Once, the celebrated chef Marcus Samuelsson was not Marcus Samuelsson, but a 2-year-old Ethiopian boy named Kassahun Tsegie, sick with tuberculosis and alone with his sister in a hospital in Addis Ababa, where their mother had already died from the disease. The two children were adopted into a white, middle-class family in Goteborg, Sweden. The boy, renamed Marcus, came to adore his Swedish grandmother, Helga, who taught him how to cook.
At age 24, Marcus Samuelsson, working at the Manhattan restaurant Aquavit, became the youngest chef ever to receive three stars in the New York Times. He was named best chef in New York City by the James Beard Foundation and won “Top Chef Masters” on television. He cooked the first state dinner in President Obama’s White House in 2009.
Samuelsson’s memoir, “Yes, Chef,” is a sensitive and compelling account of his rise and his extraordinary life. Written with Veronica Chambers, the book shows Samuelsson “chasing flavors” and searching for his place in the world through food.
As a child, Samuelsson cooked every Saturday with his grandmother, Helga. She was from the farming region of Skane and had spent her life as a domestic, preparing complicated dishes for her employers. She knew how to kill a chicken in the “old-school style” (“Grab the bird, knife to the neck”), roast it to perfection, and make preserves from lingonberries, cloudberries and gooseberries. Marcus absorbed her history as his own, so that he describes the flavors of Swedish cuisine as “in my bones.”
He had a happy childhood, but growing up as a black boy in a small Swedish town was not always easy. “Negerboll,” or “Negro ball,” one kid yelled at school, whipping a ball at him. Early on, Marcus focused on sports, “the great equalizer, the safe space.” As a teenager he was crushed to be cut from the local soccer team; he writes, “I sometimes think of myself more as a failed soccer player than as an accomplished chef.”
With no hope of a soccer career, he entered a vocational high school to train as a cook, mastering gravlax and herring in mustard sauce and determining to be “the best.” He found that in the kitchen, as on the soccer field, “all that mattered was the work.” As he moved through restaurants in Switzerland, Austria, New York and France, the kitchen was his arena of aspiration.
Even Samuelsson found it hard to fathom the sharp, fast turns of his life. His sense of his early childhood was easily confused by the stories of other Ethiopian adoptees. “After hearing so many of their stories, each a little different, it becomes difficult for me to distinguish their story from my own,” he writes. He cannot really explain why it took him 14 years to visit a daughter born after a one-night stand when he was 21.
Food is sometimes his most tangible connection to people he has lost. “For me, my mother is berbere, an Ethiopian spice mixture,” he writes. After his grandmother’s death, he feels her presence in the smells of the kitchen. When he meets his 14-year-old daughter for the first time, he cooks for her the foods of his childhood — Helga’s roast chicken and fish balls, his Swedish mother’s spaghetti and peas — as though transmitting his past to her and presenting his most valuable gift.
Places come alive for him through his experience of their foods. When he moves to New York, he rollerblades through Manhattan to browse Indian spices. He wanders Chinatown markets, taking in entire aisles of dried mushrooms, five kinds of snails and the stinking, custardy fruit called durian.
On his first trip to Ethiopia since he left as a child, he spends hours at the market, “fingering nuggets of frankincence, buying packets of black cumin or deep orange mitmita, just so I could smell them later in the filtered air of my hotel room.” After an old woman tutors him in the intricacies of cooking doro wat, a chicken stew with onions, he writes, “I’d just learned a piece of my past.”
Slowly, he realizes that his life story is as important to his work in the kitchen as the French cuisine he’d learned to prize during his restaurant training. He wants to show that “food dismissed as ‘ethnic’ by the fine-dining world could be produced at the same level as [the] sacred bouillabaisses and veloutes.”
Samuelsson’s story is sometimes repetitive, contradictory and emotionally incomplete. He mentions that his relationship with his father was complex but never says how. He says he still apologizes to his daughter about his long absence — but doesn’t delve much deeper. Still, it’s an affecting, absorbing tale.
Samuelsson has found a place in the rich and complex history of African American cuisine through his new restaurant, Red Rooster Harlem. “After all that traveling,” he writes, “I am, at last, home.”
By Marcus Samuelsson
Random House. 319 pp. $27