Monday, August 20, 2012

Review of Marcus Samuelson's Yes, Chef: a memoir

Marcus Samuelson's Yes, Chef: a memoir (Random House, 2012) is a multi-faceted, semi-anthropological, page-turner of a book that traces the author's life from his origin in the wind-blown, sun-drenched, fly-infested deserts of Ethiopia to the pinnacle of the chef scene in New York City, one of the world's gastronomic capitals. 

The book is, first of all, the quintessential American tale; the rise from obscure origins to the pinnacle of the chosen field.  Marcus was born in a map-challenged village in Ethiopia and was adopted, along with his sister, by a loving, Swedish-resident, middle-class family after the untimely death of his birth mother.  From his early years in Sweden, Marcus trained to be a soccer player but, after being booted off the team due to his (relatively) delicate physique, he turned to cooking, an activity that he had grown to love while helping his grandmother prepare family meals.  The book traces his struggles to gain a foothold in the industry and the travels to countries far and wide in order to pursue opportunities.  His efforts paid off  in the end with accomplishments to include: (i) Executive Chef at Aquavit, a NYC restaurant focused on Swedish cuisine; (ii) winning Top Chef Masters; (iii) serving as the guest chef for President Obama's first state dinner on the occasion of the visit of the Indian head of state to the US; and (iv) opening his own restaurant (Red Rooster) in Harlem.

But within that overarching story, there were a number of sub-stories, the first of which, in my view, is a cautionary tale about the collateral damage of blind ambition.  One of the first victims of this effect was his first girlfriend.  Once he received the "staging" appointment in Switzerland, he had broken up with her mentally.  When she followed him to Switzerland, he put her into a position where she was forced to pull the eject button.  While working in Austria, Marcus got involved in a one-weekend stand with a young woman and she became pregant as a result.  His thoughts were on the negative implications that this would have on his career and he gladly walked away when she told him that she would make no claim on him.  He did not return to Sweden for the burial of his Father or Grandmother (both of whom he had had loving relationships with) because to do so would mess up his current situation.

Another subtext was his indebtedness to the women who were a part of his life and supported him in his endeavors.  His birth mother, who walked 75 miles to the hospital in Addis Ababa to ensure that they got medical help for the TB that was ravaging their bodies.  Marcus and his sister survived the ordeal; his mother did not.  For the nurse who took them in after they had spent six months in the hospital.  She had very little for her and her own kids but whatever she had, she shared.  His sister Linda protected him fiercely (even though she was only five-years old) in their adoptive home until she attained a level of trust of their adoptive parents. She was also key in establishing links back to their relatives in Ethiopia.  His adoptive mother who was a rock of Gibraltar all through his life.  Unquestioning love.  Once she found out that he had a baby on the way, she took the responsibility of sending support payments for the kid with the proviso that he would repay her when he began earning. The mother of his daughter who was strong enough to allow him to walk away and went on to raise this daughter plus two kids from her own later marriage.  When Marcus eventually came back into his daughter's life, this woman did not point a finger of blame or scorn in his direction.  She was happy that he was finally playing a personal role in his daughter's life.  And, finally, his wife, who became one of his links back to the old old world while helping him keep his feet squarely planted on the ground in this his new.

A third subtext -- what it takes to succeed in today's world of celebrity chefs -- is inseparable from, and is almost subsumed within, (i) the story of trying to be a successful chef while cooking black and (ii) his search for his identity as an Ethiopian-born black male, who was adopted and raised in a middle-class community in Sweden by a white middle-class family, who began to develop a sense of his otherness when one of his classmates chucked a basketball at him and asked him if he wanted to play neger ball.  His struggles in this arena was exacerbated by the fact that he had chosen a profession where blacks were not well represented and his interactions with some chefs (notably, and disappointedly so, the chef at Negresco in Nice) seemed to indicate an institutional bias towards the status quo.  His first trip to the US opened his eyes to the diverse societal mosaic that was possible and brought a realization that this was the type of environment within which he wanted to operate.  Linking up with his Ethiopian roots gave him a grounding and foundation for identity construction going forward while moving to Harlem and opening a restaurant there tied him to the historic past of that community and provided him with the opportunity to meld his identity with that community as it undergoes its rennaisance.  Marcus started out not wanting to be seen as a black chef but by the end of the book he had embraced that "condition" thoroughly.

This book is beautifully written and masterfully edited.  The opening chapter is powerful, gripping, and of literary caliber.  While reading that chapter I felt as though I was walking in the desert with Marcus, his mom, and his sister as they made their way from the home village to the hospital in Addis Ababa.  His mom did not make it out of the hospital.  At the conclusion of the first chapter I had to climb up out of the book to gain respite from a heavy dosing of emotion.  The book hits its highest emotional notes whenever the author turns toward Ethiopia.  The story is presented in short, concise, impactful chapters and I read it in one sitting on a flight between Orlando and Portland, OR.  This is a definite read.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

No comments:

Post a Comment