Chef Marcus Samuelsson's engaging new memoir celebrates the power of food
Marcus Samuelsson writes in his new memoir, "Yes, Chef," that at times he considers himself a failed soccer player rather than a successful chef.
This from a man who, at 24, was the youngest chef to ever receive three stars from The New York Times.
Samuelsson grew up in Gothenburg, Sweden, the child of adoptive parents, and showed an early love and aptitude for the game of soccer. A fierce competitor and dedicated athlete, Samuelsson played on an exclusive junior soccer team that served as a feeder to a professional squad.
But the diminutive Samuelsson stopped growing, while everyone around him continued to increase in size. His lack of physicality on the pitch led to his being cut from the team. His dream died. But another would soon flourish.
Inspired by his maternal grandmother, who taught him the Swedish arts of pickling and meatball making, Samuelsson developed an early love of cooking and experimenting with flavors.
Though he would never play professional soccer, Samuelsson would carry lessons learned on the pitch with him into the kitchen, where he found many similarities with his first and second loves.
"You have to work hard, you have to be a good teammate. ... It's also that us-against-the-world mentality you have when you work in a kitchen," Samuelsson said, comparing soccer and cooking. "There's also a lot of rejection in soccer. You think you've done everything right, and you can still lose. The same thing is true in the kitchen: You think you've created the perfect dish, and then the customer says it's not that great. I feel like rejection is part of life, and it's about how you deal with it."
Native Ethiopian Samuelsson knows about adversity. He was born into it.
Samuelsson's birth-mother carried a tuberculosis-stricken 3-year-old Marcus and his older sister 75 miles to Addis Ababa. His mother would die in the hospital, but her sacrifice saved the lives of her children, who would soon be adopted by a Swedish couple.
"We come from a lot of strength and a lot of sacrifice. I have a lot of admiration for what sacrifice means," Samuelsson said. "She did the ultimate. She gave herself up to save us."
Samuelsson's memory is all he has left of his mother. He has never seen a picture of his mother, as he writes in "Yes, Chef." Instead he relies on the food and spices of his native land to commune with her.
In addition to the lessons from his mother and grandmother, Samuelsson had men in his life who served as role models.
He would spend summers in the small fishing village of Smögen with his father and uncles, sturdy men who worked with their hands, catching and cleaning the day's catch from the frigid waters off the Swedish coast.
"They were more men-men than I am. They were big and strong, classic men," Samuelsson said. "But I realized from them that I can be my own man without being like them but being of them. What I mean with that is: We will work hard and do our best, but I don't have to be exactly like them. But I took their work ethic and the sense of pride that they had of coming from a place."
That sense of place informed Samuelsson's cooking style as he moved through the training grounds of Sweden, Austria and France before eventually finding a permanent home in New York City.
"I want to put my own authorship into those classic dishes," Samuelsson said. "I want to find Africa within my food. I want to find Sweden in my food. I want to find Harlem in my food. I needed that French traditional background, but I needed to put my own authorship and my own stamp on the food."
Growing up black in a predominantly white country, Samuelsson often felt like an outsider. That feeling continued as he trained in restaurants around the world, often the only African-born, European-bred chef in sight. But he found the kitchen to be the great equalizer.
Even if he didn't speak the same language as some of his peers in Switzerland and France, Samuelsson found a connection stronger than words.
"Once you're inside the kitchen, we share the commitment of that dinner and we share the commitment of being the best we can be in that kitchen," Samuelsson said. "In the kitchen it's pretty honest. If you are a cook at heart, it doesn't matter if you're black, Mexican, American or white, you're going to get the same kick out of a great dish and great taste, which is priceless."
In his book, Samuelsson reveals himself to be a thoughtful, passionate and committed chef, a man who put his interest in food before all else. He is honest with failings and vulnerable with his revelation of personal pain, but Samuelsson says he didn't want the book to be a victory lap, figuring young cooks could learn more from his mistakes than his triumphs.
Samuelsson's dedication and sacrifice led him to national recognition as a champion on "Top Chef: Masters" and landed him a gig helming the kitchen for President Barack Obama's first state dinner.
But the multiple James Beard award-winner's proudest moment came when he opened Red Rooster, a Harlem restaurant that serves upscale comfort food with nods to African and Swedish culinary traditions. The restaurant, like its namesake speakeasy, attracts a mixture of the famous and the everyman, the Harlemite, the Manhattanite and the tourist.
"It changed the idea of dining in New York City, with people going up north for dinner instead of always going downtown," Samuelsson said. "I also feel like being a member of the community in Harlem gives me a sense of pride, and that's not something I take for granted. We're successful because the community has embraced us, so we have to treasure that."
Samuelsson credits his success to the openness and kindness of America and his mentors. His engaging book tells a personal story of hard work and triumph on both personal and professional levels. But at its heart, "Yes, Chef" is a love letter to cooking and the power of food.
"The kitchen has been the studio and my lab," Samuelsson said. "Every time I've had an obstacle in life, I always come back to the kitchen, and the answers are sort of in front of me."
Contact Matthew Odam at 912-5986 Twitter: @Odam
Lunch, book signing