Marcus Samuelsson is a genius in the kitchen, but his real skill is in maneuvering. "Yes, Chef" is an intriguing little look at ambition, how to climb to the top of your field and make the most of your friends and family. He's a take no prisoners kind of guy, adept at using people and then losing them. When he realizes his girlfriend is more of a hindrance than a help in his goal to reach the pinnacle of chefdon, he dumps her...but continues to sleep with her and accept free vacations from her parents. When he gets another girl pregnant, he realizes this will look bad on his resume and chooses to ignore the situation...until his adopted parents tell him he's not getting a free ride. Upstanding middleclass Swedes, they pony up the child support for Marcus until he's able to do it himself.
When he learns of his beloved grandmother's death, he doesn't miss a beat and keeps on stirring his sauce. Taking time off to grieve...even just 30 minutes or so, might interfere with that promotion he's counting on. Returning home to show his respect for the woman who loved him, mentored him, gave him his passion for cooking was simply out of the question.
When the chef at Aquavit who gaves Samuelsson his first break, a real job as a cook, not an apprentice or assistant, and even went so far as to allow the neophyte to contribute new dishes to the menu, Samuelsson shows his gratitude by telling us the guy was into booze and coke and strip clubs. Nice payback. As you might notice, I'm not liking Mr. Samuelsson so much. This kind of single-minded obsession might be admirable in a young scientist who wanted to cure cancer, but in a guy who wants to be the next celebrity chef, not so much.
Despite my not liking him, I enjoyed the book. Marcus' singlemindedness can be fun and, occasionally, touching. It's well written, lets us see inside the kitchens of some renowned restaurants and meet a few genuinely great chefs while tracing this gifted young man's remarkable trajectory. "Yes, Chef" has already been reviewed by someone I (and many others) consider to be the best reviewer on Amazon. He gives it five stars. However I found a couple of points so irksome I simply couldn't cough up that perfect score.
Samuelsson is given to making broad and incorrect statements. He claims Aquavit...the NYC restaurant where he finally achieves his celebrity status...was 'the first' restaurant in the U.S. to take Swedish food beyond meatballs and mashed with lingonberries when it opened in 1988. This isn't true. The late great Scandia in Los Angeles (which closed in 1989)had been doing that for decades. When Mr. Samuelsson apprenticed at Aquavit, it did indeed serve that cliche Swedish meal...which would never have made an appearance at the elegant Scandia on Sunset. He calls the James Beard Institute the most prestigious food institute in the country, one that sets the benchmark for great cuisine. Baloney. Okay, they gave Samuelsson an award and he's grateful, but most people in the restaurant business think the JBI is lame, out of touch and past its sell-by date. Recent scandals among its directors further tarnished its reputation.
Samuelsson praises another chef he works with for his remarkable combination of lobster and avocado, a pairing so natural and good, Samuelsson wonders why it had never been done before. Except it had. At Scandia and at any number of other restaurants in New York, Los Angeles and probably around the country and around the world. I remember eating lobster and avocado club sandwiches in Lahaina in 1977. It's hardly that unimaginable a combo. With five second worth of research, I discovered recipes for lobster and avocado salad going back to the 1960s.
And finally...and worst of all...Samuelsson disses borscht. Where I come from, you don't do that. You can insult our mothers, drain our liquor from an old fruit jar, spit into the wind AND step on superman's cake, it's all cool. But lay off the borscht. Samuelsson says: "Let's face it, borscht can only be so good." He's in Russia, the grand and glorious motherlode of all things borscht, and he doesn't even tell us what kind of borscht he's dismissing. It's like saying "Soup can only be so good." There are dozens and dozens of different kinds of borscht: sweet, sour, sweet & sour, with and without beets, ruby red and perfectly clear, or an impossibly pink concotion gilded with sour cream that glides down the throat in a rapture of cold, creamy deliciousness. Borcht with potatoes? With cabbage and tomatoes, with fat, juicy hunks of beef? With sauerkraut and big garlicky sausage slices? There's even a caraway scented white borscht and one made of pickles. Borscht can only be so good? From a chef?
Throughout his career, Samuelsson jotted down unique or unusual food pairings, juxtaposing the traditional with something totally new or off the wall. "Chasing tastes," he calls it. It's fun to read about those tastes...new flavor combinations and some "what if I mixed a little of this with a little of that" and seeing how many of them now appear on the menu at his Red Rooster Restaurant in Harlem.
Quite a few made it past the idea stage. The Red Rooster menu features items like a traditional southern fried bass and grits -- but gussied up with curry, raisins and almonds. Can't you just imagine how great that combination tastes. His swedish-roast chicken uses a cooking method learned from his adopted Swedish grandmother, gets a rub of berbere (a heady blend of cumin, coriander and other spices), and is served with a Thai-inspired sweet and vinegary peanut slaw. Bacon and eggs is transmogrified into Caribbean inspired Jerked Bacon and Eggs with pikliz...a searing and indescribably addictive combination of shredded cabbage, carrots, garlic, onions and fiery scotch bonnet peppers in a vinegary dressing. Pikliz is a Haitian staple, a nuclear version of Italian giardiniera and worth the blisters that arise on the inside of your lips after eating.
Enjoy the book and let's hope that all this success has mellowed Mr. Samuelsson. To his credit, he does promise that, when he becomes a chef, he will never subject his staff to the humiliation, insults and sometimes physical punishment that are the norm in other kitchens. We'll have to wait for his sous chef or one of the commis at Red Rooster to do a tell-all to find out. And we'll know if he's still willing to sell his soul by whether or not we spot him "Iron Chef America, Battle Eggwhite."
(Note: Samuelsson came really close to getting that fifth star back for mentioning a blue corn pancake/gravlax combo. I rubbed some lox trimmings with sumac (middle eastern spice with a lemony taste)mixed them up with sour cream, minced green onions, sliced cucumbers, salt and pepper. A couple of blue corn tortillas were heated up until they were soft and fragrant. We covered them with the lox mixture and folded them like crepes. Ding Ding Ding. Jackpot.)