August 9, 2012
Just when the chef memoir had started tasting a little overly familiar — the long struggles to cook their food their way, the breakthrough review, the stove burns, the final 60 pages where nothing much happens but happiness and prosperity — along comes a chef memoir with a story that's worth 300 pages.
Marcus Samuelsson's "Yes, Chef" (Random House, $27) is not without cliches or problems, and despite its 319 pages, an incisive portrait of Samuelsson never entirely materializes. But if ever there was a chef with a book-ready story...
When Samuelsson, 42, was a child, he lived in Ethiopia. There, he and his sister and their mother caught tuberculosis. His mother carried them to the nearest hospital in Addis Ababa, a 75-mile walk from their village. Once they arrived, his mother died at the hospital.
And that's the first dozen pages.
His breakthrough moments are well-traveled ground for anyone with even moderate interest in American cooking: At New York's Aquavit, he became a culinary star, or rather, as he writes, "the black chef," the best-known black chef in the country. In 2003, he won the Best Chef in New York City award from the James Beard Foundation. He cooked the first state dinner for Barack Obama's White House. He won the second season of Bravo's "Top Chef Masters." And in 2010 he opened Red Rooster in Harlem, a prominent part of the financial comeback of 125th Street.
But the first half of his life is much harder to breeze through: Samuelsson and his sister are adopted by a white family from Sweden. Not unlike Obama, he learns that a complicated cultural background makes for a lot of complicated cultural responses. His responses have been multifaceted too: The menu at Red Rooster features not only catfish with grits but his grandmother's meatballs, served with lingonberries.
Red Rooster is one of Samuelsson's six restaurants: two in New York, two in Sweden, and Marc Burger, a fast-burger mini-chain with two locations, in Southern California and in the food court at Macy's on State Street. What about C-House, the 4-year-old restaurant Samuelsson opened in the Affinia hotel on East Superior Street? It's still there, but he's not involved anymore. Last May, about the time the Affinia was sold and became the MileNorth Hotel, Samuelsson jumped ship. He said he parted ways with a business partner but continues to have a great relationship with the restaurant's staff.
We spoke with Samuelsson by phone the other day. The following is an edited version of a longer conversation.
Q: I realize you were very young then, but do you have any memories of Ethiopia?
A: You know, I don't really remember anything at all. My sister did. She was 5 when we left. But I've been going back every year since 1998. I've been back about 13 or 14 times since then, learning about myself and the culture. No, growing up, I wanted to be like everybody else, so it wasn't until I was in my early 20s did I start to wonder about Ethiopia and decide to go there. My sister was the one who pushed for that, though. We decided to go and try to find our fathers, and I went a couple of times before I met mine.
Q: Were you resistant to that?
A: It wasn't resistance so much as I had never taken a trip like that in my life without the focus of the trip being food. If I was going to Paris, for instance, it was always to eat or to cook. I did think for a bit that if I went (to Ethiopia), I could eventually relate it back to food somehow. But at first I didn't go for that reason.
Q: What did you cook as a child?
A: In Sweden? I remember making meatballs with my grandmother, making gingersnaps, eating the dough. I also remember cleaning fish. I remember learning how to clean mackerel at a very early age, learning which mushroom to be afraid of and which to pick. My grandmother, she didn't cook cool things because it was hip, she cooked them because it was the way she cooked all her life. As for my father, he was from a fishing village, so he ate fish. He just ate fish. You would give some to the neighbors, sell some to the tourists. The rest you smoked or preserved. Everything about those lessons, I carry. Think of the urban locavore movement, and my childhood has all those things: learning to make foods, eating seasonal, local.
Q: Were your adoptive parents encouraging, in terms of a culinary career?
A: Yeah, yeah. My father was very educated and became a geologist, so he always knew what it meant to be passionate about something. But he also told me to approach those things like you would a Ph.D.: It is going to take you 10 to 12 years before you do it right. He was pretty firm on what I had to do, but it was fine that it was cooking. Work ethic was something he drilled in. But it did take me a long time. He supported me cooking in different places, Austria, France, as long as he knew I was going in the right direction.
Q: Before you came to this country, being black and Swedish, was alienation a worry?
A: I came here thinking America would be a diverse country that would allow me to be a chef. And that was post-Rodney King, post-Bensonhurst! But I still kind of felt that if I moved to a place with Indian doctors, black lawyers and Korean psychologists, then I could probably do well there. But when I came here, there weren't any black chefs — and today there still aren't a lot of black chefs. What happened? I say in the book that we had to work really hard to get out of the kitchen, and now we have to work really hard to get back in.
Q: Still, some people are never enough of one race or nationality to fit in. ...
A: True. That's right. But what's the other option than America?
Q: Do you ever get sick of being asked these kind of questions?
A: Of course I do. But I also recognize that I have a responsibility. I am a black professional who has come pretty far, so not dealing with these questions is not an option. Understand, I didn't open the Red Rooster just for my paycheck. I built it for a legacy too. So that Harlemites would have it and all different kinds of people would come to Harlem. You recognize at some point that you have to leave something. Hopefully you don't realize that with arrogance but with confidence: How can I drive this conversation forward?
Q: At times, though, you've been pegged as an outsider. I'm thinking of the harsh piece that ran recently in the New York Observer painting you as a gentrifying force, kind of a carpetbagger in Harlem.
A: I'm not going to respond to writers just trying to get famous on the backs of others, you know? No, I've lived every day in Harlem. Red Rooster, it provides 100 jobs in Harlem. On every corner near our restaurant, people are working. Every day people come in and spend money with us, then spend money next door. I am not going to combat that article, I'm trying to drive the conversation forward. I can go to sleep at night with that. But it is funny how African-American culture always attracts people who want to explain how (African-American culture) works.
Q: You titled your book "Yes, Chef," so I wonder: Do you have qualms about the phrase?
A: No. I've said it in Swedish and French as much as in English. So much about being a cook is about the humble journey that when people say "Yes, chef," it's a sense of arrival. And you have to live up to it, and when a young cook says it to you, it's not taken lightly. Say it with respect and accept it with respect.
Q: What about people outside the industry who use it?
A: I think it's a formality now. The way a boxer never loses "Champ," I never shy away from people who say "Chef."
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