'Yes, Chef': Marcus Samuelsson's memoir

Marcus Samuelsson, author of "Yes, Chef" (Random House, Marcus Samuelsson, author of "Yes, Chef" (Random House, June 2012). Photo Credit: Kwaku Alston/

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REVIEW

YES, CHEF: A Memoir, by Marcus Samuelsson. Random House, 319 pp., $27.

'A Chef's Journey," "Finding Home," "Three Continents on a Plate" -- any of these would have been a better title for Marcus Samuelsson's fascinating and heartfelt memoir than the anodyne "Yes, Chef."

And which marketing genius decided not to feature Samuelsson's famously handsome mug on the front cover? (I still remember an ad campaign from 1999, when he posed naked with an artfully placed blender.) Instead, the book's title has been handwritten in a pile of orange spice mixture, presumably berebere from Ethiopia, where Samuelsson was born.

In the past few years, Samuelsson has become a media star, and, it has seemed to me, a bit of a showboater: In 2009, he cooked President Barack Obama's first state dinner and thereafter kept popping up in Michelle Obama's vegetable garden. In June 2010, he won the second season of Bravo's "Top Chef Masters" with undeniable skill but no shortage of cockiness; later that year, he opened the global-soul Harlem restaurant Red Rooster.

I knew Samuelsson first gained prominence at Manhattan's Restaurant Aquavit, where, at age 24, he got a three-star review in The New York Times for his refined, modern Scandinavian menu. What I didn't know was the arduous path that took him there.

Samuelsson was born Kassahun Tsegie in 1970. When he was 2, a tuberculosis epidemic hit Ethiopia. Kassahun caught the disease, as did his mother and older sister, Fantaye. His mother put him on her back, took Fantaye by the hand and walked more than 75 miles from their village to a hospital in Addis Ababa. There she died and, a few months later, the two children were adopted by Lennart and Anne Marie Samuelsson, of Göteborg, Sweden. (As an adult, Samuelsson traveled back to Ethiopia to meet his birth father, whose identity had been unknown to him.)

Young Marcus was always interested in cooking, thanks mostly to his maternal grandmother, Helga, who baked bread, canned vegetables and butchered her own meat. But it was only after a soccer coach broke the news to the teenager that he was too small to play professionally that he decided to pursue a career as a chef. Once he made that decision, he worked nonstop at a vocational high school, at Göteborg's best restaurant, in Switzerland, in Austria and in New York, where he came in 1991 to apprentice at Aquavit.

The story of Samuelsson's development as a chef is beautifully told, as is his quest to find a cooking style and a community that celebrates his unique international heritage. "I represent so many things to so many different people," he writes. "In Ethiopia, I am ferengi or 'white' because I am an American of means. In Sweden, I represent 'new Sweden,' which to them means an integrated Sweden. In America, I'm black or African American or an immigrant; it depends."

Although she is not credited on the book's cover or title page, writer Veronica Chambers receives lavish thanks for "her incredible gift for storytelling" in the acknowledgments. I don't know who is responsible for the book's eloquence and heart, but this was a very fruitful collaboration: I read "Yes, Chef" in one sitting.

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