Serious Reads: Yes, Chef, by Marcus Samuelsson

Serious Reads

Reviews of food-themed memoirs, beach reads, and histories.

When I was a high school student in New York City, I would save my pennies in anticipation of Restaurant Week. I would scour menus and websites, make lists of potential destinations, and finally head out for a few indulgent feasts. I had some amazing meals and some disappointing meals, but my general rule was that I didn't like to try the same place more than once. Why waste time when there are dozens of worthy restaurants to explore?

I can remember only a couple of exceptions I've ever made to this rule, and one of them was midtown hotspot Aquavit. Well, hotspot is a bit generous—when I first had lunch at this Swedish restaurant helmed by chef Marcus Samuelsson, I remember exactly six other customers in the dining room. Three of them were my friends. But the food was incredible, eye-opening. I had no conception of Swedish flavors and dishes, but was taken with the fresh dill, the perfect execution of salmon and tender potatoes, the tiny but incredibly flavorful yuzu dessert. I can still remember the tastes of that meal.

At the time, in that empty dining room, it seemed that Aquavit was flying dangerously under the radar. Maybe it was; maybe I was just oblivious to the New York restaurant scene. But since then I've followed Chef Samuelsson's career closely, intrigued by his mixed background and inventive dishes, waiting for his fame to arrive. And in the past few years, as he first won Top Chef Masters, cooked a state dinner for President Obama, appeared at charity and cooking events, and then opened a new restaurant in Harlem to great fanfare, his time has certainly come.

His memoir Yes, Chef is, in a word, gripping. An Ethiopian refugee adopted by Swedish parents at the age of 3, Samuelsson grew up the only black kid in his neighborhood. He thought he might be a professional soccer player—in fact, he banked his entire future on the sport—until he was cut from his travel team for being too small. Forced to re-route his plans, he capitalized on his love of home cooking by attending a post-high school culinary program.

Samuelsson realized that he was more serious, and more talented, than many of his classmates. He worked part-time at good restaurants near his school while still taking classes; soon after graduation, he began to travel. In the next few years he would take stages and jobs at restaurants in Austria, Switzerland, France, and finally at Aquavit in New York. At each restaurant he proved his talent, keeping his head down and dealing with chefs' brutal tempers, and was quickly promoted. When he took over as Executive Chef at Aquavit at the young age of 24, the restaurant started to get noticed.

As his success grew, Samuelsson was presented with more opportunities. Backers were interested in helping him start a new restaurant—Red Rooster, in Harlem, a reincarnation of an old soul food joint in the neighborhood. The restaurant has proved incredibly successful with its high-low appeal: soul food seasoned with Ethiopian flavors, prepared with Swedish technique and presented with little pretension. Samuelsson makes a point to connect to the surrounding neighborhood, hiring locals and living only blocks from his new flagship.

Much of the book is dedicated to detailing Samuelsson's relationships with family members, other cooks, and the places he lived throughout his burgeoning career. He is an incredible storyteller and writer, with an inspiring story to tell. He also has important things to say about race: in the kitchen, on television, in Sweden, and in the United States. Rarely have I seen a chef so articulately express such nuanced views on a highly politicized topic while maintaining an open, understanding, and humble tone. Yes, Chef is the pinnacle of chef memoirs; Samuelsson conveys his passion for food and details his long and driven journey to the top, while still recognizing and considering the broader impact of his work.

About the Author: A student in Providence, Rhode Island, Leah Douglas loves learning about, talking about, reading about, and consuming food. Her work has also been featured in Rhode Island Monthly Magazine.