The more Marcus Samuelsson, the merrier, in our book. We're excited to have the memoir-writing chef join us for a Q&A at Signature's proverbial table. For a well-rounded feast surrounding his recent book "Yes, Chef," you can also read our recent review and listen to an audio excerpt.
Jennie Yabroff: In "Yes, Chef," you describe routinely working eighteen to twenty hour days, and are busier than ever with the success of your newest restaurant, Red Rooster. Why did this seem like a good time to write a memoir? How did the project come about?
Marcus Samuelsson: The memoir was actually five years in the making, and I wanted to write it because I felt like it was time to share my journey. It was also a great way to personally reflect on how my past brought me to my present and it was a fantastic learning experience for me.
JY: Can you describe your writing process? How did you organize your thoughts into the narrative?
MS: At least three days a week I woke up and would write two or three pages. Sometimes I'd write about something from my past, or sometimes it would be me looking toward the future. I would write with the intention of not knowing whether I'd use it in the book or not. But it was cleansing because you really reflect on yourself and I think it was one of the best experiences in my life. I saw the writing process like composing a dish -- during the first attempt you're holding back a little, but the second time you add a layer or even take stuff away. You keep asking yourself questions until eventually you get something yummy and delicious.
JY: Any snacks or meals you ate while working on the book that provided inspiration?
MS: I always had Ethiopian spice blend nuts around that I would snack on -- the mix of salty and sweet was very similar to how I felt about writing this memoir. I thought about the meals I didn't have with my father, and that was emotional for me because he passed away before I could take him to any of the restaurants I was properly working in. I also thought about the foods my mom, sister and I ate while we walked to the hospital in Addis -- it was hard to put myself there.
JY: You organize the book into three sections: Boy, Chef, and Man. Which of these was the most difficult to write? Why?
MS: Man -- because I had to own up to all the things that I had done up to that point.
JY: Was there an image or anecdote you had in mind when you started this project? Or a specific dish, either that you've cooked or eaten, that you wanted to describe?
MS: My image was that writing the memoir was a not a victory lap. I don't ever say that something is done or is the best. I need to constantly be curious, and I felt I could inspire others by showing all the ups and downs I had been through. I wanted to paint the positive and negative spaces in my career, and as I would with a dish, I wanted to balance out all the flavors with a bit of heat and acidity from my experiences.
JY: What dish on the menu at Red Rooster best defines you and what you hope to achieve with your cooking and writing? Why?
MS: A menu is a curation process, but our fried yard bird explains where we are now. The Lamb Hash is a mix of my Swedish and Ethiopian roots, and the gravlax is pure Sweden.
JY: You write in "Yes, Chef" about your goal of bringing more minorities into both the kitchens and dining rooms of fine dining establishments, and how you are trying to do that on a local scale at Red Rooster. What changes need to take place in the industry for that to happen on a national scale?
MS: We are doing it by being here and continuing to inspire and aspire. We are trying to set standards and hire locally (seventy-five percent of the staff is from Harlem). It means something to sing at The Apollo or to have art shown in the Studio Museum, and I want it to mean something that you've worked in a kitchen in Harlem. The country will take care of itself just by being and evolving -- chefs like Leah Chase and Sylvia Woods, they have led by example, and this new guard has to do the same.
JY: If there had been shows like Top Chef and Chopped on TV in Sweden when you were growing up and first getting interested in food, would you have watched them? What do you think you would have thought of them if you did?
MS: There was this great show that I loved about a British chef who would travel around the world and I was able to see how beautiful all these different places were -- by the end he would be drunk, but it was my way to see what else was out there.
JY: Did you read other chef memoirs while writing this book? What were some of your favorites? Why?
MS: I was inspired by Andre Agassi's "Open," love any tome that highlights Frank Sinatra, and having the books by Gabrielle Hamilton ["Blood, Bones & Butter], Anthony Bourdain ["Kitchen Confidential"], and Marco Pierre White ["White Heat"] constantly pushed me to do better.
JY: Which is harder, cooking or writing?
MS: It's definitely harder to write because it’s not my first craft but it’s also very reflective in a different way. Cooking is so much about going forward and writing was about both -- going for it and reflecting back on it. Everything I do is done with emotion and finding the positives and negatives about the process. But in the end, it's about creating something yummy.