Yes, Chef: A Memoir

Yes, Chef: A Memoir

by Marcus Samuelsson, Veronica Chambers


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780385342612
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 05/21/2013
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 144,581
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

A James Beard Award–winning chef and author of several cookbooks, Marcus Samuelsson has appeared on Today, Charlie Rose, Iron Chef, and Top Chef Masters, where he took first place. In 1995, for his work at Aquavit, Samuelsson became the youngest chef ever to receive a three-star review from The New York Times. His newest restaurant, Red Rooster, recently opened in Harlem, where he lives with his wife.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One 

My African Mother

I have never seen a picture of my mother.

I have traveled to her homeland, my homeland, dozens of times. I have met her brothers and sisters. I have found my birth father and eight half brothers and sisters I didn’t know I had. I have met my mother’s relatives in Ethiopia, but when I ask them to describe my mother, they throw out generalities. “She was nice,” they tell me. “She was pretty.” “She was smart.” Nice, pretty, smart. The words seem meaningless, except the last is a clue because even today, in rural Ethiopia, girls are not encouraged to go to school. That my mother was intelligent rings true because I know she had to be shrewd to save the lives of myself and my sister, which is what she did, in the most mysterious and miraculous of ways.

My mother’s family never owned a photograph of her, which tells you everything you need to know about where I’m from and what the world was like for the people who gave me life. In 1972, in the United States, Polaroid introduced its most popular instant camera. In 1972, the year my mother died, an Ethiopian woman could go her whole life without having her picture taken—especially if, as was the case with my mother, her life was not long.

I have never seen a picture of my mother, but I know how she cooked. For me, my mother is berbere, an Ethiopian spice mixture. You use it on everything, from lamb to chicken to roasted peanuts. It’s our salt and pepper. I know she cooked with it because it’s in the DNA of every Ethiopian mother. Right now, if I could, I would lead you to the red tin in my kitchen, one of dozens I keep by the stove in my apartment in Harlem, filled with my own blend and marked with blue electrical tape and my own illegible scrawl. I would reach into this tin and grab a handful of the red-orange powder, and hold it up to your nose so you could smell the garlic, the ginger, the sundried chili.

My mother didn’t have a lot of money so she fed us shiro. It’s a chickpea flour you boil, kind of like polenta. You pour it into hot water and add butter, onions, and berbere. You simmer it for about forty-five minutes, until it’s the consistency of hummus, and then you eat it with injera, a sour, rich bread made from a grain called teff. I know this is what she fed us because this is what poor people eat in Ethiopia. My mother carried the chickpea powder in her pocket or bag. That way, all she needed to make dinner was water and fire. Injera is also portable, so it is never wasted. If you don’t finish it, you leave it outside and let it dry in the sun. Then you eat it like chips.

In Meki, the small farming village where I’m from, there are no roads. We are actually from an even smaller village than Meki, called Abrugandana, that does not exist on most maps. You go to Meki, take a right in the middle of nowhere, walk about five miles, and that is where we are from.

I know my mother was not taller than five feet, two inches, but I also know she was not delicate. Those country women in Ethiopia are strong because they walk everywhere. I know her body because I know those women. When I go there now, I stare at the young mothers to the point of being impolite. I stare at those young women and their children and it’s like watching a home movie that does not exist of my childhood. Each woman has a kid, who might well be me, on her back, and the fingers of her right hand are interlocked with another slightly older kid, and that kid is like my sister. The woman has her food and wares in her bag, which is slung across her chest and rests on her hip. The older kid is holding a bucket of water on her shoulders, a bucket that’s almost as heavy as she is. That’s how strong that child is.

Women like my mother don’t wear shoes. They don’t have shoes. My mother, sister, and I would walk the Sidama savannah for four hours a day, to and from her job selling crafts in the market. Before three p.m. it would be too hot to walk, so we would rest under a tree and gather our strength and wait for the sun to set. After eight p.m. it was dark and there were new threats—animals that would see a baby like me as supper and dangerous men who might see my mother as another kind of victim.

I have never seen a picture of my mother, but I know her features because I have seen them staring back at me in the mirror my entire life. I know she had a cross somewhere near her face. It was a henna tattoo of a cross, henna taking the place of the jewelry she could not afford or even dream of having. There was also an Orthodox cross somewhere on the upper part of my mother’s body, maybe on her neck, maybe on her chest, near her heart. She had put it there to show that she was a woman of faith. She was an Orthodox Ethiopian Christian, which is very similar to being Catholic.

