Updated with Marcus Samuelsson’s interview on Fresh Air:
Chef memoirs are often raucous, amusing, and insightful. They are rarely so poetic and heartfelt that they bring you to tears in the first chapter. Yes Chef, the new memoir by popular chef Marcus Samuelsson undoes the reader from the first moment, painting a picture of the Ethiopian mother he never knew, who died of tuberculosis while trying to get him to safety, and whose presence he courts in the spices of his homeland. This longing for flavors that signify home and comfort infuse every level of Samuelsson’s cuisine.
Samuelsson was born with the name Kassahun but became Marcus when he and his sister were adopted by Lennart and Anne Marie and moved to Goteburg, Sweden. It was with his grandmother that Samuelsson got his first training in rustic cooking. Food wasn’t his first love, soccer was, but after getting cut from the local team, Samuelsson shifted focus and found a new way to view the world. As a young man he cooked in both Austria and Switzerland before finding a new home in New York at Aquavit.
He became a head chef at just 24 years old and was quickly lauded for his inventive fare, turning Aquavit into a three-star restaurant. But the pivot in his journey is when he returns to Ethiopia to taste the food of his birthplace. His writing about Ethiopia is some of the most honest and conflicted in the book. Since finding his birth family he has struggled to find a balance between their world and his Western life. His food reflects this evolution as well. As he integrated his Swedish, Ethiopian, and American selves his food developed. Along the way he has also prepared a state dinner at the White House and won Top Chef Masters, earning money for UNICEF. Today at Red Rooster in Harlem, he serves an inspired version of American soul food. It is in Harlem, that this world traveler had finally found his home.
This book is less food-centric then many chef memoirs, it is something more, a look at a man as a citizen of the world and using food as a medium of communication. This is a surprisingly lyrical book, Sameulsson is a keenly observant and his prose shines brightest when describing both food and nature. Some of that may be the influence of his writing partner Veronica Chambers. His eye for detail on the plate carries onto the page as he chronicles the many stops on his global journey as a chef. He is also unflinching about his own experiences including the racism he encountered over and over again. But overall what shines through is his gratitude for those who helped him on his journey and his continued delight in serving people food that brings them joy.