96 of 107 people found the following review helpful
Two reviews of a berbere spice mixture from an otherwise first rate North African spice purveyor caught my eye because they were harshly critical of its make up. There was only one chef who immediately came to mind, the redoubtable Marcus Samuelsson. His recent volume, "The Soul of a New Cuisine" (apologies to Tracy Kidder) had the truth of the matter. Why go to a Swede for Ethiopian authenticity? That answer lies in this volume of his memoirs. The great former Chef de Cuisine for New York's Aquavit is Ethiopian. His adopting parents are Swedes.
Chef Samuelsson prepares quite a story. His voice is as clear as a glass of aquavit and his adventures as pungent as that berbere paste. He is an honest raconteur with little use for devices or manipulation. Rarely do you see full acknowledgement given to the ghost writer, including her own title. Veronica Chambers has done a nice job of getting the book out and not getting in the way.
He peers into the past without benefit of photographs or letters, but with a healthy mistrust of his own memory and even of the politeness of his people. He tells us the tale of an Ethiopian village patriarch, or "Abba", yes, just like in Sweden.
He has an easier time going back a few generations in Sweden. It was his grandmother that seeded his food memories. "Mormor" was a maid and domestic cook. She salted her chicken right after plucking, then cooling and drying in the cellar. So Chef Samuelsson speaks of putting chickens by the air conditioner to help dry the skin. Most do not know that you cannot properly roast a soggy bird. She nests it on a bed of carrot, rubs with spice and sews it up with an apple, an onion. Eat that chicken, as Mingus would sing.
Without sentimentality, Chef Samuelsson has genuine affection for his family of insanely larger-than-life Swedes. Like moonshine making Uncle Torsten, "... a strong old man. Freaky Strong. Farmer Strong...Even after he'd retired from fishing, he could lift an eka, a stout wooden rowboat, and flip it onto its blocks, by himself..." Lucky for us, young Marcus was fifty pounds lighter than many of his fellow footballers, suggesting to himself he opt for learning English and cooking.
There has been a spate of chef coming of age books lately; a couple of them are even good. Most read more like screenplay wanabees, but I do not recall any being filmed. Recipes are all the formula we need. Too many of these books are witheringly formulaic - cookie cutter on an achingly slow conveyer belt. The marketing blurbs usually emphasize their "me too" strategy. But Chef Samuelsson is having none of that predictable melodrama of tragedy and triumph, complete with evil chefs dancing on young graves and all that.
Instead, you get fairly honest memoirs without moralizing or posturing. He gives himself the occasional dope slap; sometimes he calls out the lout. He leaves recipes to his trio of cookbooks. But he weaves his observations on food into the flow. Here is one moment of illumination from his Garde Manger station in Switzerland under a top sous-chef:
The first time Giggs handed me a felt-tipped marker and told me to cover a plate in plastic wrap, I thought he'd gone off the deep end.
"Draw your food," he commanded, by which he meant he wanted the vegetables artfully arranged. "If you've arranged your veggies beautifully," he explained, "when it gets to the meat guy, he will respect the plate more. He won't just push everything aside to get his fillet on there".
That pretty much reflects what Chef Samuelsson has done with his book.
52 of 58 people found the following review helpful
"In any professional kitchen, the lower-ranked staff responds to any request from above with military-like respect. "Yes, chef," is what I was taught to say whether he or she asks for a side of beef or your head on a platter. Yes, chef. Yes, chef. Yes, chef."
Marcus Samuelsson is orphaned at three years old. Anne Marie and Lennart live in Sweden unable to have children. Lennart has always wanted a son. When Marcus might soon be up for adoption, they are asked if they would like this little boy's five year old sister as well. Why put these two children through more truama; of course they will adopt her too.
Marcus learns early in his grandmother's,mormor's, kitchen, the art of cooking. The layering of food and technique belongs to mormor's tutelage. The simple logic of food comes from mormor: fresh bread the first day becomes toast on the next, followed by croutons on the next day and the leftover crumbs become the coating for the fish.