I don’t remember my mother’s voice, but I know she spoke two languages. In The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. DuBois spoke of the double consciousness that African Americans are born into, the need to be able to live in both the black world and the white world. But that double consciousness is not limited to African Americans. My mother was born into it, too. Her tribe was a minority in that section of Ethiopia and it was essential to her survival that she spoke both the language of her village, Amhara, and the language of the greater outside community, which is Oromo. She was cautious and when she left the Amharic village, she flipped that switch. She not only spoke Oromo, she spoke it with a native accent.

I don’t know my mother’s face, but I sometimes think I remember the sound of her breath. I was two when a tuberculosis epidemic hit Ethiopia. My mother was sick, I was sick, and my sister Fantaye was doing only slightly better than the two of us. We were all coughing up blood and my mother had seen enough in her young life to measure the ravages of that disease. She knew she had to do something. She put me on her back. It was all coming at her now: the fatigue and the fever; pieces of her lung splintering and mixing with her throw-up; the calcifications on her bones, where the disease had already spread. She and Fantaye walked more than seventy-five miles, my mother carrying me the whole way, under a hot sun, from our village to the hospital in Addis Ababa to get help. I don’t know how many days they walked, or how sick my mother was by the time she got there. But I do know that when we arrived, there were thousands of people standing in the street, sick and dying, awaiting care. I do not know how my mother managed to get us through those lines and into that hospital. I do know that she never left that hospital and that perhaps it was only by the miracle of that henna cross that Fantaye and I got out alive.

Today, in the dead of night when I should be sleeping, I sometimes imagine the breath of the woman who not only gave me life, but delivered me from death. I sometimes reach into that tin by my stove and take a handful of berbere, sift it through my fingers, and toss it into the pan. I watch my wife cook and I imagine that I can see my mother’s hands. I have taught myself the recipes of my mother’s people because those foods are for me, as a chef, the easiest connection to the mysteries of who my mother was. Her identity remains stubbornly shrouded in the past, so I feed myself and the people I love the food that she made. But I cannot see her face.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

Advance praise for Yes, Chef
“The Red Rooster’s arrival in Harlem brought with it a chef who has reinvigorated and reimagined what it means to be American. In his famed dishes, and now in this memoir, Marcus Samuelsson tells a story that reaches past racial and national divides to the foundations of family, hope, and downright good food.”—President Bill Clinton
“I’ve read a lot of chefs’ books, but never anything like this one. Marcus Samuelsson has had such an interesting life, and he talks about it with touching modesty and remarkable candor. I couldn’t put this book down.”—Ruth Reichl, bestselling author of Tender at the Bone

“Marcus Samuelsson has an incomparable story, a quiet bravery, and a lyrical and discreetly glittering style—in the kitchen and on the page. I liked this book so very, very much.”—Gabrielle Hamilton, bestselling author of Blood, Bones, & Butter
“The pleasures of this memoir are numerous. Marcus Samuelsson’s life, like his cooking, reflects splendidly multicultural influences and educations, and he writes about it all with an abundance of flavor and verve. A delicious read.”—Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

