Say ‘Yes’ to Chef Marcus Samuelsson: A Culinary Memoir to Please the Palate
Browse through any reasonably sized bookshelf these days and it is likely you'll find a virtual smorgasbord of offerings by celebrity chefs: everyone from Alton Brown to Geoffrey Zakarian. But as you peruse this literary buffet, searching for the tastiest intellectual palate pleaser, I posit none will prove more satisfying than the latest offering by Marcus Samuelsson, Yes, Chef: A Memoir.
Samuelsson's credentials are notable. They include the award of three stars to Aquavit by The New York Times; he is a three-time James Beard Foundation winner including "Best Chef: New York City"; and the 2010 winner of Bravo's "Top Chef Masters." Marcus was also chosen to be guest chef for President Obama's first state dinner at the White House, not only planning but executing the dinner for 400 guests. It is not the fascinating stories leading to these achievements that make this read so rich and enchanting but, rather, the deeper, more compelling story of his lifelong formation as a man, a son, and a father, engendered by the remarkable grace, generosity, and humility with which he tells it.
Born in Ethiopia, Marcus and his sister Linda were adopted by a family in Sweden after their birth mother tragically died from a tuberculosis epidemic in 1972. The story walks us through his modest but cheerful childhood, growing up a black son in a white family and society, the lessons his parents taught him about life, race, and work ethic along the way ("hard work is its own reward," "integrity is priceless,"), all deeply infused with the love and loyalty of his family. It was his adoptive grandmother, Mormor, who first taught and inspired Marcus with her delicious yet humble traditional Sunday dinners. Ultimately, it is these main ingredients that nurture and allow Marcus to pursue a lifelong quest of "chasing flavors," through apprenticeships, jobs, and work-related travels. Africa, Sweden, South America, Asia, and most recently Harlem contribute soul to his simmering culinary sensibilities. Ultimately his recipes honor deep traditions of generations, while adding the delightful unexpected mysteries of other cultural tastes.
It was his family's guidance and generosity that sculpted a young man's driven and sometimes selfish ambitions into the kind, accountable, and successful individual he has grown to become. Marcus gives credit where credit is due. And his frankness about it all results in a refreshingly honest introspection of a man who now knows who he is, and how he got there. "One of the reasons that people enjoy coming to a great restaurant is that when an extraordinary meal is placed in front of them, they feel honored, respected, and even a little bit loved." A pretty good recipe in the end.