In this ongoing feature, I will review books about food or people who make it. First up is Marcus Samuelsson's autobiography; Yes, Chef.
Marcus Samuelsson is a name and face anyone who keeps their TV tuned to Food Network would probably instantly recognize. The winner of the second season of Top Chef Masters, a judge on Chopped, and owner of Harlem hot spot Red Rooster is a legend in the culinary world. In his autobiography, we find out why. Born in Ethiopia and adopeted at the age of three by a Swedish family after his mother died and he was presumed orphaned, Samuelsson grew up with a diasporic identity - never really remembering his Ethiopian childhood, but never feeling satsfied with a Swedish identity. He played soccer competitively in his earlier years, but was considered 'too small' after puberty and describes being devasted after being cut from the team: "I sometimes think of myself more as a failed soccer player than as an accomplished chef." He threw himself into cooking and found he not only liked it, but he was exceptional at it.
The biography goes on to tell of his progression from a kid in cooking class to the executive chef of a restaurant at 24 years old. This book is an eye-opener to all of us who cook a decent dinner and then watch Top Chef and think, "I could do that." The world of diner services and dishwashers is fiercely competitive and physically and mentally demanding. Samuelsson tells tales from kitchens he has worked in worldwide that made me tired just reading them. It is an interesting journey that kept me turning the pages to transport myself into a kitchen across the world. The way Samuelsson describes food and flavours makes it extremely obvious the passion he has for his craft. He also writes about a failed restaurant venture, which felt like a long rant at times more than a lesson learned. He redeems himself in talking about his pride and joy, Red Rooster, a casual and accessible fine dining exprience in Harlem. The personal commitment he has to both the restaurant and his neighbourhood, which is nothing short of inspiring.
The stories that he tells of his personal life are often beautiful moments with family steeped in nostalgia, but there is one aspect of his story that didn't sit well with me as a reader and someone who had been rooting for Samuelsson the whole book. He reveals that he fathered a child as a result of a one-night stand as a young chef, the mother chose to keep the baby and Samuelsson voluntarily chose to be absent from her life for 14 years while pursuing his career. While the disclosure is important, it's hard to reconcile a person we have grown to side with and respect with this fact. Although he writes he is involved in her life now, it definitely reframes the way you see Samuelsson.
The book was entertaing and engaging, full of stories and flavours. One part inspiration and one part cautionary tale of what it takes to become a chef, definitely an easy, compelling read for any foodie.