Customer Reviews

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Yes, Chef 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 52 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I loved this book. The story is incredibly moving, plus Marcus is a great story teller. I could not put it down and found myself in tears at three different parts. I would highly recommend this book - it's the best book I have read in ages.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Not only a great chef but a very good writer. This would still be an intetesting book even if you didn't know who the writer was. Kudos Marcus. I highly recommend this book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Wonderfully written. Moving.
VictoriaAllman More than 1 year ago
It is an absolute pleasure to read a chef's memoir about something other than how many drugs they have done of how drunk they can get on the line and still put out food. Marcus Samuelsson's passion for food and drive to excel leap from the page and swirl through the readers mind like the aromatics from the pots and pans on his stove. This is a story of high-quality food and cooking and how to obtain it. Through hard work, passion, and determination, Marcus has become a chef we should all look up to and emulate. This is the book I'd like to represent a chef's life. It is a pleasure to read and an inspiration. Victoria Allman author of: SEAsoned: A Chef's Journey with Her Captain and Sea Fare A Chef's Journey Across the Ocean
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Excellent and fascinating memoir! Unable to put down! Met him at book signing with a smile to match his life experiences. Will recommend and continue following his journey!!
SC2010 More than 1 year ago
I have always been intrigued by Marcus Samuelsson; when watching him on the Food Network, I'd always hear his accent and wonder where he was from. When I found out that he was Swedish but was born and adopted out of Ethiopia, I knew that he'd have an interesting story to tell. I admire his cooking skills, love for food, and commitment to elevating Harlem cuisine, but he has by far the most colorful personal story out of all the celebrity chefs out there. A most enjoyable read and a great journey into a man's life.
chanelBS More than 1 year ago
Our book club read and discussed this remarkable story. Thank you Marcus for the history and journey of your inspiring life. Excellent!
TiredofGarbage More than 1 year ago
Superb book, well done Mr. Samuelsson. The mark of a good book is that you feel better for having read it - like the mark of a good meal, where you feel better for having eaten it. Truly an amazing story, told with respect and compassion. The writing is poetic. Highly recommended for all, not just the foodies.
sparky2 More than 1 year ago
Great read. Enjoyed the behind the scenes of different kitchens.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This was a selected by a member of my book club. It is not a book I would have chosen to read on my own. I was pleasantly surprised at what an interesting book it is. Describing his childhood and how his race affected his career was quite fascinating. This was a fast read for me. I recommend it highly.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Could not put this down. Loved the vivid descriptions of Sweden and Africa.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I read this book as a food lover and fan of the chef, but his life and journey are so unique and moving that I think anyone would enjoy this!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Excellent journey into what it takes to be an outstanding chef. Well written and engaging.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Thanks, chef, and all those who helped to write this book. Excellent!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Loved loved loved this book. A wonderful portrayal of the tough life of a chef, the hard work and dedication needed to make it in this industry and a beautiful insight into the soul of a passionate man. I love to cook and completly adore (and appreciate) Marcus' drive for the 'what ifs'. If you are a foodie the this book is a must.
nevadaannie on LibraryThing 3 days ago
One of my favorite genres of book is the memoir, and when it is a food memoir by a person with an interesting life, well, let's just say I was prepared to like this book before I read a word. However, I loved this book! Chef Samuelsson has had quite a life with both ups and downs and never gave up or gave in. I was very impressed with the credit he gave to everyone who helped him, especially his adoptive parents. He never hesitated to accept blame or responsibility for anything that was his fault and he continues to give a helping hand to all that he can. In addition to being a thoroughly nice person, he is apparently a great chef as well. I liked reading his discriptions of food and how he cooked it and made the dishes his own. This was a really, really good book for all of the foodophiles out there. I wasn't surprised that his Swedish grandmother instilled the "waste nothing" philosphy in him, but I was a little surprised that after having achieved success and opened his own restaurant he still adheres to that philosophy. But perhaps I shouldn't be considering his Ethiopian roots. All in all, an excellent memoir.
GCPLreader on LibraryThing 3 days ago
Yes, Chef is the wonderful memoir of celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson. Marcus, born an Ethiopian and later adopted by loving Swedish parents, developed a love of cooking in his Swedish grandmother's kitchen. His determination to become a top-rated chef is awe-inspiring. I especially enjoyed reading about Marcus's food explorations and his descriptions of favorite flavors. As a longtime fan of his from Top Chef and FoodNetwork, I was disappointed not to have more inside behind-the-scenes stories and secrets about being a TV chef. Still, what matters to Marcus is his heritage and his home in Harlem NY and I was fascinated to read his story.
MrsLee on LibraryThing 3 days ago
