Four days ago, I finished the audiobook Yes, Chef by Marcus Samuelsson, but I cannot stop thinking about it. Samuelsson’s voice still runs in a constant loop in my head. His eloquent words bounce around my mind as I recall how he spoke of his his inspiration, his journey, and his ambition. I’ve read many books and it’s rare that one sticks with me for so long.
I knew a little bit about Samuelsson’s life before reading his memoir. I first heard of him while watching Top Chef Masters, a favorite reality show of mine. Soon after he was named the season 2 winner, I met him at BlogHer in 2010. I was drawn to his story: Ethiopian born, Samuelsson and his older sister were adopted by Swedish parents. My children, while not adopted, are biracial, and I was fascinated by the dichotomy of Samuelsson’s life. My children will probably face similar challenges as they straddle their different cultures and races.
Yes, Chef opens with Samuelsson’s memory of his Ethiopian mother, who was one of many tragedies in a tuberculosis epidemic that hit Ethiopia. Both he and his sister were stricken but survived. Samuelsson doesn’t mince words as he describes how life must have been for his mother, yet his calm, strong voice hit me hard:
I have never seen a picture of my mother.
I have traveled to her homeland, my homeland, dozens of times. I have met her brothers and sisters. I have found my birth father and eight half brothers and sisters I didn’t know I had. I have my met my mother’s relatives in Ethiopia, but when I ask them to describe my mother, they throw out generalities. “She was nice,” they tell me. “She was pretty.” “She was smart.” Nice, pretty, smart. The words seem meaningless, except the last is a clue because even today, in rural Ethiopia, girls are not encouraged to go to school.”
(You can listen Samuelsson read the opening chapter on Audible.)
Samuelsson shares his journey with complete honesty. He’s a chef, so of course the text is peppered with expletives that are probably thrown around in restaurant kitchens. His observations of race and of being black as he travels throughout Europe and America are gut wrenching because there is truth to them. Being black in the restaurant business was almost as bad as being female, but Samuelsson didn’t let the racism stop his ambition. In fact, he aimed to prove that he was the best, no matter his skin color.
The topics he covers in his memoir are weighty but he adds levity in the right places. I found myself laughing out loud throughout the book. I”m sure my fellow Amtrak passengers thought I was crazy!
Samuelsson’s curiosity about food and flavors combined with his extensive travel has given him a unique view on cooking. This is evidenced by the recipes in his cookbook New American Table. He wants to create more than food that tastes good, but he aims to build restaurants and dishes that create and build community, just like the Red Rooster in Harlem, NY.
I highly recommend getting the audiobook so you can hear him tell his own story. My only regret is not purchasing a print copy to read in tandem with the audiobook. There are many passages that I would have highlighted or made notes next to.
Even if you’re not a foodie like me, you’ll enjoy Yes, Chef by Marcus Samuelsson.
For a more personal post about how Marcus Samuelsson’s memoir inspired me, head to my blog I’m Not the Nanny.