This is the first book I’ve reviewed here that isn’t fiction. This is the first memoir that I have picked up and read cover-to-cover in some time, and I am glad I did. Yes, Chef by Marcus Samuelsson is a tale of food, ambition, and identity.
The first time I had heard of Marcus Samuelsson was when I caught an episode of The Taste in early 2016. Similar to The Voice, the show had chefs serve the celebrity judges food “blind.” Based on taste alone they had to pick which chefs they wanted in their kitchen.
I like to cook, and cooking shows tend to give me ideas, but I have never pulled a book out of the food writing section of a book store.
I was very excited when a Book Riot BookMail came and it was food themed. One of the books was Yes, Chef, and although I recognized the name, I didn’t know what to expect, other than that it was a memoir.
Marcus Samuelsson’s story begins in 1970s Ethiopia. In 1972, he, along with is mother and sister, came down with tuberculosis. His mother died and he and his sister were put up for adoption. They were adopted by a Swedish couple. When they were adopted they were renamed, and introduced to a world that was unlike anything they’d known.
But this isn’t a story about adoption. Marcus details his love for food growing up including going to the fishmonger, spending weekends with is grandmother in her kitchen, and smoking fish in his uncle’s smokehous, and eventually leading him to Aquavit, Top Chef, and to open his restaurant The Red Rooster.
I am still trying to sort out my feelings for this book.
I like good food, and to me learning about kitchen politics, and the way a commercial kitchen was set up is interesting. I also didn’t know anything about Swedish or African foods, so I felt like I got a little bit of insight into that. I will say this, all the food talk made me really hungry at some points, and did inspire me to cook.
His observations about race, and how food from different continents is labeled as “ethnic” but provides an identity for several communities is insightful, and I feel like I did come away learning something from this book.
But this is also a memoir, so there are also personal stories, and personal choices Marcus makes to get to being this chef that ends up working in three star restaurants, winning Top Chef, and catering for the Obamas.
I felt like Marcus Samuelsson’s story is interesting. Hearing about his adoption, and growing up in a different culture was fascinating to me, but much like a character in a fiction book, Marcus has some qualities that rubbed me the wrong way.
Marcus has a blinding desire to be a chef! That dream is like the sun to him. And he pursues that without regard for who he may hurt along the way. He talks about lost friends, he talks about the daughter he ran away from until she was fourteen, and he talks about having to buy his name back when a longstanding partnership went south.
Where his narrative seemed a little thing and artificial to me was towards the end where there seems to be endless justification regarding what he’s done to get to where he is. As a result, the end of the story feels a little self-serving and flat to me.
Overall, if you have an interest in food, and the cultures of different food then I would recommend this book. If you’re looking for a perfect idol, you may have to go elsewhere.
What I know, for me personally, this book has inspired me to look through more food writing, and food memoirs. It’s bombed Stir: My Broken Brain and the Meals that Brought Me Home by Jessica Fechtor, and Butter by Elaine Khosrova closer to the top of my to-be-read list!
Final Rating: 3.5 Stars
Have you read Yes, Chef? What did you think of the book? Have you read any other food memoirs that you would recommend? Share your thoughts in the comments below.