How do I love this book? Let me count the ways. I love the inspiration found within for cultures to embrace one another through food and exposure. I love the unvarnished tale of mistakes and triumphs and the owning up thereof. I love the details of life in Sweden and beyond. I love the insight into what it takes to become a "Great Chef." I love the intimate details of food and flavors. I love the heart and soul and vision of this man who has acted on his beliefs with courage, hard work and determination. Especially, I love the hope it gives me for our future, if men and women like this are involved in our future. My only regret is that I will probably never be able to dine at the Red Rooster, but then again, who knows what will come in the next bend of life's journey?This story is lovingly told. The writing is a joy to read, and I was completely mesmerized with the tale. It is far more than a story of one man's success in the fine dining establishments, it is a story of personal growth, of change and of courage. In the 1980s, I was teaching my children about the world through cuisine and I couldn't find any books about the food of Africa. Some about the northern countries, yes, but nothing more than a recipe here or there. I mentioned my frustration to a relative who was known for his knowledge of fine dining and his response was, "Maybe there isn't enough food there to make good recipes." I wish that relative had lived long enough to read Chef Samuelsson's cookbooks and this memoir as well. He would have enjoyed the education. I am thrilled to finally be introduced to this continent through its cuisine. Thank you, Chef, for taking the time to share your story and your life with us.
CarolynSchroeder on LibraryThing 3 days ago
This book ended up being such a surprising joy! With all of the memoirs out there, it is hard to know when one will really strike the reader. I just loved reading Marcus Samuelsson's unique story from birth to chef/culinary success. He is an interesting, complex, positive man who tells of his journey "chasing flavors" across the globe and in the most innovative kitchens (including his grandmother's) to give to all people, no matter color, income level or country of origin, a sense of home and a bit of food love. He is incredibly well-traveled and shares his joy of wanderings via food and the professionals who surrounded him. The high level chef trade is ruthless (and racist) in some ways and simply a demanding profession in other ways, where only the driven, tenatious and creative can flourish and succeed. He portrays this dichotomy so incrediby well, but without "bashing" on fellow chefs, opportunists, etc. He merely reports the facts. The spinal cord of the book is the food, from Sweden to Ethiopia (his countries of origin), Europe, Asia and not just the 3 star restautrants, but street food, cruise ships, line cooks and home kitchens of the world. I learned a suprising amount about so many cultures, simply through the food. Mr. Samuelsson is not a perfect man, and lays his flaws and hardships right out there. But through it all is the clear respect, love and friendship he has had with so many people who influenced his life, and vice versa. There is just something about the way he told his story that truly made me believe in the good in people and that we can do whatever we set our minds to. I did not rate this five stars because it fizzled a bit at the end, tried to be too much and was repetitive in the last few chapters (needed a bit more editing perhaps). But overall, I highly recommend this memoir, especially if you love reading about food and cooking (I wanted to try half of his recipes and make them my own!) and want something that will lift your spirit a bit in the process.
EmThomas on LibraryThing 3 days ago
In the only book I have ever dog-eared a page of, this paragraph resonated... screamed... to me: "It's my gig, my art, my life. Always has been, always will be. I'm always battling myself--the part of me that says I can and the part of me that says I can't. My greatest gift has been that the part of me that says "I can" is always, always just a little bit louder." It is in the very bones of every artist dedicated to the path of their vision - fear and refusing to give in to it. Chef Marcus Samuelsson speaks of music, of art, of flavor, people, determination and passion in his memoir, "Yes, Chef"; a must read for any artist trying to find their footing. From the dusty paths of Ethiopia, to the gritty streets of Harlem, one artist traverses the path of history to home in the homemade flavors of his life; first learning the rhythm of food from his adoptive grandmother in Sweden, to later forays in France, London, and New York. Most important in this tale is the one of authenticity, of not only paying homage to your roots, but to putting your own mark upon the landscape of your life; the failures and the triumphs. The inspiring story of Marcus's life leaves an imprint on the reader, to not only follow your dreams, but to do it with the soul, sweat, and salvation that are imprinted in each of us that have a dream; to live beyond the stereotypes and accept the path for what it is; hard work, and, eventually, the reality that "yes, you can."
4daisies on LibraryThing 3 days ago
The professional kitchen world is a brutal environment in which to make a living. Those that survive and thrive in that world are a very special breed - a subculture to themselves with their own set of rules all seem to understand without being talked about. This chef¿s memoir is unlike any other I have read. It is more than just a peek behind the swinging kitchen door of a 3 or 4 star restaurant. It¿s a look at the racial divide that exists in that world. A divide that exists even at a world-wide level, which I would not have expected somehow. A divide that Chef Marcus Samuelsson is determined to erase. Aside from that very strong message that was emphasized throughout the book, I was most impressed with Chef Samuelsson¿s drive and determination that was apparent even from an early age. This along with immense creativity and a well developed palate are essential to success as a professional chef. It is a truly remarkable journey Marcus Samuelsson has been on from being an orphan in Ethiopia to cooking the Obama administration¿s first State Dinner. One that I was completely swept up in while devouring the pages of this book as if I were at The Red Rooster enjoying a meal especially created just for me.
