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Book Review – Yes, Chef by Marcus Samuelsson

Synopsis:  Marcus Samuelsson was only three years old when he, his mother, and his sisterall battling tuberculosiswalked seventy-five miles to a hospital in the Ethiopian capital city of Addis Ababa. 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 Marcuss 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 Samuelssons remarkable journey from Helgas 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 Samuelssons career of  chasing flavors, as he calls it, had only just begunin 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 fufilled his dream of creating a truly diverse, multiracial dining rooma 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 failuresthe price of ambition, in human termsand recounts his emotional journey, as a grown man, to meet the father he never knew.

First Line:  I have never seen a picture of my mother.

Random Quote:  For me, the best dish of all was the sweet pork buns, which were such a new combination of textures and flavors.  The big white buns were light and airy with a slightly tooth skin caused by the steaming process.  I watched as the cooks loaded up bamboo steamer baskets with buns, put on their lids, and then set them over heats much higher than we ever used at Aquavit.  At the center of the bun was a filling of roasted pork and a sweet sauce.

It came with a side dish of soy sauce, and into this I’d mix every condiment on the table:  mustard, chili sauce, and a bit of chili vinegar.  We’d dip the buns in the sauce and get through the obligatory first bit – all dough – to get to the mind-blowing second bite, which combined dough and filling.  It’s still one of my favorite dishes to eat.  I always wondered who created this dish, how it came about.

Review:  I first encountered Marcus Samuelsson in the restaurant reviews in the late and much-lamented Gourmet Magazine.  Later I read more about him, his story, and his food.  I watched him on various food shows, watched bits and pieces of his own television show, and watched him win Top Chef Masters during an incredible season.  I’ve gotten a great deal of pleasure reading about him, his food, using his recipes, and watching him cook so I was very happy to get a copy of his memoir.

Gotthenburg, Sweden (image source)

Yes, Chef takes the reader through Mr. Samuelsson’s journey from a child from Ethiopia adopted by a Swedish family, through all his culinary adventures until today.  It’s a wonderful story full of self-reflection, meditations on flavor, passion for cooking and creating, culinary training and perspectives, and his own discovery of his complex history and cultures.  It’s also about ambition and the prices you pay for success, the things you lose along the way.

Merkato – Addis Ababa (image source)

Mr. Samuelsson is honest about himself and his own shortcomings.  His voice is clear and rooted in a love of all kinds of food and intimacy and community that comes of sharing a table, recipes, cooking techniques, and the kitchen.  I loved every minute of it.  Highly recommended for anyone who loves food (that means you!).

FTC Disclosure:  Copy received for review from NetGalley

Publishing Information:  Random House – June 26, 2012

Format:  Kindle


Reading Challenges:  Foodies Read 2

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