by Kathy Lassen-Hahne
On November 14, at the lovely home of Barbara Shenson in Foster City, the San Francisco Professional Food Society Book Club embarked on a worldwide voyage of far-reaching destinations, social introspection and amazing tastes — inspired by Marcus Samuelsson’s Memoir Yes, Chef.
The discussion opened with Kara Nielsen’s canvassing those members who were originally reticent to read the selected title due to an overload of Marcus Samuelsson in the media and his well-known personal history. Were their minds changed? The answer was a resounding “yes,” with unanimous agreement from all present that this is a very compelling memoir (as opposed to the other suggested mystery story, Nightwatch; all thumbs down). Some noted that the skillful editing/co-writing by Veronica Chambers really contributed to making Yes, Chef so engrossing.
The story begins in Ethiopia where the author was born into poverty, afflicted with tuberculosis and then adopted, along with his older sister, by a Swedish family from Goteborg, Sweden, following the death of his mother. With his innate culinary talent and teachings by his Swedish grandmother, Marcus studied culinary arts at a vocational high school and climbed the professional chef ladder by cooking at restaurants and hotels in Sweden, Switzerland and Austria. He made several journeys as culinary staff on cruise ships that opened his eyes and palates to the flavors of the world.
He eventually landed in Manhattan at Aquavit, owned by a fellow Swede. His hard work, passion, experimentation to create signature dishes and continuous search for excellence were rewarded when he became the youngest chef ever to receive a three-star rating from The New York Times at Aquavit.
His success continued as he went on to open other restaurants, compete on Top Chef Masters and even prepare President Obama’s first state dinner for the prime minister of India. After a harrowing episode where he had to “buy back” his name from the owner of Aquavit, he now owns and runs the Red Rooster in Harlem, where he celebrates the roots of American cuisine and diverse culinary traditions of the neighborhood.
Not until arriving in New York did he confront true racial discrimination. Like Barak Obama, Marcus Samuelsson was too black for some, too white for others. “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.”
Besides Samuelsson’s professional story, equally fascinating is his personal story, which includes his lifelong issues with race, including being taunted as a school child in Sweden, being refused work in kitchens in Europe and integrating as a black, but not African-American, chef in New York City. There is also the story of his relationship with Ethiopia and Africa, and his reunion with his birth father and siblings there. Samuelsson also fathered a daughter with a young woman in Austria at 20 and then waited years to meet her. The interesting social note here: his Swedish mother immediately embraced and supported his daughter Zoe, even though Marcus did not meet her until she was a teenager. We also learned about his glamorous Ethiopian-born, European-raised wife Maya Haile and their nuptials in their native country.
A recent Wall Street Journal article featured a story on Marcus Samuelsson and potluck dinners.
Our discussion was of course accompanied by an array of delicious dishes, including Scandi breads, Smorrebrod, Gravlaks with sweet Mustard Sauce, Parsley Root Soup with apples and walnuts, Lentil Stew with Berbere spices, Red Lentil Hummus with Berbere spices, Swedish Meatballs, Lingonberry Sauce, Roasted Vegetables, a Swedish Aunt’s Dream Cookies and the classic Swedish Princess Cake from San Francisco’s Schubert’s Bakery. (N.B. Berbere is a key ingredient in the cuisines of Ethiopia and Eritrea, and includes chili peppers, garlic, ginger, dried basil, korarima, rue, white and black pepper and fenugreek.) It was a perfect feast over which to discuss a fascinating, human and compelling memoir.