Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Yes, Chef. Connecting with food and having a conversation about it with Marcus Samuelsson

Marcus Samuelsson / An incomparable story.

It began with a simple ritual:  Every Saturday afternoon, a boy who loved to cook walked to his grandmother's house and helped her prepare a roast chicken for dinner. The grandmother was Swedish, a retired domestic. The boy was Ethiopian and adopted. He would grow up to become a world-renowned chef after emigrating to the United States.

Meet Marcus Samuelsson.

Samuelsson's recently-published memoir, Yes, Chef (Illustrated. 319 pp. Random House, $27.) is not only a great culinary story, it's also a love letter to food and family. I have been reading this incomparable story and it's hard to put down.

Born Kassahun Tsegie in a small, poverty-stricken Ethiopian farming village, Samuelsson contracted tuberculosis at age 2, as did his mother and sister. Together, the three found the strength and courage to walk bravely through seventy-five miles of terrible heat ~ fighting through their fatigue and fever all the way ~ to reach a hospital in the Ethiopian capital city of Addis Ababa. Through a miracle, Kassahun and his sister, Fantaye, got out alive. Their mother died. They never knew their father.

Yes, Chef.
As Samuelsson shared his fascinating life's story with great honestly during a conversation and book signing at Book Passage's intimate San Francisco's Ferry Building store last week, he said: "Sometimes, the worst situation can become the best situation."

Recovered but now orphaned, Marcus and his sister were welcomed into a loving, middle-class white family in Göteborg, Sweden. They had been adopted. Samuelsson hiked, skied and fished, all the trappings of a happy childhood. Best of all, it was there in Göteborg that Marcus's new grandmother, Helga, nurtured in him a lifelong passion for food and cooking with her pan-fried herring, her freshly baked bread, and her signature dish of roast chicken.

In a chapter of Yes, Chef devoted to Helga, Samuelsson writes: "Mormor (the Swedish word for mother's mother) treated her house like it was her own little food factory. She made everything herself: jams, pickles, and breads. She bought large cuts of meat or whole chickens and game animals from the butcher and then broke them down into chops and roasts at home. It's so funny to me how, today, we celebrate braising as some refined, elegant approach, when it's the same slow cooking method Mormor used. Her menus followed a simple logic:

"You have bread today because it's fresh. You have toast tomorrow because the bread has gone stale. You make croutons the next day, and whatever bread is left after that gets ground into crumbs that you'll use to batter fish.

"I don't think I saw a rib-eye steak until my late teens when I started working in restaurants. At home, we ate mostly ground meat that was rolled into balls and stretched even further by ample additions of breadcrumbs. We ate our own Swedish version of a hamburger: pan beef, a patty topped with caramelized onions. Sometimes we ate beef Lindstrom: a hamburger patty mixed with onions, capers, and pickled beets before being seared in butter. That's comfort food where I come from, and it's damn good."

A multi-cultural life.
Indeed, there was little question that Samuelsson was destined for a life and career that involved his passion of food. He studied cooking at a vocational high school in Sweden.

Then, he endured working his way up the culinary ladder, cooking on cruise ships and in the demanding culture of good restaurants in Switzerland and France. All the while, Samuelsson's goal was coming to the United States with the great determination of finding his place in the world.

"I am an immigrant, not a refugee. There is a big difference," explained Samuelsson. "I am as patriotic as any American. I am determined and grateful."

In 1991, at age twenty-one, Samuelsson arrived in New York City and took a low-level job at Aquavit, a restaurant known for its celebrated Scandinavian cuisine. "You have to completely give yourself up," says Samuelsson of being a low-ranking member of a good kitchen. "It's a daily dose of humility."

Soon, his "outsized talent and ambition" as a chef finally came together at Aquavit and he earned a coveted New York Times three-star rating at the age of twenty-four.

As Samuelsson told his San Francisco audience, sometimes, it's a matter of "luck and the belief in others."

Throughout his memoir, Samuelsson describes the brutal and selfless work ~ "chasing flavors" as he describes it ~ that he endured in order to achieve his culinary aspirations, which have including cooking for President Obama's first White House state dinner in 2009, reality show triumphs (Top Chef Masters), and appearances on Today, Charlie Rose, Iron Chef and Chopped, where he is a frequent judge. He's also experienced ambitious failures ~ career crises ~ which have included opening a much-heralded branch of Aquavit in Minneapolis only to see it shuttered four and one-half years after it opened due to an evaporating convention and business audience brought on in a post-September 11 world.

In a New York Times review of Yes, Chef, Dwight Garner wrote: "There's a strong undercurrent of loneliness. ... In part this is because, he says, blacks are 'shamefully underrepresented at the high end of the business.' When bad things happen, like the time the voluble and unhinged British chef Gordon Ramsay used a racial insult to describe him, he felt he had few people to turn to for support. That loneliness is a part of Mr. Samuelsson's reserve."

With modesty but tact, Samuelsson, who won the 2003 James Beard Award for best chef in New York City, pointedly notes: "A hundred years ago, black men and women had to fight to get out of the kitchen. These days, we have to fight to get in." He further explained during his conversation in San Francisco: "I knew in Europe, I could not be accepted as a black chef. I was determined to make it in New York City." 

Always with a smile.
Fast forward to the opening of his beloved Red Rooster in the heart of New York City's lively Harlem (310 Lenox Avenue, between 125th and 126th streets). Samuelsson's newest restaurant celebrates the roots of American comfort food ~ think fried chicken, what the restaurant calls its "fried yard bird" ~ and, it represents a fulfillment of a dream of "creating a truly diverse, multiracial dining room ~ a place where presidents and prime ministers rub elbows with jazz musicians, aspiring artists, bus drivers and nurses." In Red Rooster, Samuelsson has found a place where he can feel at home, filled with "diversity from all different backgrounds" and in a neighborhood he now calls home, where he lives with his wife.

At times, it's been a struggle for Samuelsson to find his place, both in the kitchen and in the world. At least for now, he has the appearance of a man who's found peace in all the right places ~ and, he's always with a smile on his face.

"Cooking has changed, but the core values remain the same. It's about expressing a journey and culture. What better way than through food," says Samuelsson. And, besides, as he playfully shared with his San Francisco audience on this summer night: "My fried chicken is better than yours!"

Photographs by Michael Dickens, copyright 2012. All rights reserved.


  1. Great American story, African story, New York story. Yes, Michael.

  2. Thank you, Robert. I am glad you enjoyed reading my post about Marcus Samuelsson. Indeed, his story is a remarkable one that transcends borders and continents.