Marcus at twelve begins a ritual of accompanying his father to the fishing village of Smögen to repaint the boats for the next season. It is then that Lennart entrusts Marcus with the meal for their last night before returning home. It was then that Marcus understood the beauty of food within context; a simple fisherman's meal, potatoes and fish, after a hard day of work was perfection. The meal reflected the surroundings.
This is Marcus Samuelsson's story of defeat at being cut from the soccer team, the realization in his little town of Göteborg that the issue of race is something that he will encounter all his life, determining that he would not let himself be defeated he would go to culinary school, to eventually fulfilling his dream- his own restaurant in Harlem, Red Rooster.
But before his own restaurant, Marcus Samuelsson travels the world working in kitchens, working his way up the chef ladder. This look into the hierarchy, the etiquette of the kitchen tier, the grueling work to not stand out, not be noticed takes long, hard work. At night, Samuelsson writes in a notebook the foods, the spices the techniques and how he might change them, blend them to make a whole host of countries' cuisine into amazing dishes.
This memoir is fabulous for the way in which Samuelsson loves his Ethiopian roots, loves his adopted home of Sweden, loves New York and blends the foods of the world together just like his life into a beautiful thing.
34 of 40 people found the following review helpful
While I haven't eaten any of Samuelsson's food, I have read his cookbooks, watched him on TV, and followed his career. His life story is intriguing and unexpected and I'm so glad he write this engaging, well-written, and frank memoir.
You won't find celebrity gossip, high crimes, or scandal here and that's part of what makes it good. What you will find is a man at the prime of his life reflecting on it and on what brought him to this point.
Samuelsson's life story is worth hearing. Born in Ethiopia, he was orphaned, along with his older sister, as a toddler after his mother died of TB. They both were adopted by a Swedish family and he learned to cook at his grandmother's side. After doing a culinary program in high school and working at a local restaurant, he went to Switzerland and began the long, hard process of becoming a chef.
Fast forward a few years and he went to New York to work at Aquavit, a Swedish restaurant. There he became executive chef, earned three stars from the New York Times and won a James Beard Award. Most recently he opened Red Rooster in Harlem.
Those are the bare bones of his story, which he amplifies throughout the book. It's so delightful and so well-written I found myself saying "just one more chapter . . ."
Samuelsson is quick to acknowledge the debt he owes to his family, his friends, and the chefs he's worked for. That's one of the best things about the book. It' such a wonderful portrait of a man who has worked hard, but hasn't forgotten what brought him to this point, who he is, or what made him into the man he became.
And how many memoirs can show us that?
34 of 44 people found the following review helpful
Marcus Samuelsson is a genius in the kitchen, but his real skill is in maneuvering. "Yes, Chef" is an intriguing little look at ambition, how to climb to the top of your field and make the most of your friends and family. He's a take no prisoners kind of guy, adept at using people and then losing them. When he realizes his girlfriend is more of a hindrance than a help in his goal to reach the pinnacle of chefdon, he dumps her...but continues to sleep with her and accept free vacations from her parents. When he gets another girl pregnant, he realizes this will look bad on his resume and chooses to ignore the situation...until his adopted parents tell him he's not getting a free ride. Upstanding middleclass Swedes, they pony up the child support for Marcus until he's able to do it himself.
When he learns of his beloved grandmother's death, he doesn't miss a beat and keeps on stirring his sauce. Taking time off to grieve...even just 30 minutes or so, might interfere with that promotion he's counting on. Returning home to show his respect for the woman who loved him, mentored him, gave him his passion for cooking was simply out of the question.
When the chef at Aquavit who gaves Samuelsson his first break, a real job as a cook, not an apprentice or assistant, and even went so far as to allow the neophyte to contribute new dishes to the menu, Samuelsson shows his gratitude by telling us the guy was into booze and coke and strip clubs. Nice payback. As you might notice, I'm not liking Mr. Samuelsson so much. This kind of single-minded obsession might be admirable in a young scientist who wanted to cure cancer, but in a guy who wants to be the next celebrity chef, not so much.
