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Sugar and spice
For years, Marcus Samuelsson had a high-concept ID that made him an easy figure for New Yorkers to remember: he was the black Swede who cooked at Aquavit. You figured there was a story there.
Yes, Chef, his blandly titled but otherwise beautiful memoir, begins in rural Ethiopia, where he and his older sister were born to an impoverished woman named Ahnu. By his first birthday, in 1972, all three of them had contracted tuberculosis. The sick woman walked or carried her children the 75 hot, dusty miles to Addis Ababa, where she died. She was 28. Marcus and Linda, as they were soon to be called, were hospitalized and then adopted by an upright couple in the Swedish city of Goteborg.
This background is set forth, simply and movingly, in the opening chapters. Only Samuelsson's name appears in the byline, but in the acknowledgments he thanks his friend the author and journalist Veronica Chambers.
By Samuelsson's own account, he's a driven man. In his adolescence he played soccer with such fanatical passion that when he was dropped from Goteborg's team, at 16, because of his small size, it was the disappointment of his life. (" I sometimes think of myself more as a failed soccer player than as an accomplished chef. ") When he altered his sights to the world of fine restaurants - for years, he'd enjoyed cooking at his grandmother's side (and Helga's Meatballs are still on his menu) - it was with the same demonic resolve. The middle of the book recounts his slow (though in retrospect not that slow) climb up the rungs of the cooking ladder. The work was gruelling and the treatment hideous. In the kitchen of the top-flight Swiss hotel where he received much of his classical training, the stress level was so punishing that every morning he would quietly slip out to the bathroom to vomit.
His Ruby Keeler moment came in 1995, when he was 24 and cooking at the Swedish-themed Aquavit in New York. One terrible weekend, the chef died of a heart attack;after a short search, the restaurant's owner put Samuelsson in charge. Four months later, Ruth Reichl awarded the restaurant three stars in The New York Times, and he's been on the food-world map ever since.
His rise is gratifying to read about, partly because he never sounds as if he's crowing. The last section of Yes, Chef is, however, less satisfying. It has upbeat stretches - his triumphant return to Ethiopia, his marriage to the Ethiopian-born model Maya Haile, his cooking (twice) for the Obamas. But much of it deals with murkier situations and, thus, feelings that are necessarily unresolved. He's still seething over his breakup with the owner of Aquavit, who, when Samuelsson left the restaurant, demanded a percentage of the profits of everything the chef put his name to thereafter because Aquavit had made him famous. Samuelsson had to "fork over my entire life savings" - I'd love to know how much - to get his name back.
And there's the daughter he fathered during a onenight stand in Austria when he was 20. He sent regular checks, but he didn't show himself until she was 14. The problem isn't his sincerity;it's that relegating her story (and hers isn't the only one) to a chapter or two plays down its significance - it feels like one more issue checked off. Samuelsson calls himself a "master compartmentaliser. " A whirlwind like him, I imagine, has to be, but there's a downside.
The book ends with a chapter on Samuelsson's Harlem restaurant, Red Rooster, a venture that encapsulates his ecumenical thinking, and not only about cooking. "I have no big race wounds, " he declares early on. But that doesn't mean that he hasn't thought about it intently, or that it hasn't shaped his ambition to prove "that food dismissed as 'ethnic' by the fine-dining world could be produced at the same level as their sacred bouillabaisses and veloutês. "
He respects French classicism, but his own approach is both more inclusive and vastly more humane. An epiphany came when the renowned Georges Blanc, chef-owner of the three-Michelin-star restaurant where Samuelsson completed his classical apprenticeship, offered him a permanent job. On the same day, he happened to be in the kitchen when a cook "decided to go off" on an underling, cursing him and dumping his carefully prepared food onto the floor. "When his screaming wasn't enough to fully express his rage, he punched the guy in the stomach. "
I can't think of many people, beyond a few dictators, who would really want to eat in a restaurant where they knew the help was treated like that, no matter how exquisite the food. Samuelsson didn't take the job - "It's not what I do, " he writes simply. He has a friendlier vision, which in a certain sector of the restaurant world amounts to a radical one. He thinks you can cook for the president and be a mensch too.
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