There’s this thing I really like to do: eat. Reading is right up there (throw in playing with my kid, sleeping, and the occasional roll in the hay, and that there’s a perfect day). When I lived in New York, I was lucky enough to eat some very good food prepared by some absolute geniuses. One place I always wanted to go but never made it was Aquavit, a Michelin-starred Scandinavian restaurant that served more than just the Ikea-style meatballs we all know and love. The place was always good and well-known, but it really boomed (as far as I’m concerned) when Marcus Samuelsson came aboard. He was 24 when he became the executive chef, which is pretty young for a job that big. He’s a brilliant chef, and even won Top Chef Masters a few years ago.
Chef Samuelsson could be said to lead a charmed life. His beginnings, however, weren’t so charmed. He was born in Ethiopia and never knew his father. When he was two, there was a TB epidemic in Ethiopia. He, his mother, and his sister were all sick. Somehow his mother got herself and her children to Addis Ababa – they walked over 75 miles to get to a hospital. His mother died, leaving the two children orphaned. They were both adopted by a Swedish couple who brought the kids back to Goteborg, Sweden.
The story of how Chef Samuelsson got from near death in Ethiopia to being a world-famous chef is a fascinating one, and it is well-told by the chef and his co-author. His childhood was pretty typical Swedish, although he was always just a bit different than the other kids. We follow him through school, and through a number of kitchens all over Europe, where he learned his craft. He tells of his journey with wit and humor, and a great deal of honesty. Samuelsson pulls no punches about his regrets, including missing his father’s death and funeral because of immigration issues. The book deals a lot with Samuelsson finding his way in the world as a black man, especially as a black man who has spent most of his life living in a very white world (Sweden, and professional kitchens, among other places).
You don’t have to be a foodie to enjoy this book, although it helps, because there’s a lot about food and cooking. But there’s so much more to the story, and to Samuelsson himself. Next time I’m in New York, I will definitely be checking out his Harlem restaurant, Red Rooster. I’ve heard it’s really good.