Despite my not liking him, I enjoyed the book. Marcus' singlemindedness can be fun and, occasionally, touching. It's well written, lets us see inside the kitchens of some renowned restaurants and meet a few genuinely great chefs while tracing this gifted young man's remarkable trajectory. "Yes, Chef" has already been reviewed by someone I (and many others) consider to be the best reviewer on Amazon. He gives it five stars. However I found a couple of points so irksome I simply couldn't cough up that perfect score.
Samuelsson is given to making broad and incorrect statements. He claims Aquavit...the NYC restaurant where he finally achieves his celebrity status...was 'the first' restaurant in the U.S. to take Swedish food beyond meatballs and mashed with lingonberries when it opened in 1988. This isn't true. The late great Scandia in Los Angeles (which closed in 1989)had been doing that for decades. When Mr. Samuelsson apprenticed at Aquavit, it did indeed serve that cliche Swedish meal...which would never have made an appearance at the elegant Scandia on Sunset. He calls the James Beard Institute the most prestigious food institute in the country, one that sets the benchmark for great cuisine. Baloney. Okay, they gave Samuelsson an award and he's grateful, but most people in the restaurant business think the JBI is lame, out of touch and past its sell-by date. Recent scandals among its directors further tarnished its reputation.
Samuelsson praises another chef he works with for his remarkable combination of lobster and avocado, a pairing so natural and good, Samuelsson wonders why it had never been done before. Except it had. At Scandia and at any number of other restaurants in New York, Los Angeles and probably around the country and around the world. I remember eating lobster and avocado club sandwiches in Lahaina in 1977. It's hardly that unimaginable a combo. With five second worth of research, I discovered recipes for lobster and avocado salad going back to the 1960s.
And finally...and worst of all...Samuelsson disses borscht. Where I come from, you don't do that. You can insult our mothers, drain our liquor from an old fruit jar, spit into the wind AND step on superman's cake, it's all cool. But lay off the borscht. Samuelsson says: "Let's face it, borscht can only be so good." He's in Russia, the grand and glorious motherlode of all things borscht, and he doesn't even tell us what kind of borscht he's dismissing. It's like saying "Soup can only be so good." There are dozens and dozens of different kinds of borscht: sweet, sour, sweet & sour, with and without beets, ruby red and perfectly clear, or an impossibly pink concotion gilded with sour cream that glides down the throat in a rapture of cold, creamy deliciousness. Borcht with potatoes? With cabbage and tomatoes, with fat, juicy hunks of beef? With sauerkraut and big garlicky sausage slices? There's even a caraway scented white borscht and one made of pickles. Borscht can only be so good? From a chef?
Throughout his career, Samuelsson jotted down unique or unusual food pairings, juxtaposing the traditional with something totally new or off the wall. "Chasing tastes," he calls it. It's fun to read about those tastes...new flavor combinations and some "what if I mixed a little of this with a little of that" and seeing how many of them now appear on the menu at his Red Rooster Restaurant in Harlem.
Quite a few made it past the idea stage. The Red Rooster menu features items like a traditional southern fried bass and grits -- but gussied up with curry, raisins and almonds. Can't you just imagine how great that combination tastes. His swedish-roast chicken uses a cooking method learned from his adopted Swedish grandmother, gets a rub of berbere (a heady blend of cumin, coriander and other spices), and is served with a Thai-inspired sweet and vinegary peanut slaw. Bacon and eggs is transmogrified into Caribbean inspired Jerked Bacon and Eggs with pikliz...a searing and indescribably addictive combination of shredded cabbage, carrots, garlic, onions and fiery scotch bonnet peppers in a vinegary dressing. Pikliz is a Haitian staple, a nuclear version of Italian giardiniera and worth the blisters that arise on the inside of your lips after eating.
