professional chef under the European apprenticeship system, chronicling both his triumphs and his mistakes as he navigates a career that spans nearly the entire globe.
It is the honest confession of these mistakes, made throughout his life, that make this book more than just an interesting look at the making of a chef. Samuelsson makes no pretension to effortlessness or perfection in his career, or life. Instead, he presents the story of a human being who must pick himself up and try again after screwups, some of which can't be fully resolved or forgiven. It makes the memoir more engaging than it would otherwise be, and radically inspiring. He also reveals how crucial the mentoring he received along the way was to his eventual success, and urges others to take the time to mentor young talent, as he endeavors to do himself.
Recently, I was lucky enough to attend a luncheon given in Chef Samuelsson's honor at Malverde, presided over by La Condesa Chef de Cuisine Rick Lopez. The menu was created by Lopez, Executive Chef Rene Ortiz, and Pastry Chef Laura Sawicki, and drew on not only Scandinavian and Ethiopian cuisine, but Mexican as well. Though certainly a tall order to fill, the dishes presented seamlessly combined flavors and techniques from all three traditions: buckwheat Injera bread and quinoa flatbread served with fresh-made farmstead cheese and white bean puree; pickled mackerel served à la ceviche with avocado, citrus and herbs; and a dessert of honey, cherries and fresh ricotta, topped with puffed millet. Each course was better than the last – as well as surprisingly, and beautifully, coherent. It was a telling representation of the world that Samuelsson describes in his book: a world of cuisine growing increasingly cosmopolitan as we discover more about our planet and all of its peoples.