K.'s Reviews > Yes, Chef

Yes, Chef by Marcus Samuelsson
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Jul 17, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: africa, food, memoir, non-western-culture
Read from July 25 to 26, 2012

I first "met" Samuelsson when he competed on Season Two of Top Chef Masters. I enjoyed his quiet confidence, his collegial attitude, and his global palate. His memoir provides a lot of great detail about his journey from his grandmother's kitchen to his hosting a White House dinner and then running a Pan-African restaurant in Harlem (with some Swedish dishes and soul food dishes on the menu, reflecting the culture of his adopted parents and his restaurant's historic neighborhood).

He shows how he's been chasing flavors for decades by cooking in several restaurants in several countries as well a cooking on a cruise ship, which allowed him to investigate the flavors of street food while in ports. He took extensive notes about foods in his journals over the years, and this research has paid off. He also explains the time-intensive process that chefs go through in order to apprentice into the trade. Chefs have to start in lowly stations, taking orders and working 18 hours a day before they can rise through the ranks to the point where they can create dishes to add to the menu. This is a grueling profession, requiring financial and physical sacrifices.

After feeling out of place for so long, I delighted in reading about the friendships he formed in New York with soccer players, many of whom had lived in more than one country like Samuelsson. I would go on and on about this, but I don't want to marginalize him as the Ethiopian/Swedish chef. From watching him cook and reading about his craft as a chef, I think it's more important to describe him as an amazing chef first and a person with an interesting biography second. But I do make concessions that his biography has influenced his cooking. He makes that argument through the details of his memoir.

Because cooking is best taught through a hands-on approach, the apprentice relationship is vital. The book also reveals how competitive, political, and subjective this process can be. I respect Samuelsson for doing his best to introduce better gender parity in the kitchen and for helping working class chefs and chefs of color gain entrance into the kitchens of fine dining restaurants. I also respect him for brining African foods and soul foods to the palates of fine diners. I celebrate his willingness to take risks by switching up traditional dishes by introducing techniques and/or ingredients from other countries. That's a gutsy move, but I think it reflects the fact that our economy and culture is becoming more and more a global village. And he's the person to put this economic/cultural zeitgeist on a plate.

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Angela Garcia I agree. Fascinating and long journey. Always complex and full of grit.


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