Chef memoirs, and memoirs in general, are hit or miss. Some take the focus a bit too far away from the food, others focus with such intensity on the food you feel the urge to head to the kitchen, abandoning your reading and a rare few create a story that takes you beyond the kitchen. Creating a book that everyone, not just the food crazed, can enjoy is intensely difficult. If it’s even possible.
But that’s neither here nor there, not really. Right now we want to discuss Yes Chef by Marcus Samuelsson, one of the big-deal food memoirs from the last year, if not the big deal food memoir from the last year.
Yes Chef follows Samuelsson’s development as a chef, focusing on how he ended up running one of New York’s most talked about restaurants. Sounds pretty much like every other chef story, right? Yes and no. Instead of focusing on one particular moment of his development, like Dalia Jurgensen’s Spiced, or the incidental moments that led to his unique point of view, as Gabrielle Hamilton did in Blood, Bones and Butter, Samuelsson manages to include all of it. This is, unfortunately, not always for the benefit of the narrative.
While Samuelsson’s story is no doubt inspiring, the writing is forgettable. I wanted to love it. I wanted to feel inspired — Samuelsson’s journey is inspiring — but there narrative was so monotonous, I found myself growing bored. The book encompasses so much of Samuelsson’s life that each period begins to blend together, making his time at Aquavit seem remarkably like his stage in France and childhood in Sweden.
Memories drive the plot. Each story is told with perfect hindsight and reflection upon his actions. Of course, it makes sense to want to explain, but I ended up feeling detached from the emotions that drove Samuelsson in the moment. I wanted a deeper emotional spark from the book, which I unfortunately didn’t get.
Yes Chef is an interesting look at how a chef grows across their lifetime, but a book that will interest people who already know Samuelsson and his work. Those who come to this book without a deep passion for food and restaurant culture may feel alienated and waiting for the story to start. If this book made me feel anything, it’s that I simply must find berbere spice and eat some Ethiopian food.
Which, come to think of it, isn’t that bad a feeling.
What do you think is the critical feature of a good memoir?