24 May, 2012

Review: Yes Chef by Marcus Samuelsson

From the exceptional cover design to the last page, I loved almost everything about Yes, Chef. I loved it's honesty, I loved it's style, I loved the unique life it describes. Holding me back from outright glee were some minor construction problems and Samuelsson himself. He is such a complicated man. I have so much compassion for him yet his honesty also leads me to impatience. There is a myth that one can have everything in life. The thing about everything is that you can't have it all at once. In Samuelsson's case he has had the work ethic, the family support, the drive, the charisma, the intelligence - but he is an absolutely (spoiler alert!) horrible father. Yet his honesty makes him the most charming failure of parenting I've read about in a long time. At the same time he ignores his own child, Samuelsson mentors others. He has a strong desire to bring African Americans into the world of fine dining. He believes in diversifying the upcoming kitchen crews and showcasing Harlem as the convergence of color and culture it has always been. He is a a fascinating person to read about.

With all the honesty Samuelsson eloquently brings to his life story, he has a blind spot. This is a man who feels safest in the kitchen, who has a flight response to emotional damage. Samuelsson has emotions I don't think he's even labeled yet. For all he has overcome, there is much lying in wait for him. What to make of such a conflicted individual? While sponsoring scholarships for relatives in his native Ethiopia and working with the youth of Harlem, Samuelsson also abandons his only child. How will she read this book, as an adult? What will she make of his revelations? Inside is a portrait of a young man who was plucked from impossible odds to land in a safe and loving home. Fortunate enough to find a calling when his first dream died, he applied a single minded focus to achieving it. But this man who is so clear in the dynamics of a kitchen family is adrift in his own. His love for his child is clear, his conflict obvious. But both are presented in terms of himself, and only himself. He didn't want to be "that guy" who fathered an out of wedlock child, so he kept her a professional secret. His career had to come first, but if it had derailed (he claims) then he would have been present in her life. He paid his child support diligently (after his parents insisted) but never called, never wrote. He discussed her life with her mother, but not with her. There were no gifts. Until she was 14, her father was not accessible in any way. When she confronts him, he says he just didn't know how to find the words, how to make the time, what to do. So he didn't.  He is proud she has seen him as a success, proud he was able to introduce her to Kanye West, ready to take responsibility now and face her anger because he prides himself on being able to take the heat. The heat is over. His daughter is a young woman. At the end of the book he lists all of the things he has to be thankful for. It's a list both personal and professional. It's not brief. It doesn't contain his child.*

In the first 2/3 of the book Samuelsson's story is linear and focused. He knows who he was and why he made the moves he did. He talks with love and insight about his family and himself. In the last 1/3 of the book Samuelsson founders. His unresolved emotional conflicts are exposed. The book jumps about in time and becomes less concise. While powerful, it is obvious that these are parts of his life that are in progress, still being weighed and cataloged. Unable to ask if his own parents abandoned him, unable to face what abandoning his daughter really meant, Samuelsson leaves a document of explanation for her if she is able to see it. When his birth mother was dying she used the last of her strength to seek medical attention for her children. His father was in parts unknown. A man can be great without being famous. A man can be great without being perfect. Marcus Samuelsson is a great man who has (and will) impact many lives in positive and meaningful ways. Yes, Chef is completely worth reading. I say go ahead and pre-order it.

*I read this book in ARC form. I hope she's added before publication.

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