I have read many books in my life and have had many, different reactions. Some have prompted great sorry. Some have made me laugh. This book stands alone among those that elicited a reaction from me for an interesting reason: it made me hungry, for both food and life.
Yes, Chef: A Memoir by Marcus Samuelsson chronicles his journey from life as Ethiopian orphan to becoming the youngest chef to ever receive a New York Times three star rating. His journey, however, didn’t stop there. He went on to win TLC’s Top Chef Master competition and the opportunity to prepare President Obama’s first state dinner…at the same time.
When I read about all the accolades he’d won, I was nervous that this book might be cerebral and stale. I was pleasantly surprised. The narrative is personable and refreshing. It is layered with the richness that Chef Samuelsson accomplished with his food and there is something for every palate. Unlike other memoirs, which capture a snapshot of a season of life, Yes, Chef portrays a full picture of Samuelsson’s life and struggles.
The book is divided into three sections: Samuelsson’s life as a boy, as a chef, and as a man. Each of these sections evoked a different kind of hunger for me. The first section made me hungry to overcome adversity. Samuelsson tells about how his young life began with his mother walking he and his sister seventy-five miles to a hospital, all while they were sick with tuberculosis. Despite that and his mother’s death, Samuelsson recovered but faced more adversity when a Swedish couple adopted him.
Here we see Samuelsson’s first introduction to cooking through his grandmother since his mother didn’t hold cooking in as high regard as his grandmother. Here we also find something else that makes this book great: Samuelsson writes great imagery. He writes that his mother made “…pasta as not even a prisoner would tolerate it…”.
The second section stirred up the hunger to persevere as it gave an intimate look not only into Samuelsson’s progression as a chef, but the service industry as a whole. I found myself in awe of his drive to become the best, amazed at how he endured unkind treatment for the sake of perfecting his craft. Most of all, this section documents Samuelsson’s remarkable desire to learn; a desire which, as he notes, is not always present in African-American youth.
One piece of this story that made reoccurring appearances in the book was the racism Samuelsson experienced. Since he wasn’t a traditional African-American male, his thoughts gave an “outsider looking in” feel to parts of his narrative. He also highlights the subtle racism in the food service industry with his aversion to the term to the French and Swiss term negre, a word used for lower level kitchen assistant.
Race also plays another role in this book, a significant one. Samuelsson’s journey to becoming a chef took him through several different cultures and ethnicities. Having visited or eaten many of cuisines mentioned in the book, I appreciated how he incorporated them into his life and cooking.
And the cooking! Most readers snack while they read, but this book took snacking to a new level. My mouth watered for the dishes he described, especially the section on fried chicken. Given Samuelsson’s poetic writing style, I could almost taste the flavors of his cuisine. He learned his craft well and it shows in the pages of this book.
Samuelsson’s endurance is to be applauded and celebrated. Too often success in our culture is presented in a microwave perspective. Although achieving goals appears to happen overnight, Samuelsson’s journey illustrates that success comes from years of persistence and perseverance.
The last section reads like the serving of a great dish. It shows how all of the flavors of Samuelsson’s life come together. Reading the end of the journey is as satisfying as a wonderful meal, but even better because it shows how the events of his life shape his character. One of my favorite things about this book is that it’s not just for readers who admire Chef Samuelsson or for people who love food. It’s for anyone in love with life and Samuelsson doesn’t disappoint – just be sure to keep a snack nearby.