Enjoy the book and let's hope that all this success has mellowed Mr. Samuelsson. To his credit, he does promise that, when he becomes a chef, he will never subject his staff to the humiliation, insults and sometimes physical punishment that are the norm in other kitchens. We'll have to wait for his sous chef or one of the commis at Red Rooster to do a tell-all to find out. And we'll know if he's still willing to sell his soul by whether or not we spot him "Iron Chef America, Battle Eggwhite."
(Note: Samuelsson came really close to getting that fifth star back for mentioning a blue corn pancake/gravlax combo. I rubbed some lox trimmings with sumac (middle eastern spice with a lemony taste)mixed them up with sour cream, minced green onions, sliced cucumbers, salt and pepper. A couple of blue corn tortillas were heated up until they were soft and fragrant. We covered them with the lox mixture and folded them like crepes. Ding Ding Ding. Jackpot.)
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on July 12, 2012
I picked up this book from the library because I love to read descriptions of food and meals. What I did not expect was the author's fascinating, often tragic life. I was familiar with Samuelsson from Chopped and Top Chef Masters and knew vaguely that he was raised in Sweden, but somehow I had the idea that his mother was Ethiopian and his father Swedish. I was quite wrong. He had an amazingly strong and brave birth mother who walked 70 miles while mortally ill to get him and his sister to a hospital, a birth father who he doesn't meet until he's in his thirties, and wonderful, caring Swedish adoptive parents. I did not want to stop reading this book. As soon as I read the description of Swedes eating shrimp on toast with mayonnaise, lemon, and dill I had to make that dish; the other descriptions are just as tasty. I found him to be immensely relatable, although some of the other reviewers say he had a ghost writer, so maybe that was not his voice at all.
The only reason I didn't give this book 5 stars is that I found the parts about how he was a completely absent father for the first 14 years of his daughter's life to be hard to take. That made me not like him very much. I get that he was a young guy who did not want or plan to become a father from a one-night stand, but the fact is, although contributing financially, he made no effort at all to even meet his daughter until he felt "ready". That kind of abandonment will scar a child. He is full of excuses and does eventually become involved in her life, but it's kind of too little, too late in my opinion. That said, the book is a fascinating read and close to being un-putdownable.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
Marcus Samuelsson for the past couple years has been ubiquitous on television, and is surely among the most publicized chefs in America. In "Yes, Chef" he tells the story of his life, both professional and personal (although, as I sure he would be the first to agree, for many years there was little "personal" life outside the "professional"), from the reconstruction of his early life in Ethiopia (he has had to reconstruct that life because he was adopted out of Ethiopia at too young an age to retain any authentic memories, through his solid liddle class upbringing in Sweden as an adopted son, and up to the present day, with of course much of the story devoted to his relationship with food and cooking. His adoptive Swedish grandmother is who awakened in Samuelsson a love of food and cooking, which led him to a Swedish school of cooking (after he proved too small to become a professional soccer player), and thence into the world of fine dining, a migrant from country to country, always searching for new flavors and techniques and advancement in the cutthoat world of professional kitchens.
Samuelsson's story is told in vivid, graceful prose. He hides nothing: his failures and failings receive equal attention with his successes. Although intensely serious about his art, Samuelsson never takes himself too seriously, even in the kitchen. And along the way, the attentive reader may even pick up some hints about what really goes into good cooking (and good eating).
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on June 30, 2012
Marcus Samuelsson has had an interesting life to be sure, but it is what he has done with his life and how he has approached the quest for finding himself that makes this an interesting read. He had a depth of character rarely seen in the world of the average egomaniacal chef's kitchen (I say that having had plenty of experience in professional kitchens.) He does not shy away from his mistakes, he takes them on and goes about righting the wrongs, learning and changing to become not only a better chef, but a better man and a better citizen of our global world. He is someone to watch, his past is certainly interesting and I'm betting his future will be even more amazing. I read this in one sitting, just could not put it down. My only regret, I did not buy a hard copy, I got the IPad version...but I can right that wrong can't I?
