Because of food TV shows, chef Marcus Samuelsson has become familiar to a lot of people who have never tasted his food. He won Bravo's “Top ChefMasters Season 2,” has competed on the Food Network's "The Next Iron Chef" and been a judge on "Chopped" and "Top Chef." He also oversaw President Obama's first state dinner in the White House and has a thriving Harlem restaurant, Red Rooster.
His autobiography, "Yes, Chef," (Random House) is a compelling read, even for those who have never seen him on TV, eaten at his restaurants or paid attention his many accolades (which include being named one of People magazine's Most Eligible Bachelors before his marriage).
I wrote about the book in today's Deseret News (and no, I have no clue as to why an unrelated picture of cherry cookies appears along with the story on the DN website!)
I feel a little sense of pride that I was able to interview Samuelsson in 2001, when his star was just beginning to rise. He came to Utah to cook for a pre-Olympics party through the James Beard Foundation, and I was invited to come up to Park City and do an interview. But when I got up there, the publicist was nowhere to be found and security was tight. Luckily, local chef David Jones of Log Haven was also cooking, and he let me in the back door of the kitchen. (See Dave, your favor was not forgotten.)
"How often does an Ethiopian kid from Sweden get to cook for an Olympics?" Samuelsson told me, explaining that he was orphaned as a child, then adopted by a Swedish couple.
That piqued my interest, and I'm glad he's chosen to share his story of "chasing flavors," as he calls it, in "Yes, Chef." Some interesting tidbits:
- His original name was Kassahun Tsegie. He was three years old when he, his mother and his sister — all sick with tuberculosis — walked 75 miles to an Ethiopian hospital to get help. His mother died soon after, and the two children were adopted by a Swedish family, the Samuelssons, who named him Marcus.
- Growing up in Goteborg, Sweden, he often helped his grandmother prepare dishes such as roast chicken (she killed the chickens herself!) and pan-fried herring. This sparked a passion for cooking that burned brighter once he was cut from his soccer team and realized he wouldn't become a professional athlete.
- His ambition and work ethic took him to top restaurants in Switzerland, Austria and France, where French culinary technique reigned supreme and where lower-ranked staff gave military-like respect to their superiors. "Yes, chef," was what Samuelsson learned to answer, "whether he or she asks for a side of beef or your head on a platter."
- He became acquainted with flavors from all over the world while working on cruise ships. His descriptions of aromas and flavors are so compelling that you can almost taste and smell the food.
- While working at a hotel Austria, he had a one-night affair with a hotel chambermaid, who became pregnant. Although Samuelsson provided financial support, he didn't meet his daughter until she was a teen-ager and he was a successful chef in New York. He poignantly expresses his feelings about his fears of fatherhood, gratitude for the woman who lovingly raised his child on her own, and remorse when his daughter questioned his lack of involvement in her life.
- Samuelsson experienced his own mixed emotions when he discovered that his own birth father was still alive, and traveled to Ethiopia to meet him and his half-siblings.
- He's known spectacular career highs and lows. While chef at the Swedish-American restaurant Aquavit, he was the youngest chef to earn a three-star review from the New York Times. But his pan-African restaurant, Merekato 55, bombed in what Samuelsson calls the biggest failure of his professional life.
"It's a good thing I don't drink much or do drugs; this would have been a perfect time for that to spin out of control," he observed. "I've never felt so low, or so humiliated."
- He was called a racial slur by Gordon Ramsay, the foul-mouthed host of "Hell's Kitchen" and "Kitchen Nightmares." He was irked that when Samuelsson visited London, he didn't mention Ramsay's name when he was asked about some of top British chefs.
- When he left Aquavit, he was in the bizarre situation of having to "buy back" his own name. The owner of Aquavit, Hakan Swahn, claimed that the only reason the name Marcus Samuelsson had any value was due to Aquavit, with its aggressive marketing and publicity. If he left Aquavit, or did any work outside of the partnership, he had to pay Swahn a percentage of his earnings. Samuelsson consulted attorneys who advised him to pay a financial settlement, and soon. Because they more well-known he became, the more expensive his name would be.
He thought of going back to his Ethiopian birth name, Kasahun Tsegie. "In the end I emptied my bank account to Hakan and I bought the rights back to 'Marcus Samuelsson' because it's the name that people know and it's a name people remember. And because it's part of my story."
It's definitely a story worth telling!