Cookbook Watch: Marcus Samuelsson’s ‘Yes, Chef’

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In the old days, chef memoirs tended to follow much the same pattern, almost like the biographies of sports stars. There was a certain uplifting, Horatio Alger aspect to them as a young man (usually from a disadvantaged background) found his way to fame and a certain degree of fortune by pluck, luck and, above all, a rigorous work ethic.

Then along came Tony Bourdain and “Kitchen Confidential” -- the Jim Bouton and “Ball Four” of the kitchen. And suddenly, everyone who had ever donned a pair of checked pants and white jacket was in full pirate mode. A casual reader could be forgiven for thinking that the main qualification for success in the modern restaurant kitchen was a long sleeve of tattoos and a longer list of poor lifestyle choices.

Marcus Samuelsson’s “Yes, Chef” comes as a welcome breath of fresh air. Not only is it an old-school culinary memoir, but it’s also one of the best around.

Partly, this is because Samuelsson has an unfair advantage in his background. There aren’t that many black Swedish chefs around (and one of the more interesting parts of the book is Samuelsson’s way of dealing with the fact that those adjectives probably will forever be attached to his name).


But there is more to recommend “Yes, Chef” than Samuelsson’s unusual, though thoroughly American story. He is also, apparently, an acute observer and an able writer (or maybe it’s co-writer Veronica Chambers, or most likely some combination of the two).

And then there’s the book’s greater message. Samuelsson is, or at least seems to be, an old-fashioned guy with old-fashioned work habits. He shows up early, is hungry to learn and eager to prove himself. He takes nothing for granted and to the extent that ambition enters the picture, it’s not nearly as much for celebrity as craft. Happily, he’s earned both.

Which is not to suggest that Samuelsson is a choirboy or even that he presents himself as one. It’s just that it seems he doesn’t wear his shortcomings as badges of honor, but rather tries to make sense of them and even atone for them. You know, like a grown-up would.

Inevitably, race plays a big part in the book, and one of the more interesting passages regards the curious state of blacks in professional kitchens (quick, other than Samuelsson and local hero Govind Armstrong, name another top-rank black chef).

Much has been made about Samuelsson’s revelation in the book that Gordon Ramsay once called him a “black bastard” (if there has been an apology, it apparently was a private one). But more substantial is Samuelsson’s musing on why blacks aren’t better represented. He posits five theories:

  • “The Nest Egg Theory,” which is basically that it costs a lot of money to open a restaurant and there aren’t as many blacks with those resources.
  • “The ‘I Didn’t Iron Clothes So You Could Flip Burgers’ Theory,” that striving black parents are not exactly thrilled when their sacrifices are turned into careers that were once considered “domestic.”
  • “The Cost of Integration Theory,” that as formerly black neighborhoods became integrated, privately owned small businesses such as restaurants were often replaced by corporate chains.
  • “The Geographical Racism Theory,” that black (and formerly black) neighborhoods still are not on the mental (and sometimes physical) maps of tourists and others who frequent restaurants.
  • “The Ethnic Food Theory,” which is that there are very few regional or ethnic cuisines of any kind that have successfully broken through into the fine dining arena.

Recently, Samuelsson and his Harlem restaurant Red Rooster have come under attack from bad boy chef Eddie Huang for a variety of offenses that can best be gathered under the umbrella of “inauthenticity.” Lolis Eric Elie deftly takes the argument apart in a piece on the Serious Eats website.

I suppose, though, that it does say something that an Ethiopian-Swedish-American can be taken apart by a Taiwanese American for not fully understanding the black experience. After reading ‘Yes, Chef,’ I think Samuelsson would appreciate the irony.

Samuelsson will make two Los Angeles appearances next week promoting “Yes, Chef,” at a dinner at Son of a Gun restaurant Monday night and in a conversation at Live Talks Los Angeles at Bergamot Station on Tuesday.


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