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on October 19, 2012
The food aspect of this book isn't what intrigues me; it's the way Sweden's youth are raised. This guy went to a high school with a very lax schedule/discipline, with the intent of going into a trade, no pressure to go to college. Here in the USA, teens are pressured to go to college, and the high schools aren't career-centric. What we end up with are kids with poor academic skills, no money for college, and no skills to get them jobs anywhere.
I taught troubled teens for years, and most of them, especially the "hyper" ones, would make great chefs. It's an active job, with all the senses on full alert. If that's not viable, they could do well as mechanics. But instead of having work on their minds, the schools told them "college or you're nothing!" Years after leaving high school (with or without a diploma) they're stuck between nowhere and nowhere.
In SHOP CLASS AS SOUL CRAFT, the author tries to prove the value of technical education. But with more and more schools getting rid of carpentry, mechanics, electronics, welding, and cooking, we're left with fewer options with which to educate our youth. Perhaps it has to do with the Rust Belt phenomena? With our factories gone, maybe there's less incentive to train kids for industry? It's a major lack of investment.
Samuelsson didn't go to college, and his high school education didn't involve a whole lot of books. But that doesn't matter, because in Sweden (as with the USA in the old days) kids are taught fundamental reading and writing above all else. Back in the 1930's, anyone who'd been to school up to age 14 was considered well educated, and qualified for a clerical job.
Enough with the 4 year high school. Let's start training kids for blue-collar careers. It's like Booker T Washington once said; "there's as much honor in plowing a field as there is in writing a poem."
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on August 4, 2012
After reading an excerpt in Vogue magazine, I was eager to read this book and to underline recipe sketches to try to cook some of the chef's food. The book is a delight to read for anyone who loves stories of the survival of the human spirit against all odds, of the role of God and serendipity in the happenings of our lives and enjoys the sharing of the details of how someone achieves greatness. I LOVE THIS BOOK. After reading only a few pages, I've already underlined a recipe sketch (i.e. the list of ingredients and notations of the cooking process) to try.
8 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on December 12, 2013
Chefs are notoriously impossible people, and celebrity chefs like Anthony Bourdain and Gordon Ramsey have turned their impossible personalities into lucrative brands. Bourdain's "Kitchen Confidential" was an in-your-face, no-holds-barred account of his rise in the culinary world, and he made the point that if he was a jerk it was because he had to be a jerk -- working in a kitchen was no different from fighting a battle with your battalion -- everyone had to give himself up totally and completely, and all the pressure was ultimately on the decision-maker.
In "Yes, Chef," the Ethiopian-Swedish-American celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson celebrates the callous ethos of the kitchen while at the same time trying to redeem it. Written with the soft elegant hand of Veronica Chambers, Samuelsson's memoir is lyrical and enchanting for the first one-third of the book, and we are deeply sympathetic to his aspiration of becoming a chef, even if it meant we had to endure his mistreatment of the women in his life. Samuelsson's incredible appetite for hard work as well as his singular obsession with his ambition meant that he rose fast and hard in the culinary world: He would become executive chef of a Swedish restaurant in New York, and be the youngest chef to win a coveted three stars from the New York Times.
But after Samuelsson's meteoric stunning rise he quickly settles into the bloated ego that afflicts so many stars: He marries a model, has a falling out with the business partner that made him famous, and becomes obsessively self-righteous. The writing at this point loses its lyricism, and begins to grate and sour.
We should not make light of Samuelsson's achievements, and the literally back-breaking labor it took a Ethiopian-Swedish kid to make it in New York City. But there's something strangely and uncomfortably deceptive and manipulative about his memoir, and it's terribly reminiscent of "Dreams from My Father" -- another largely ghost-written memoir about a young black man who learned to hide from others and from himself in his obsessive and blind climb to the top.