Yes, Chef by Marcus Samuelsson is in my top two reads for 2013 and I’m slightly surprised because generally I keep to novels. This book obviously isn’t a novel, but I suppose it IS a close cousin: a memoir.
Here’s what I knew when I picked up the book:
– He was orphaned at a young age in Ethiopia, along with an older sister
– He and his sister were adopted by a couple in Sweden
– He is my favorite judge on the Food Network show, Chopped
Upon learning these snippets, immediately I was intrigued. How did someone go from Ethiopia to Sweden to America and end up a celebrity chef?
I wanted to experience the story with no pre-conceived notions, so I didn’t even read the description on the back cover (but if you’d like to, it’s below).
Yes, Chef chronicles Samuelsson’s journey, from his grandmother’s kitchen to his arrival in New York City, where his outsize talent and ambition finally come together at Aquavit, earning him a New York Times three-star rating at the age of twenty-four.
But Samuelsson’s career of chasing flavors 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 Red Rooster in Harlem.
At Red Rooster, Samuelsson has fulfilled his dream of creating a truly diverse, multiracial dining room—a place where presidents rub elbows with jazz musicians, aspiring artists, and bus drivers. It is a place where an orphan from Ethiopia, raised in Sweden, living in America, can feel at home.
I was expecting to be drawn in by Marcus Samuelsson’s story, but the quality of the writing took me off guard in a wonderful way. There’s a clarity to Marcus’ voice that tells me almost as much about his personality as the words he used on the page.
As you might expect, the author has a deep passion for his craft. But what you might not know, is that if you look past his eclectic and vibrant fashion statements and his undeniable skill at combining flavors, you’ll find a determined, committed, level-headed person that took necessary, humbling steps toward where he is today.
As an added bonus, Marcus’ journey gives a fascinating peek into the backend of the restaurant world. Turns out, there’s more to the food industry than a cursory viewing of Iron Chef lead me to believe. The discipline seems to rival the military–there is a strict order to be followed in earning one’s stripes as a chef. One must impress many harsh critics, both within the kitchen and in the dining room and accomplish tasks with precision even at the mundane level in order to move up the ranks.
Marcus’ path through life was one paved by hard work, yes, but also by attitude. Seeing the inner workings of this thought process every step of the way was enlightening. He has a way of diagnosing each and every experience in the moment and responding appropriately according to what would propel him forward most efficiently.
The book keeps to the main path of his professional life but I kept wishing that it would delve more into the relationships, too. I suppose you can only ask so much of one book.
Bottom line: If you are an aspiring foodie, addicted to cooking shows, or just appreciate an inspiring life story, this book is one you’ll want to add to your reading stack. The only downside to Yes, Chef is that it’s too short.