Recipe for a Remarkable Career : The Marcus Samuelsson Story
Kassahun Tsegie was born in 1970 to a poor Ethiopian farm family in a village 75 miles from Addis Ababa, the capital city. At age 2, Kassahun was struck by tuberculosis, as were his mother and older sister, Fantaye, in an epidemic that gripped the country. Somehow, Kassahun’s ailing mother carried him, as Fantaye walked alongside, on the long trek though blistering heat to Addis Ababa. His mother managed not only to get the children to a hospital but also to obtain treatment amid the throngs seeking help with the disease. The children were saved; their mother died.
Plenty of celebrity chefs have a compelling story to tell, but none of them can top that one. Kassahun Tsegie is better known as Marcus Samuelsson, proprietor of the acclaimed Red Rooster in Harlem, fixture on television cooking shows, guest chef for President Barack Obama’s first state dinner and, now, author of “Yes, Chef,” a chronicle of his improbable rise.
Like appearing on the Food Network or hawking a line of specialty salsas, writing a memoir is a standard step for high-profile chefs these days. Some of the books are so well-written that they can be enjoyed even by nonfoodies—Gabrielle Hamilton’s recent “Blood, Bones, and Butter” comes to mind. Others succeed or fail on how interesting we find the life being recounted. “Yes, Chef” does not have the literary merit of Ms. Hamilton’s book, but Mr. Samuelsson’s tale is plenty interesting.
The author gained his new name not long after his fateful trip to Addis Ababa: He and Fantaye (soon to be Linda) were adopted by a Swedish couple, Lennart and Anne Marie Samuelsson. In the adoption application, Lennart, a geographer, described the couple’s property in the city of Göteborg as “a mostly flat lawn with a playhouse and sandbox, so children tend to gather with us and tumble about properly, jumping and playing with balls and croquet.” Three-year-old Marcus adapted quickly to his new surroundings, but his sister, two years older, was slower to accept the strange setting. He describes an idyllic childhood of “soccer, ice skating lessons, horseback riding.”
He also developed a fascination with food and cooking. It didn’t come from watching his mother, who was not “a bad cook, she simply didn’t have the time.” But his maternal grandmother did, and Helga Jonsson’s house could be reached in just a few minutes by a boy on a bike.