I don't actually do a lot of food-related reading, though. I am not sure why. Maybe I miss the visuals of the beautiful dishes or the sounds of pots clanging, meat sizzling, knives chopping.
I have never been to any of Marcus Samuelsson's restaurants before, though I have used his recipe for a garam masala pumpkin tart for Thanksgiving over the past few years. I really like Samuelsson's cooking in theory, though I have not experienced it in practice. Samuelsson was born in Ethiopia, grew up in Sweden, worked in restaurants around Europe and on the sea, and then moved to New York. His cooking style draws from all of his global experiences and tastes; hence, he has a recipe for garam masala pumpkin pie, melding the tastes of traditional American home-cooking with Indian spices. I love taking tastes that don't often go together and making them work, making something new and different. In a dorky and idealistic way, I feel like if people can see how their tastes are not so different and can complement each other to make stronger whole, then maybe it will help people see past their bigger and more philosophical differences, too.
Yes, Chef is Marcus Samuelsson's book about his life. In many ways, it's pretty typical of what you would expect from a chef. He didn't like school, he preferred being in the kitchen with his grandmother. He went to culinary school and worked harder and longer and better than anyone else. He was lucky enough to get a big break at a well-known restaurant, and from there he was off, with a few bumps and bruises along the way.
But in addition to that, Samuelsson shares some personal insights as well. For example, he grew up very dark-skinned in a very light-skinned environment. He faced overt and more subtle racism in the kitchen almost everywhere he went. A couple of times, he would be offered a job on paper but then show up for work and be told that there was no place for him. He talks a lot about how few minorities are in the kitchens of high-end restaurants, how few women, too. And how he is doing his part, working very hard to give people the opportunities that he often did not receive while he was training. Samuelsson never makes race or racism the dominant part of his narrative, but it clearly had a huge impact on his training and the way he learned to cook, and I think he addresses it really well. It's also clear just how much it has influenced every aspect of his cooking; he draws from so many different food cultures to create his recipes.
What's also obvious in this book is that being a chef is really hard and a ton of work. It takes a huge personal toll on people. Samuelsson missed both his grandmother's and his father's funerals because of work. He does not spend a lot of time being introspective about this, but it is hard to imagine. He also has a daughter, and for about the first 15 years of her life, he never made any attempt to contact her or get to know her. Obviously, Samuelsson had to deal with a lot of personal things and decisions as he grew and matured; while readers don't get a huge amount of insight into these very personal motivations and decisions, it's clear that he still struggles with them.
Samuelsson makes no secret that he enjoyed going out, having fun, meeting people and spending time with women. He also clearly has a ton of confidence in his skill and his decisions. He can sometimes sound arrogant, but I think it is just honesty. And it's hard not to love anyone who serves a meal at the White House and then comes home to Harlem and makes the exact same meal for his teenaged next-door neighbor and all her best friends. That was just lovely.
I enjoyed this book a lot, and now I really want to visit Samuelsson's restaurant in Harlem the next time I am in New York City! Here's a link to Red Rooster's website in case you want to see the fusion menu he has on there, too.