Marcus Samuelsson is a big deal in the food world. He may not be have the imposing physical stature of guys like Mario Batali or Paul Prudhomme, but trust me, in the world of fine dining, the natty dressing, handsome man from Sweden, born in Ethiopia, is as large as they come.
In his autobiography Yes, Chef, Mr. Samuel opens up about his life – What it was like to grow up in Sweden as a young black child, born Kassahun Tsegie and adopted from Ethiopia, how he discovered his métier, mastered his craft, took huge chances, worked long days and nights, succeeded and failed and succeeded again. Most importantly for Dads Roundtable, he shares how he learned to define himself as a man, a husband, and a father.
The autobiography of Mr. Samuelsson is compelling for several reasons. One, any time a young person becomes utterly obsessed with a craft, it bears watching. Regardless of the path, the search for perfection is compelling. Watching a young chef fight through the morass that is the struggle to the top of the culinary is always a fascination for me. Fortunately for us, Samuelsson is a fine story-teller, his skills enhanced by the fine work done by his writing accomplice, Veronica Chambers.
Two, Mr. Samuelsson rightly focuses on the personal story, rather than as too many star chef memoirs have done, the creation of a book that is both personal fable and cookbook. When those boundaries are unclear, the story is not well-told, and the cookbook is not well-formed.
He grew up well-loved in Sweden, yet he and his family were always clear that his roots ran deep into northern Africa. There is a thread which runs through Yes, Chef and that thread is a search for those roots – as a chef and man. The most compelling stories told are those of his journeys to Ethiopia – as he learns of the life of his people, the story of his mother, the foodways of his tribe, and lastly, when he sees his father’s face.
The hours of a top shelf chef are as demanding as those of any profession in the world. Sixteen hour days are the norm – At the markets at 6:00 AM, back to the restaurant for meetings, begin prep for evening service in the early afternoon, an hour or two of “me time” before service, and then, show time until the kitchen has closed and cleaned late at night. It is a tough life – the physical strains are real, and the mental strain, trying to keep a wide variety of entrees with a multitude of ingredients timed to perfection, comes at a cost.
For many men, the issue of work-life balance has become a major issue. Mr. Samuelsson fathered a child early on in his career. Whilst he never failed to provide financially for his child, he consistently chose career over fatherhood. In Yes, Chef, he unveils his feelings about his choices. It is no less intriguing a story than any woman might tell about giving up a child for adoption. In retrospect, he admits, not the best choice, but Mr. Samuelsson is clear – after hundreds of years in which blacks were stuck in the kitchens, he was in a battle to get to the top of the high-zoot kitchen, and nothing would get in his way. In a process that must have been highly therapeutic, the Chef discusses why he made the choice to be an absentee father, his regrets about his choice, and how he has decided to be a father in the workplace as he moves forward in life. Is it revelatory and instructive? Absolutely.
Don’t read Yes, Chef and search for kitchen tips. You will, however, find ideas about flavors. The book will prod you to take chances in the kitchen, but it won’t teach you a new skill. He rails against the notion that French food is any way the world’s superior and definitive foodway. Read Yes, Chef to discover the story of a young Ethiopian boy, orphaned and then adopted, who becomes an all-star player on the world’s culinary stage.
Two Nods. Check that, 2.5 Nods.
Remember the Rules of the Nod:
1) I choose the books.
2) I review only good books. In general, I’m a non-fiction guy. My tastes run towards books that focus on mastery; of a craft, of the intellect, of the spirit.
3) The ratings.
- 1 Nod — If you are interested in the general subject matter, read it.
- 2 Nods – A solid read; interesting on several levels. Consider it, even if you’re not particularly interested in the topic.
- 3 Nods — Do not miss.