Saturday, September 26, 2015

A Book Review: Yes, Chef!

It begins with a simple ritual: Every Saturday afternoon, a boy who loves to cook walks to his grandmother’s house and helps her prepare a roast chicken for dinner. The grandmother is Swedish, a retired domestic. The boy is Ethiopian and adopted, and he will grow up to become the world-renowned chef Marcus Samuelsson. This book is his love letter to food and family in all its manifestations.

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 Adaba. 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 that 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.


I have absolutely no idea why, when reading this memoir, a little jingle continued to play in the background of my mind, “Hey good lookin’. . .whaaaaaatcha got cookin’?” I know that sounds strange and totally out of place, but my mind does that to me sometimes. It’s amazing how an individual’s words mold and shape my thinking and how they sometimes conjure up ghostly thoughts that have been buried for many, many years. Chef Samuelsson is one of my all-time favorite chefs. I’ve been following his career throughout the years on the Food Network and other cooking shows and competitions. And because he’s such a great chef, although I’ve never had one piece of his great cooking to back that claim up, there’s no need! We have something in common—food is in our DNA. This is what resonated throughout his telling of his complicated life story.

It’s literally impossible for me to think of having grown up only remembering a slight memory of the woman who brought you into this world. To not be able to see a clear picture of what your mother looks like has got to be one of the most difficult things to live with. And to top it all off, try as hard as you might, not one person has a photograph of the woman who was your mother. Try standing in the mirror and searching your face for your family’s generations that pass throughout it? Can you see your parents? Do you see your siblings and ancestors before you? Do you know who you are looking at when you see yourself? Who are you? For Marcus, that’s a reality he’ll have to live with for the rest of his life. All he has of his mother is a brush memory that’s as light as a feather stroke.

But all was not lost! After Marcus and his sister lost their biological mother in Ethiopia due to tuberculosis, they were lucky enough to have a Swedish family willing and wanting to adopt them and make them apart of their family. The Samuelssons were all too happy to adopt and open their hearts and love to Marcus and his sister. After he acclimated to Sweden, immediately Marcus discovered he enjoyed following his grandmother around the kitchen watching how she prepared their supper. She taught him all the basics of everything that he knows today as a chef. In fact, when watching him compete, he often says he’s channeling his grandmother while in the kitchen. It is so obvious from his precision and fearlessness tackling the job at hand. His grandmother was a no nonsense type of person.

Marcus was destined to do great things and his hard work and determination paid off by honing his skills in some of the finest kitchens and regions in the world—from France, Germany, Africa, etc. It’s not too shabby to have dual citizenship and avail yourself of the best of all the countries from which you belong, Ethiopia, Sweden and America. And while coming up the ranks, as a young man, he fathered a daughter. I must admit it bothered me tremendously how he treated his daughter in the beginning. He was trying to build his cooking career, which was understandable, but he was getting his groove on and irresponsibly made a baby. It certainly wasn’t his baby’s fault for being brought here. I struggled with his attitude toward his daughter. To me, it was as if he was blaming her for being here, and that couldn’t have been further from the truth. But, what I love about Marcus’ parents, they made sure to let him know what the deal was. Sure, they were disappointed to learn their son had fathered a baby out of wedlock, but they told him he was going to provide for his child. When Marcus protested that he couldn’t afford to take care of the child, his mother simply stated, “we’ll pay for her upbringing and when you do make it, you’ll give us the money back.” OMG, when I read her words, I could have kissed his mother. What a great woman she is! That’s the way it should be. So, although Marcus figured since the mother of his child said she would provide for their daughter and he didn’t need to do anything, he figured that would be the end of it. Mama stepped in and made him at least “pay” for taking care of a child he fathered. Thankfully, as the story progressed, he finally reached out to his daughter, when she was fourteen, and began to mend his relationship with her. That made me feel so much better because it was beginning to look as though he was just going to let it pass in the book, and I thought, my star rating was soon about to change. Marcus turns out to be a good guy with faults just like every other human being! 

Yes, Chef has all the right spices and ingredients to make this a light and airy memoir with life’s little mishaps and trials and tribulations along the way. Marcus is now known throughout the world due to his celebrity status in the cooking world. He’s cooked for some of the most powerful and elite people from Kings and Queens, Presidents and First Ladies, to Prince and Princesses around the globe and continues to do charitable work to help inner city children achieve their goals of wanting to become chefs someday and step into the same kitchen arena as he had and continues to do. Mello & June gives Yes, Chef four stars. A really decent read and enlightening storyline. You’ll enjoy! I hope I get to eat your cooking one day, Chef Samuelsson. Until then, I’ll continue to watch you kick ass in the kitchen! You go boy!

Kimberly Ranee Hicks, Author/Poet/Reviewer

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