Mmmm… No, Chef

Did I like the book, did I not like the book? That’s the question. And I have mixed feelings about it. The book – the latest chef bio to hit the shelves, came with, as most of them do, a ton of hype, that follows on the opening of chef Marcus Samuelsson’s latest restaurant, Red Rooster, in Harlem. I have no doubt that were I back in NYC I would have been hit with a whole lot more of that hype, so given as much as I got online I can only imagine. But that goes with book publishing these days, tends to be the responsibility of the publishing house and/or agent, so doesn’t particularly add or subtract from my expectations.

I don’t have any wonderful Marcus stories to share. I met him once when he was chef at Aquavit and a friend of mine was manager there. At the end of a delightful dinner my friend introduced me to him as a colleague, a former chef now working as a sommelier and manager (at the time for the short-lived American Renaissance) – I got a smile, a handshake, a “nice to meet you”, and he moved on to whomever else was in the room. No big deal. He seemed shy, and, timing-wise, he’d probably very recently become the chef, following the sudden and unexpected death of the chef and mentor he’d come to the restaurant to work with.

And, to be honest, I never really knew much about him. We didn’t move in the same restaurant circles, so I don’t think we ever ran into each other again. Until the book promotions started I didn’t know about the whole “Ethiopian orphan adopted by a Swedish couple, raised in Sweden, etc.” story. If you’d have asked me where he was from, I’d have said, “I don’t know.” So, the story was intriguing.

So is the book in many ways. Much of it really is a heartwarming tale that follows him through his childhood and on into his formative years as a chef, on to various successes, some failures, and to where he is now. The book is reasonably well written (co or ghost-written by a friend of his, author Veronica Chambers), but isn’t going to win any awards for literary style. Knowing the restaurant business gave me an appreciation for what he went through, particularly in those formative stages, and also for the politics and intricacies of later working in the New York scene. A bit of name-dropping of the other chefs he’s met along the way, for good and bad, but that’s to be expected in a book like this. For those things, I liked the book, and the story.

But there were some things that struck nerves. First off, by the end of the book, I was so ready to chuck it across the room (other than it’s on my tablet, not a print version, so that’s just not a good move) if he one more time launched into how tough it was for a black man to become a celebrity chef because of all the prejudice he encountered. I have no doubt he did – although many of the examples he uses strike me more as seasoned chefs dismissing him for being green rather than black, but I wasn’t on the spot to witness the encounters. And no doubt they were formative as to his character, but the constant repetition begins to come across as “poor little me” whining.

The same also lost some credibility with me in regard to other minority groups. He makes little, if any acknowledgement of how difficult it is for pretty much any minority to get ahead in the restaurant business, which in the U.S. is a very white male dominated, culture. On a personal level I could only laugh out loud at his assertions, that the restaurant business is completely welcoming of gay men and women. He even provides examples of his “fabulous gay” (really, straight men should never use those two words together, actually, they should never use the first word at all) employees – a waiter, a food-runner.

Yup, working the “front of house” and being gay practically go hand in hand sometimes in NY. But in the kitchen? I’d say that in my life, the kitchens of NYC restaurants were probably the most homophobic places I’ve ever been, and that includes stints in EMS, security work, even a year and a half in ROTC. And that’s in a place like NYC, it’s far worse in much of the rest of the country. As one chef I used to work for was fond of uttering, “vegetables work in the kitchen, fruits work in the dining room”. Let’s just say that one’s gone on to be a well-known face on television who thankfully has outgrown that phase of his life.

And, gee, the other minority I belong to (I told you it struck a personal nerve or two) gets a mention when he talks about cooking a state dinner for the Obamas – he makes a point of that he not only brought in other Swedes and African Americans, but “some Jews” into the White House to cook with him.

The last thing that really struck me was, and I’m sure it does other readers, and a spoiler alert here, was his abandonment of a woman he got pregnant and who had a daughter. Not complete abandonment mind you, he lets us know, because after he told his parents, his mother took on handling his financial responsibility for that daughter and demanded that Marcus pay her back on a monthly basis for that… something that continued for fourteen years before he finally had the guts to meet that daughter (he gives a list of excuses all related to being busy with his career), a scene that while it takes up a chapter of the book, he glosses over almost as if he’s done something noble by going and meeting her. Why, we even find out later on (since she doesn’t come up again) that he invited her to his wedding down the road.

He then doesn’t include her, nor the mother who raised her (and who in essence let him get launched in his career by not demanding that he marry her and stay in Austria, nor help her care for their daughter), in his acknowledgments at the end of the book – where he makes it a point that “family” is all important – even acknowledging his biological father’s other children, whom he never met until well into his adult life when his sister tracked down that their father, in Ethiopia, was actually still alive and he wasn’t the orphan he’d always thought he was.

He makes a point at the end that much of the book involved revisiting people, places and feelings that were painful or difficult for him to remember or explore. He doesn’t seem to get that some of the pain might be that of other people around him, and that he bears some or all responsibility for that. Those things tell me a lot about the character of the man, if not the chef, and in the end, despite all the good parts of the book, leave me thinking, I just don’t know if I recommend it.


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