dele2451 on LibraryThing 3 days ago
I expect this book will break out of the culinary section and into the mainstream faster than Chef Samuelsson can whip up one of his award-winning dishes. It is the classic rags-to-riches theme with a modern day multicultural twist, set in a fresh and luscious food environment. It is also a story of paying goodness forward and building community. Like the world-renowned flavors he creates, Marcus' writing is skillfully layered and masterfully textured. A definitely recommend for foodies and non-foodies alike.
browner56 on LibraryThing 3 days ago
An impoverished Ethiopian boy contracts tuberculosis and his mother walks him and his sister 75 miles to the nearest hospital to save their lives while losing her own. The orphaned siblings are then adopted by a working class white couple in Sweden, where he grows up happily and develops a deep love for cooking under the tutelage of his maternal grandmother. Starting at the absolute bottom of the restaurant world, the young man develops his craft through hard work and a single-minded focus that carries him to kitchens across three continents. He becomes the youngest three-star chef in New York City history and rises to a celebrity status that allows him to cook for presidents at the same time he is winning cooking contests against world-class competition. At some point in this journey, he reconnects with an out-of-wedlock Austrian daughter and his long-lost family in Ethiopia while finding a new home for himself, the African-born model he recently married, and his new restaurant in the heart of Harlem.If, as a publisher or movie producer, a fledging writer brought you a manuscript of that tale, you would undoubtedly reject it out of hand as being totally implausible. And yet, it is the true¿and altogether remarkable¿story of Marcus Samuelsson. Told with refreshing candor and humility, `Yes, Chef¿ is one of the most engaging and inspiring memoirs that I have ever read. Throughout the book, I was struck by Samuelsson¿s passion for food and his drive to succeed at the highest level of a profession in which few other people of color are even offered a chance. However, that resolute commitment to professional excellence came with significant personal costs and Samuelsson does not shy away from discussing his myriad failures of both omission and commission. Still, a lifetime of ¿chasing flavors¿ around the globe provides him with more good moments than bad and ultimately defines who he is as a chef.This is not a perfect book¿it could have been a little shorter, particularly in the last section¿but it is an extremely well-written one. To his credit, Samuelsson readily acknowledges the significant collaboration of Veronica Chambers, who apparently crafted much of what appears on the page. And what is recorded on these pages is the story of a genuine, honest, and highly disciplined man who has risen to the top. Although immersed in the culinary world, it is also an account that can serve as a ¿how to¿ manual for anyone wondering what it takes to be successful in their chosen field. I came away from reading the book really liking and admiring Samuelsson. Indeed, perhaps the best compliment I can offer is to say that I will go out of my way to eat his food whenever I get the chance.
SignoraEdie on LibraryThing 3 days ago
I was first introduced to Marcus Samuelsson when watching the cooking reality show, ¿Top Chef Masters.¿ It was easy to be drawn to this low-keyed gentle man participating with a natural elegance in the midst of the "drama" that can surround the personalities of such reality shows. While they never delved deeply into his history, it was clear that he had an interesting story that had brought him to this place in his life¿owner and celebrity chef of ¿Red Rooster¿ restaurant in Harlem NY where he lives with his wife.So I jumped at the chance to request the Advanced Reader¿s Copy of his forthcoming book, "Yes Chef," when it was offered on the Early Reviewers Book List.I thoroughly enjoyed this memoir. I have heard it described as ¿elegant¿ and it truly is¿elegant and simply told in a manner that so engaging and rings so true. Thoughout the story of his life¿s journey, from a very poor farm in Ethiopia to a loving family in Sweden, to pursuing his goal of becoming an executive chef, arriving in NY at 24 years of age to open a Swedish restaurant, Aquavit. It is too fantastical to be a fictional script! Who would have ever dreamed up such a journey!The story is told with simplicity that imbues it with a sense of reverence! He continually pays homage to those in his life, from the respect of his birth mother who, while sick herself, carried him on the long 75 mile walk to a hospital in Addis Ababa and then once there managed to actually obtain treatment for him and his older sister in the midst of huge crowds of people seeking aid.He pays homage to his adoptive parents and his Swedish grandmother who welcomed him and his sister into their home and gave him a life unimagined by an Ethiopian child. His book is dedicated to his two mothers.While I enjoyed the first part of the book more than the later part, the entire story engaged me. I was left with a tremendous admiration for his persistence and willingness to steadily work hard to move toward his goal. It is a story of hard work. He shows up and he does the next directed thing. I highly recommend the book to those interested in an immigrant story, in the inner workings of the restaurant industry and a glimpse into the heart and mind of an admirable young man.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Love seeing the reality of success and failure in this book.