Yes, Chef: A Memoir by Marcus Samuelsson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I’m glad I read this book, as I’ve been a fan of on-TV Marcus Samuelsson, but I have to say I was a bit disappointed on several fronts. I think this is the first time I have wound up respecting someone less after reading their story than I did before.
First, I don’t read many (auto)biographical books, but I had read Tony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly years ago and loved it. It was irreverent, humor-filled, gutsy, and eye-opening about so many behind-the-scenes activities in the culinary world. I guess I was expecting a bit more of the same, but this is more of an earnest yet self-aggrandizing recollection of the important things in Samuelsson’s life. There really was none of the shocking or amusing content that made KC so fun to read. IN fact, the shocks of chef’s life were glossed over—for example, it surprised me how a line or two covered deaths of friends and family, while paragraphs were devoted to the use of a particular ingredient.
Second, in the past, I’ve heard chef talk very warmly about his Swedish upbringing. In this memoir, however, the character that developed for me seemed far more interested in pursuing his overriding personal goal (“chasing flavors”) and later identifying strongly with his birth family (despite being just 3 when adopted), regardless of any pain to his Swedish family … or to the child he fathered when he was 20. Although ultimately all the parts of chef’s life seem to come together in a happy ending, and he’s able to “give back” in the way he always planned once he’d “made it,” the way the journey rolls out and the personality that’s painted did not give me any warm fuzzies. Chef writes with more passion about food than he does about the people that made his life possible. There is huge section in which he talks of nothing but the kitchen world until mentioning, “Oh, my father died in Sweden, but I did not attend the funeral since I had to work.” (That’s not a direct quote, of course!)
Third, the story is disjointed at times, not flowing well and leaving the reader guessing about topics that have been brought up and then seemingly dropped, until they reappear much later. This is an issue that a good editor should have caught, as is the lack of “show, don’t tell.” There are characters who supposedly were vitally important in chef’s life, but we’re only told how terrific they were. We don’t see it for ourselves. For example, late in the book, chef talks a length about the man his (Swedish) father was and how that has shaped his own values. Yet the only interaction we can fall back on is the summer vacations described. We don’t see how hard-working, committed, or loving Lennart was; we only can take chef’s word for it.
Finally, for me, the end of the book became a tedious diatribe. For many pages earlier, chef had talked about wanting to erase the color card from the equation of his acceptance into the culinary world. I applauded that and agreed with him that he shouldn’t be referred to as “that black chef” but rather the chef that perfected that particular signature dish. However, by the end, he’s referring to himself as a black chef and championing the renaissance of Harlem and its flavor traditions, though he admits he’d never even made or eaten fried chicken since he was raised on gravlax and herring in Sweden. It was a real disconnect for me; it’s not his history or his struggle. Furthermore, I don’t like politics and try not to get overly involved, aside from staying informed and fulfilling the responsibility of voting (if you don’t vote, you can’t complain!), but I was overwhelmed by the Obama support, which is very scary as I watch the country sink deeper into depression under this administration’s nation-weakening policies. The final few pages of the book are filled with political, societal, and reflective thoughts about the role of restaurants in life, and it gets repetitious. But there seems to be another disconnect, at least for me, how any of the life chef has created for himself has anything to do with his real background.
In my mind, chef did not do himself any favors by publishing this book. The things I had admired about him—the melding of cultures in his life and cooking, the charitable work he does, the many awards and accolades he has worked hard to earn, and the respect he’s earned within the industry—are hardly seen within the covers of this memoir. For instance, on one page, in a couple of lines, he mentions some of the celebrities he’s cooked for or who have visited his restaurant. Why weren’t these stories in the book? Why are they just dropped names? That would have been far more interesting, at least to me, than hearing about the pig foot woman of Harlem.
All in all, this was not so satisfying a read. I’ll continue to follow Marcus Samuelsson’s career and even try cooking some of his fabulous dishes. But reading about his life in his own words did nothing to improve my opinion of him or tech me anything, except maybe wanting to try a few ethnic spice blends.