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From drudgery to master chef

Absorbing memoir recounts rise to fame

By Kurt Rabin

The Free Lance-Star

ONE  thing I’ve never been able to understand is how a cook goes from being an underpaid drudge to attaining celebrity-chef status. Marcus Samuelsson’s absorbing new memoir, “Yes, Chef,” fills in those gaps in knowledge as it relates the inspiring true story of one chef’s struggle to find a place for himself in the kitchen, and in the world at large.

Famed chef Jacques Pepin was nearing 70 when he wrote about his journey from apprenticeship to culinary superstar.

But African–Swedish–American chef–restaurateur Samuelsson is a young chef

in a hurry. He’s managed to crowd a lot of living, and cooking, into his 42 years and into his book.

Samuelsson went from toiling in relative obscurity in kitchens all over  Europe and the U.S. until suddenly he was everywhere all at once.

And all it took was breaking up with his former partner—the owner of the Nordic food restaurant Aquavit in New York, where for many years the author was executive chef—and having to buy back the rights to his own name.

This was the same fellow who had immigrated to the U.S. not so long before with just $300 to his yet-to-be-famous name.

Samuelsson, a James Beard Foundation Award-winning chef and winner of Bravo TV’s “Top Chef: Masters” who cooked for the Obamas’ first state dinner, now has an ownership stake in NYC’s Red Rooster Harlem and three other restaurants, as well as the Food Republic website.

But that’s recent history.

The author was orphaned  at age 3 in Ethiopia during a tuberculosis epidemic in his small farming village. He has never seen so much as a picture of his mother. However, Samuelsson has pieced things together from her environs. He knows how his mother must have looked and acted, how she must have cooked.

He connects with her by learning to cook the dishes she made, using the recipes she used—by chasing her flavors.

He was adopted, along with his sister, by a loving family in Gothenburg, Sweden. There, his Grandma Helga sparked his lifelong passion for cooking with her pan-fried herring, fresh-baked bread and roasted rosemary chicken. He serves a version of that chicken  at his Harlem restaurant.

Among the book’s blurbs is one from Bill Clinton, who says that “Yes, Chef” tells a story that “reaches past racial and national divides to the foundations of family, hope and downright good food.” Guess we know where the former president spends his time when he’s not holding court at his Harlem office.

Kurt Rabin is a copy editor  with The Free Lance–Star.


By Marcus Samuelsson

(Random House, $27, 336 pp.)


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