Publisher: Random House
Publication date: 6/26/2012
Creating an excellent version of foie gras ganache takes years of “chasing flavors.”
Red Rooster Harlem owner Marcus Samuelsson has made a career of traveling the world and ensuring captivating foodways show up in his signature dishes. In his own words, customers should leave his restaurant feeling curious about what made his dishes so satisfying.
A compelling new memoir, Yes, Chef traces Samuelsson’s rise from humble commis in a kitchen herb garden to a career that would garner him at age 24 a three-star review from The New York Times.
In 2009, Samuelsson was selected to plan and execute President Obama’s first White House state dinner. In 2010, he was chosen winner of Bravo’s Top Chef Masters. He writes of Bobby Flay calling to congratulate him after a glowing article by Felicia Lee in The New York Times: “I was solidly on the scene now.”
This success story could not omit one important aspect of professional culinary training—a military respect toward the head chef. According to Samuelsson, traditional kitchen hierarchy is maintained with line cooks and commis learning quickly to address commands with, “Yes, chef!”
Humility and resilience paid off. He became known for his knowledge of diverse ingredients and the talent to combine them in fresh, focused ways. His creativity flanked a determination to succeed in kitchens with few African chefs at the top.
I made it a point not to dwell on the matter of race. I believed in my knife skills, and my sense of taste, and my capability to listen and to get things done. I was never afraid of hard work. Every place I’d worked in so far was a success for me because once I had my whites on and started working, there was no doubt that I would be the last man standing, regardless of whom I was up against. One ignorant chef who couldn’t see past the color of my skin was not going to stop me.
The Ethiopian-born chef focuses a chapter on his Swedish grandmother’s kitchen, which gave root to his earliest food memories and tastes. At Austria’s Elizabethpark, he learned to cook regional dishes—goulash, dumplings, noodles and freshwater fish—and saw that dedication could produce great food just as well as the fierce competition in other professional kitchens.
Intrigued by the American approach to food, he apprenticed for and eventually headed the kitchen at Aquavit in New York. Samuelsson found inspiration in Asian cuisine’s galangal, lemongrass and red curry. He also knew France would provide excellence and craft, so he cooked at George Blanc, the famed restaurant with three Michelin stars.
In response to a student’s question about the contemporary cooking trends of Africa, he considered why he didn’t know more about the continent’s rich culinary traditions.
Why was I so clueless about Ethiopian cuisine, when it was the country of my birth? How, in more than a decade of chasing flavors, could I have overlooked an entire continent so completely?
Samuelsson would take journalist Lolis Eric Elie up on a story idea pitched to Gourmet to follow him to Ethiopia and look at its foodways through his top chef lens. There, he was introduced to the Addis Merkato, the largest open-air market in Africa, where Amharic is spoken and the aroma of ground coffee and the spice blend berbere wafts through several square miles of stalls.
Returning to New York, he decided to research a cookbook and began with a visit to the culinary book store, Kitchen Arts & Letters on the Upper East Side. Samuelsson found to his dismay that no cookbooks existed on Africa.
Not one to be dissuaded, he created a cookbook for American audiences that would showcase the continent’s enormous diversity of rituals and celebrations around food. Chefs, ever inquisitive about new ingredients, would also be open to African foodways—as they had become with wasabi and salsa.
Opening a high-end restaurant in Harlem would be the culmination of years “chasing flavors.” He hired Michael Garrett as executive chef with the goal of showcasing the history of black cooks in America.
Samuelsson writes of his dedication to Red Rooster and its place in the community of Harlem:
One of the reasons that people enjoy coming to a great restaurant is that when an extraordinary meal is placed in front of them, they feel honored, respected, and even a little bit loved.
Yes, Chef by Marcus Samuelsson is a highly worthwhile read with generous wisdom for surviving and thriving in the competitive world of haute cuisine.
Category: Nonfiction, Memoir, Food