Review: Yes, Chef: A Memoir

Editor’s note: Linda Avery returns with a glimpse of award-winning chef Marcus Samuelsson’s new memoir, Yes, Chef. Read on as she reveals some juicy tidbits about this man’s journey from Ethiopia to celebrated chef.

Yes, Chef: A Memoir

by Marcus Samuelsson
photos by  Paul Brissman, Eddie Gehman Kohan, and Collection of the Author

Facts: Random House, 336 pages, $27.00 (or Amazon $15.00)
Photos: 26 family photos
Recipes: none
Give To: aspiring young cooks, culinary students, anyone who follows celebrity chefs

Those of us (me) who don’t live in Manhattan got to know Marcus Samuelsson via his first cookbook, Aquavit: And the New Scandinavian Cuisine (2003) named after his Scandinavian restaurant. Little did I know of this man who in 1999, won the James Beard Foundation award for “Rising Star Chef.”

Prior to receiving the Rising Star award, Samuelsson made his mark when Aquavit received a three-star rating from the New York Times making him, at age 24, the youngest chef to achieve that distinction.

In 2003, he received the James Beard Foundation award for Best Chef: New York City and opened his second restaurant Riingo, serving fusion Japanese/American food. In 2006, he penned The Soul of a New Cuisine, an African-inspired cookbook for which he received “Best International Cookbook” by the James Beard Foundation.

His achievements seemingly come easy and are endless.

But in Yes, Chef, Samuelsson reveals the journey, his journey… quite a journey.

He was born in 1970 in Ethiopia. His book begins with the statement “I have never seen a picture of my mother.” You see, by the time he was three, his entire family had contracted tuberculosis. His mother died after leading her children away from the ravaged area, walking 75 miles to a hospital. Her children were saved and were quickly adopted by a couple in Göteborg, Sweden.

Samuelsson learned the Swedish ways. As he watched his adoptive grandmother baking bread, pan-frying herring and roasting chicken, his interest in the kitchen grew. Could he have dreamed of owning restaurants, winning prestigious awards and cooking at White House State dinners?

In the book, he shares the story of his return to Ethiopia to find his birth father, relates how his interest moved from soccer to the kitchen, describes his experiences in various world kitchens, introduces his many and varied friends along the way, and even the first words spoken to his future bride “Give me your number before I get drunk. And will you have breakfast with me tomorrow?” Silver-tongued devil I’d say.

It’s a secure and confident person who tells all with an honesty that doesn’t make the reader feel like a voyeur. He admits the guilt he felt about not attending his father’s funeral because it would have jeopardized his immigration status. He had a daughter (Zoe) with a chambermaid who essentially told him she was having a baby and he didn’t have to stick around: so he didn’t. He did however, set up an investment account for Zoe’s future and sent money to her mother monthly. But he admits he wasn’t ready to be a father. He didn’t return to meet Zoe until she was 14 years old.

The book underscores the drive and hard work necessary to succeed in the culinary field, and the choices one man made. Samuelsson is a hard working man with a well seated moral compass who recognizes the true cost of his successes. Maybe the book was cathartic for him. For the rest of us, it’s a good read.


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