Chef Marcus Samuelsson is a familiar name and face to fans of TV cooking competitions. He won Bravo's Top Chef Masters competition in 2010. He currently presides over Red Rooster Harlem and several other restaurants, but he made a name for himself in the mid-1990s at Aquavit, a Scandinavian restaurant in Manhattan, earning it a three-star review from The New York Times when he was 24. Though he was adopted by a Swedish family and grew up in Gothenburg, Sweden, Samuelsson was born (Kassahun Tsegie) in an extremely poor rural area of Ethiopia. He begins his memoir Yes, Chef with the confession that he doesn't really know what his mother looked like. He knows that when he was 3 years old, he, his sister and his mother contracted tuberculosis. His mother took them 75 miles to a hospital in the capital. She died there, and Samuelsson was later adopted.
Samuelsson grew up eating the mostly bland Swedish food of his adoptive mother, and he applied to work at a McDonald's when he was 15. He wasn't hired, but he had been interested in cooking since learning some of his mother's traditional Swedish dishes and cooking while fishing with his father. The memoir chronicles his early life and his climb to the top of the culinary world — in restaurants, on TV and cooking for a White House state dinner.
He recounts his awareness of the poverty of his origins and racial differences he learned to cope with in Sweden. He calls Leah Chase a mentor, and briefly notes bonding over a common love of crawfish, a delicacy in Sweden. Unfortunately, Samuelsson identifies Dooky Chase as a restaurant located in the "Lower Ninth," but he lauds Chase for creating an integrated restaurant. He's similarly a master in the kitchen and makes a point of cooking some of his finest dishes at home for his Harlem neighbors.
The memoir has a confident if sometimes dispassionate tone, but it recounts a unique journey and inspired vision of food connecting disparate people and places. — Will Coviello— Samuelsson will be signing Yes, Chef at Restaurant August (301 Tchoupitoulas St.) July 20 from 6 p.m.-9 p.m.