Yes, Chef

The Book of the Week is “Yes, Chef” by Marcus Samuelsson, published in 2012. This is the autobiography of a famous chef. He was born in Ethiopia at the start of the 1970’s, but when he was three, he and his five year old sister were adopted by a Swedish couple.

Samuelsson grew up in Goteborg, Sweden. He enjoyed the suburban lifestyle of an industrialized country, including youth soccer. There were three posters on his bedroom wall: Michael Jackson, the king and queen of Sweden, and Pele. After ninth grade, Swedish schools channel students into a career-oriented or a university-oriented curriculum. In early 1989, after graduating, Samuelsson went to work in one of the fanciest restaurants in Sweden, “Belle Avenue.” At 21 years old, he supervised ten interns at a restaurant in Switzerland.

Because he was dark-skinned, Samuelsson encountered discrimination all his life– in the schoolyard and in employment. When he approached the restaurant “Bouley” to ask for a short-term internship, he was summarily turned away. The only famous black chef he had heard of during his training was Patrick Clark, who was ever rated only two stars by the famous restaurant guides Michelin and Zagat. Samuelsson writes, “When I had my own restaurant someday, I thought, I would never rule out someone based on race or sex or nationality…” He would hire all walks of life, due not to aiming for impartiality, but because he would achieve maximum cultural diversity.

To pursue his dream, Samuelsson thought he needed to continue to “pay his dues” in France. In order to get promoted, an aspiring chef has to “…completely give yourself up to the place. Your time, your ego, your relationships, your social life, they are all sacrificed.” In France, there were no intermediaries between farmers and chefs. The former were direct suppliers to the latter. In Switzerland, “We relied on shipments of shrink wrapped or frozen specialty items and that resulted in chronic separation between our product and seasonality.” The traditional French chefs’ training included brutal bullying of underlings by the upper echelons–who were the only employees who had job security.

In February 2008, Samuelsson opened his own restaurant, Merkato 55, which had an African theme. This blogger thinks it’s an insult to people’s intelligence to use the name “African” to describe an eatery, or use it in a book title, for that matter. This blogger theorizes that the labeler thinks people are too ignorant to recognize the name of an individual African country. African countries are all different, regardless of stereotypes.

Samuelsson and his business partners were pursuing a growth strategy. “In less than twelve months, we were scheduled to open eight new restaurants…” There were nine hundred guests at Samuelsson’s wedding in Ethiopia. Read the book to learn about Samuelsson’s take on cuisine, his successes and failures in connection therewith, and his unusual familial relationships.

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