Yes, Chef: a memoir by Marcus Samuelsson.
Random House, New York, 2012.
Autobiography, 326 pages.
The life story of Marcus Samuelsson, a chef across three continents.
This was a random find that was enchanting. I’ll admit that I was first drawn in by the appealing cover, and then after the generosity of the friend who gave this to me, I had to at least start reading it. What I found between the covers kept me up all night until the book was finished.
Samuelsson has lived an extraordinary life. A young Ethiopian child with tuberculosis, he and his sister were adopted into small-town Sweden after his mother died. His intense passion for football (aka soccer) faced a major set-back that led him to study cooking instead. He applied an intense work ethic, perseverance despite racism, and his own natural talent to become an elite chef.
This memoir comes alive to five senses. While the book isn’t entirely about food, his strongest memories and moments are based around cooking and eating. He describes the sight, touch, taste, and smell of food so vividly I could not put the book down even long after I ought to have been asleep.
Samulsson also breaks this book up well. There are three main sections: Boy, which covers his life from early childhood up until his early work experiences at 18; Chef, which is the largest part of the book and covers his developing career and various work experiences abroad; and finally Man, which starts after he is well established in his first New York restaurant and covers his learning about African cuisines, establishing a life outside of work, and finally taking responsibility for his past.
Each chapter has a simple title and focuses on a topic. Many of them are particular locations, people, or events. If I hadn’t been so enamored of the prose that I couldn’t put this book down, this would have been a great bedtime read because the chapters are so excellently segmented.
Samulsson is very grateful and acknowledges all of the people he has learned from over the years, even those he has now far surpassed or those who were cruel or racist but still taught him important lessons. But he does not shy away from pointing out problems in the restaurant system or those who abuse their power.
In particular, I was disappointed to read his comments about Gordon Ramsey. The Daily Mail has an extract and article relating to that part of the book. We’d previously watched and enjoyed some Junior MasterChef shows – I like that the kids were learning about cooking and it helped some of my picky eaters become more curious about trying different foods. But there’s simply been too many points where Ramsey crosses the line for me to keep supporting his shows with our rare TV viewing time.
Returning to Samulsson – I appreciated that he admitted to mistakes and atoned for them where he could. For most of his life, he had an intense singular focus – being a chef. He writes openly about how that focus allowed him to achieve the success he has now, but also had intense downfalls, particularly in his family life. With his success, he is able to repay some of the social-emotional debts incurred on his rise, but one has to wonder whether it would still have been worth it if he didn’t succeed.
This is a book for adults. It includes swearing, although I felt like Samulsson used strong language appropriately and only within context that made sense as part of his voice and story. Working in a kitchen can be dangerous, and Samulsson also describes several instances where people were badly injured. Again, this is not gratuitous, but it could be disturbing for a young or sensitive reader.
Several people in his life – family members, co-workers, and close friends – also die throughout the book, and some deaths which he was present for or which were especially meaningful to him are described. Also, Samulsson discusses some of the adult romantic encounters he had which were particularly influential in his life.
He touches on the drinking and drug use rampant in certain areas of the service industry, although he is strongly against drug use and excessive drinking. Although Samuelsson is not religious, Christianity comes up a few times as his first mother was an Orthodox Ethiopian Christian, his other parents Lutheran, and his wife Catholic. He does not try to push a particular viewpoint and this book could surely be enjoyed by secular readers.
Personally, I would not hesitate to put this in a teen library or hand this to a certain 16 year old I know. But for the reasons mentioned above, I wouldn’t suggest this book for preteens. I’d love to see a YRE version of this for younger students who are interested in cooking. Samulsson is willing to help young chefs and has worked hard to do so (including with the Obama healthy eating initiative), so I think he would be willing to support a young reader’s edition.
It’s been a long time since I felt this way about a memoir. I suspect Yes, Chef will be one of my favorite reads of 2019. Highly recommended.