Marcus Samuelsson has a fascinating story to tell in his refreshingly candid memoir, Yes, Chef. At its heart is food and family, guided by years of discipline and sacrifice. His lifelong quest to engage customers through their senses with a denouement of flavors has resulted in a winding culinary journey for the Ethiopian-born 42-year old. Today he sits atop the restaurant world.
Samuelsson's passion began at an early age. Orphaned as a toddler, he remembers berbere, the reddish-orange spice mixture his mother sprinkled liberally on their food. Adopted by a middle class couple from Goteborg, Sweden, it was his Swedish grandmother, Helga, who encouraged her young grandson's interests. She introduced him to rustic cooking and layering of flavors. Her signature dish was a roast chicken, which she killed old-school style ("Come here, boom!").
The wiry, soccer-playing Samuelsson viewed all his cooking assignments as opportunities. From mopping as a kitchen boy in Sweden to restaurant stints in Switzerland and France and aboard cruise ships, Samuelsson absorbed the diversity of ethnic flavors. At age 24 he earned the position of executive chef of New York's Aquavit restaurant, and a three-star rating from The New York Times.
Samuelsson tells his story in an honest, retrospective manner. Growing up in a mixed race family, he didn't become aware of his black identity, and its challenges until older. He once ignored the only other black worker in a kitchen because he was worried what others would think if they were seen talking. That candor is refreshing, as is his poignant description of his return to Ethiopia. A bellwether in an industry known for ego-driven personalities, the reserved, award-winning Samuelsson is as comfortable cooking for a state dinner as he is in the kitchen of his latest New York restaurant, Red Rooster Harlem. Aspiring chefs and foodies will feel at home.