Marcus Samuelsson stands out in the world of celebrity chefs for several reasons – he’s a star here in the United States, but was raised in Sweden, and his cuisine is global in many ways … but he’s black, and that fact alone would make him close to unique in the clique of American celebrity chefs. Samuelsson was born in Ethiopia, but his birth mother died of tuberculosis when Marcus was only about four, after which he and his sister were adopted by a couple in Goteborg, Sweden, where his soccer career stalled out because he was too slight to keep up with his competitors, only to lead to a career in the kitchen that forms the basis for his memoir, Yes, Chef.
Samuelsson came to national prominence during a lengthy run as the executive chef at New York’s Aquavit, a Swedish restaurant that included a casual menu serving traditional Swedish fare and a fine-dining menu where Samuelsson could stretch out and use Swedish cuisine as the basis for a more progressive and comprehensive approach to food. I tried Aquavit shortly before Samuelsson departed and was highly impressed, especially by the fish, both its quality and preparation, including a hot-smoked salmon plate that forever hooked me on smoked fish. He’s also responsible for the best food item Starbucks has ever sold, a chocolate cinnamon “bread” (in the sense that banana bread or Northern corn bread are “breads,” when really they’re just cakes) that was both delicious and paired quite well with coffee, even the stuff they call coffee at Starbucks. The recipe was included in a cookbook only sold at Starbucks locations, although I believe many of that book’s recipes ended up in his The Soul of a New Cuisine: A Discovery of the Foods and Flavors of Africa. His new venture, Red Rooster, has been a huge success despite a slightly off-the-radar location in Harlem, where Samuelsson lives, borrowing the name of a classic restaurant of the area while integrating old and new culinary traditions.
Samuelsson’s life and career follow a somewhat unexpected narrative path: After his very difficult beginning, he finds himself in a comfortable setting, raised by loving adoptive parents in a country where racism existed but not to the extent we face it here. Instead, Samuelsson’s challenges increased after he reached adulthood, facing institutional racism in the kitchen and his own naivete on the business side of cooking, while also watching several friends and colleagues die far too young and eventually finding himself in a little trouble of his own making. He clearly has tremendous drive, as well as a deep passion for food (for flavors, in his words, and in finding new ways to combine them), but there are hints of regret sprinkled throughout the book for what that singlemindedness may have cost him when he was younger, some of which can’t be regained now that his success has given him the flexibility to have a personal life.
The book is written in the first person, in a style evocative enough to put the reader in the kitchens alongside Samuelsson, even though the prose likely came from his friend and co-author Veronica Chambers, who first received widespread plaudits for her own memoir, Mama’s Girl. I was never conscious of the story coming through the second filter of a co-author, even though it’s hard to imagine Samuelsson writing so clearly in what is at best his third language (he seems to speak at least four). First-person narratives can suffer from excessively florid prose, but here Chambers stays out of the way and lets Samuelsson’s story, which is compelling enough to require no embellishment, take center stage.
If Yes, Chef has a flaw, it’s that the treatment of the highs and lows of Samuelsson’s life often feels a little cursory; friends and colleagues die, and we get a page or less of grief, and Marcus has moved on. He’s up for the James Beard Award against some amazing competitors, and then, boom, he’s won it, and we’re on to the next subject. His victory on Top Chef Masters, coming right as he was preparing to cook the first state dinner of Barack Obama’s presidency, receives very little discussion, even though his win that season had its own interesting narrative – he wasn’t near the top in any challenges until the final sprint, like his friend and season three winner Floyd Cardoz. Samuelsson appears to open himself up to the reader at many points of the book, like discussing his daughter (the result of a one-night stand when he was still just 19) or the experience of reconnecting with his extended family in Ethiopia when he was in his 30s, that it’s jarring to see other significant life events receive superficial treatment in a book that could easily have added another 20 pages without feeling long.
The obvious comparison here is to Gabrielle Hamilton’s Blood, Bones, and Butter, another memoir by a successful chef, but one written by a chef with more training in creative writing than in the culinary arts. Hamilton’s prose shines, elevating her story from good to great; Samuelsson’s story is stronger, and might have suffered from Hamilton’s literary flourishes, but could have benefited from the level of introspection she showed in her book. Nothing in Yes, Chef goes as deep as Hamilton’s examination of her marriage to an aloof Italian doctor and, by extension, into his family in Italy, yet a similar treatment of Samuelsson’s visit to Ethiopia would have made the book even more compelling.