Friday, May 31, 2013

Exactly Like Cooking - Review of "Yes, Chef"

It's been a while since I've read a book I couldn't put down. Especially one that blends two of my favorite subjects: cooking, and indentured servitude "making your bones" in a tradition-bound hierarchy.

Marcus Samuelsson's Yes, Chef: A Memoir reads like a grad school recap...(in a good way!)

Credit: Random House
For those unfamiliar with Chef Samuelsson - owner of the Red Rooster in Harlem and former executive chef of Aquavit - his story reads like a modern fairy tale. Adopted from Ethiopia at 5, into a white-collar Swedish home outside Goteborg. Attended a technical school (Mosesson), where he fell in love with culinary arts. As a journeyman chef, he cooked his way through a series of European restaurants (Belle Avenue, Victoria Jungfrau, Elisabethpark, Georges Blanc), some cruise ships, and a long stint in New York City, where he finally decided to land. Along the way, he's taken some turns on TV, first on Top Chef: Masters and recently as a judge on Chopped. He's cooked at a State Dinner for President Obama.

Samuelsson's writing, humble yet descriptive, makes you truly see the food in front of you. You can feel the pain and grind of kitchen life, from cuts, burns, and scrapes to the deeper emotional wounds wrought by oppressive managers and head chefs with attitude. Samuelsson emerges from the book less a 'foodie hero' than a grizzled vet of the restaurant scene.

Of course, the parts I most appreciated paralleled my life as a bench-bound synthetic chemist. Kitchen shifts, like lab work, demand long hours, dedication, and a willingness to learn every facet of the job, from "front of house" to garde manger, herb garden to chef de partie. Chemists, too, find their jobs easier when they make a point of practicing skills to the point of subconscious performance - filleting fish or de-boning duck become as automatic as pulling pipettors or running rotovaps.

I enjoyed the concept of a stage, a tradition between restaurants (p.74):
"To be sent away was the highest honor: It meant that you would be sent off to spend a week, a month, or a season doing a stage, which was an unpaid apprenticeship ...the idea was that you'd either come back, bringing those new techniques and skills you'd picked up with you, or or your boss's kindness would come back to him someday."
(Doesn't this sound like a visiting researcher position, or perhaps a short postdoc?)

Less amusing, though, was the metric for success in moving up the cooking ladder (p. 165):
"Don't draw attention to yourself. I know it sucks, but try to be as small as possible."
"...to get ahead in that culture, you have to completely give yourself up to the place. Your time, your ego, your social life, your relationships, they are all sacrificed. It's a daily dose of humility most Americans find difficult to swallow."
(Uncomfortably close to graduate school, right there).

Finally, Samuelsson does not understate the role luck and failure play in shaping one's career. Multiple random events, albeit tragic ones - car accidents, deaths, missed contacts - propelled him into his current life. As with progress through a long total synthesis, failure too can drive you to seek out new ideas, or at least discard the bad ones fast.

I'd recommend this book to anyone with the dual food / chemistry interest; I think you'll find a lot of familiar territory. A real page-turner.

Happy Reading, Happy Eating, Happy Friday!
See Arr Oh

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