Thursday, July 5, 2012

Yes, Chef, by Marcus Samuelsson

Marcus Samuelsson is a "celebrity chef" whose story is probably better known than his food. He was born in Ethiopia, adopted with his sister by Swedish parents, and eventually worked his way to New York, where he became a noted chef at Aquavit and, more recently, at his Harlem restaurant Red Rooster. I first became aware of him when he won the second season of Top Chef Masters; I've seen him on other cooking shows and have always found his personality and passion for bringing African cuisine to the United States winning.  I was excited to read his new memoir, but also a bit nervous that he might reveal himself to be an egomaniac on the order of . . . well, best not to mention any names.

Yes, Chef does not disappoint.  It pays tribute to his Swedish family, while not underplaying how out of the mainstream he often felt as a black Swede. His decision to pursue cooking as a career (second choice to professional soccer player, which proved infeasible!) put him in an arena where the term for kitchen peon was often a word meaning a black person. Yet his work ethic, his relentless ambition to succeed as a chef, his love of flavors, and his skill in creating flavors in new combinations lifted him to a high level of success--a three-star review in the New York Times--at a young age. His descriptions of how the work of kitchens is organized and the grueling nature of working in the back of the house make clear that the life of a chef is challenging, if not punishing. Similarly, his references to restaurants that closed in the recent economic downturn remind the reader that running a successful restaurant is also difficult from the business standpoint.

At Samuelsson built on that early success with cookbooks and new restaurants with his partners at Aquavit, he was also getting to know his African family and contributing to his half-sisters' education. Proving that he's not perfect, Samuelsson reveals that he has a daughter who was born when he was 20 and whom he did not meet until she was in her mid-teens (he did pay child support at his parents' insistence).

As Samuelsson matured as a person and a chef, he found himself drawn to Harlem, wanting to create a restaurant that would build on his Ethiopian-Swedish roots while honoring African-American cooking, but more than that--to create a place where diverse people--different in age, in life experience, in ethnicity or religion--would be drawn to eat and build community. He also has committed himself to inspiring young African Americans' interest in healthy, delicious food but also to providing assistance to those seeking careers in the field. Of this he says, "In Sweden, we do a lot of cross-country skiing. And when you ski, just in the woods, not in a resort, the first skier has to plow. That's how I think of myself--with the restaurant, with the Harlem dining scene, I'm the guy who has to plow. . . . I have been witness to the poor quality of groceries available in Harlem, the lack of healthy food options, the whitewash of New York's find-dining scene--in the kitchen, among the staff, and among the guests. I'm activating myself to lead."

A couple months ago, someone posted a comment asking what inspired me, and I responded that I'm not easily inspired. But Yes, Chef and its author inspire me.

Favorite passages:
Torsten and Nini [his great uncle and aunt] had a louder, more brash style than my parents, and I loved to watch the way they mirrored each other. Their shouts and seemingly exasperated murmurs were the words of two old people who had stood, united, against the harshness of the cold blue sea for sixty years and made a life together. I looked at the two of them and the simple but hugely satisfying meals they shared, and I thought Torsten is right. That is a good life.

My father's death left me rudderless; I'd guided myself by him for as long as I could remember. He was the one who taught me how to read a map, bait a hook, make a fire, fix a bike, pitch a tent. He taught me, by example, that some principles, no matter how cliched they sound, really do mean something. Hard work is its own reward. Integrity is priceless. Art does feed the soul.

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