The universal rule of kitchen work, Marcus Samuelsson says in his crisp new memoir, “Yes, Chef,” goes as follows: “Stay invisible unless you’re going to shine.” That rule applies to writers too, especially to those who would write food memoirs. Because you like to put things in your mouth does not mean you have a story to tell.
Mr. Samuelsson, as it happens, possesses one of the great culinary stories of our time. It begins in Ethiopia where he was born into poverty and where, at 2, he contracted tuberculosis as did his mother and sister. The three of them trudged more than 75 miles in the terrible heat to a hospital in the capital city of Addis Ababa, where his mother died.
Mr. Samuelsson — at birth he was named Kassahun Tsegie — and his sister didn’t know their father. Orphaned, they found themselves on an airplane a year later, adopted by a white, middle-class family in Goteborg, Sweden.
You may know some of the later bits of Mr. Samuelsson’s story. In 1995, while cooking for the Scandinavian restaurant Aquavit in Manhattan, he became the youngest chef to receive a three-star rating from The New York Times. Eight years later the James Beard Foundation named him the best chef in New York City. In 2009 he cooked for President Obama’s first state dinner.
He’s now the owner and executive chef of Red Rooster Harlem, where he interpretsSouthern and other comfort food standards. His fame extends, as it tends to these days in the food world, to reality TV. He was the winner of Bravo’s “Top Chef Masters” in 2010, where he was cool as a daikon radish under fire, blending Swedish and African influences into dishes like hamachi meatballs with berbere, an Ethiopian spice mix. He’s still only 42.
“Yes, Chef,” which was written with Veronica Chambers, chalks in the details of Mr. Samuelsson’s story with modesty and tact. What lifts this book beyond being merely the plainly told story of an interesting life is Mr. Samuelsson’s filigreed yet often pointed observations about why so few black chefs have risen to the top of the culinary world. “A hundred years ago,” he says, “black men and women had to fight to get out of the kitchen. These days, we have to fight to get in.
Mr. Samuelsson and his sister had what he calls a mostly “quaint” upbringing in Goteborg, a blue-collar town he likens to “Pittsburgh by the sea.” He hiked, skied and fished, and he learned to cook from his Swedish grandmother, a retired domestic.
He’s funny about how she could “kill a chicken old-school style.” He describes her method this way: “Grab the bird, knife to the neck. Like, ‘Come here, boom.’ ” He’s amusing too about how, once in a while, he’d hear about “a family’s smokehouse blowing up like a meth lab.”
He had a happy childhood. “I have no big race wounds,” he admits. Still, a bully at school pounded him with a basketball, asking him why he wasn’t good at “negerboll.” (“Neger was the Swedish word for Negro,” he writes.)
As it happens, there was a type of cookie called negerboll too, and one popular brand’s advertisements featured a little Sambo character. “I felt a sense of dread anytime I saw a boy open a package of them at lunch,” Mr. Samuelsson writes, “because I knew that the wrapper would soon be coming my way.”
Mr. Samuelsson was not much of a student; he didn’t attend college. He was an excellent soccer player, however, and hoped to play professionally. Told he was too small, he turned to his next great passion: food. He studied cooking at a vocational high school and then began arduously climbing the ladder, cooking on cruise ships and in increasingly good restaurants in Sweden and Switzerland. In 1991, when he was 21, he arrived in New York City to take a low-level job at Aquavit.
“Yes, Chef” is a good book to give to the aspiring professional cook in your life because its abiding theme is the brutal and selfless work that must undergird culinary inspiration. As a low-ranking member in a good kitchen, he says, “you have to completely give yourself up.” He adds: “Your time, your ego, your relationships, your social life, they are all sacrificed. It’s a daily dose of humility.”
Mr. Samuelsson does not drink much, and he does not consume drugs. Yet he was not entirely a drudge. There is a mischievous twinkle in his eye throughout this memoir. There are mentions of interludes with “Swedish au pairs” and “backpacking Yankee girls” and a chambermaid named Brigitta, who became pregnant.
Brigitta gave birth to a daughter, Zoe, whom the author supported financially but did not help raise. They’ve gotten to know each other only in recent years. In 2008 Mr. Samuelsson married Maya Haile, an Ethiopian model.
Over the course of “Yes, Chef” Mr. Samuelsson, who was more or less classically trained, comes to realize that other ethnic foods, especially Asian, have “as much integrity and power as any French food I’d ever eaten.” He memorably asks: “Who lied? Who started the lie that France had the greatest food in the world?” He travels to Ethiopia to connect with his culinary roots, and he meets his father, whom he’d long presumed was dead.
There’s a strong undercurrent of loneliness in “Yes, Chef.” 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. In part, that loneliness is a part of Mr. Samuelsson’s reserve. We get close, but not too close, to him in this memoir. There’s always a bit of distance.
There’s a kind of alienation, finally, that can come from being an atypical black person. Like Barack Obama, whom he thanks in his acknowledgments, Mr. Samuelsson hasn’t had anything like what could be called a standard black American experience and has sometimes suffered for that reality. He’s too white for some, too black for others.
He’s been accused of being an outsider and a gentrifier in Harlem, where he now lives and runs Red Rooster. “Who in Harlem pays $28 for chicken?” a Harlem native was quoted as saying in a stinging review of “Yes, Chef” in The New York Observer.
That’s fair enough, even though what the restaurant calls its “fried yard bird” is $26. (And unholy in it delights.) This kind of criticism has validity, and I’ve been known to weep about the price of Manhattan barbecue. But it forgets that a great restaurant culture, in Harlem or anyplace else, needs a mix of high and low, of aspirational and inexpensive, to come alive.
For the monkish Mr. Samuelsson, a good kitchen has always been, he says, “my laboratory, my studio, my church.”