'Yes, Chef': A Preview of Marcus Samuelsson's Memoir
The chef of Harlem's Red Rooster celebrates cultural diversity, and comments on racial inequality
Marcus Samuelsson’s Yes, Chef is set to hit bookshelves this Tuesday. While the memoir reads like a story, it functions as an opportunity for readers to immerse themselves in different cultures and have a taste of faraway lands. Each chapter of the memoir finds Samuelsson in a different place, either geographically or professionally.
Traveling to Sweden, Switzerland, the United States, and Ethiopia, the readers get a taste of all of the cultures and experiences that have influenced this James Beard Award-winning chef. Samuelsson’s life began in rural Ethiopia, but he only spent the first three years of his life there. His mother died of tuberculosis, but not before bringing her two children into the city, where they found healthcare and a new chance at life. He and his sister found fortune when a Swedish couple adopted them. Samuelsson began cooking in the humble kitchen of his Swedish grandmother, and learned the no-waste attitudes of the money-conscientious. Then, he made pit stops in and out of three-star restaurants, where he learned the art of French culinary traditions and the stress of the hierarchal nature of the culinary world.
Call this memoir a celebration of culture in all of its forms. Chef Samuelsson appreciates the flavorful spices of India, the gourmet tradition of France, and the efficient machinery of Switzerland. Yet, Samuelsson favors the less formalized cultural culinary traditions.
Even though Samuelsson’s career has led him to Europe, Africa, and North America, he credits a good amount of his inspiration to the people he has met along the way. And he didn’t need to travel the expanse of the globe to find all of these culinary influences. In fact, he says he didn’t even to need to leave the small confinements of his restaurant kitchens. "It’s not just that I believe in food that is global. I believe there’s a door that opens from inside any great kitchen, a door that opens out and gives us the world."
This memoir is also a commentary on race and inequality. Samuelsson shows his appreciation for the cultures, ethnicities, and expertise that are all crammed into the back kitchen. Yet, he doesn’t shy away from pointing out all of the inequalities that dominate the system. He emphasizes the low numbers of blacks and women holding higher culinary positions, and addresses the prejudices that have prevented him from getting interviews for job positions.
It is this aspect of the book that is drawing criticism from the media. Eddie Huang’s critical op-ed is making headlines for calling the memoir "overcooked," and "an embarrassing exercise in condescension." And Huang is not alone in his harsh analysis. Other journalists, including EgoTrip’s Sacha Jenkins, deem parts of the memoir stereotypical and "racially insensitive."
Another subject of Samuelsson’s memoir has caught the media’s attention. In the true nature of a tell-all memoir, he calls out Gordon Ramsay on his racist remarks, back when he called him a "black bastard." After arriving in London to represent America in the Lanesborough hotel’s celebration of the world’s up-and-coming chefs, Samuelsson received an explicit phone call from Ramsay. The British chef wasn’t included in the list of chefs who had inspired Samuelsson, and his way of handling the upset was to call him up and curse him out, using racial slurs.
Yes, Chef continues to comment on the hierarchy and unfairness highlighted in Ramsay’s own Hell’s Kitchen, especially in the chapter where Samuelsson describes his pre-shift ritual of vomiting in the bathroom . His daily nausea is the direct result of the stressful nature of any kitchen career. Yet, his morning ritual pales in comparison to the traumatic events experienced by some of his coworkers. Stupidity, laziness, and arrogance have no place in the culinary world, and Samuelsson emphasizes the measures taken by higher-ups to eliminate those who possess any of those characteristics.
Call this memoir what you wish, but one thing is for certain: If Samuelsson had his way, this memoir wouldn’t be available to buy in bookstores. It would be served to his audience on a plate.