Conversation: Marcus Samuelsson on His New Memoir, ‘Yes, Chef’

BY Paula Rogo and Ray Suarez  August 3, 2012 at 12:18 PM EDT

The life of celebrity chef and restaurateur Marcus Samuelsson has been filled with many unlikely turns.

“There are so many times there could have been a left turn or a right turn in all people’s lives, and mine are pretty crystal clear,” he told Ray Suarez.

His new memoir, the New York Times bestseller “Yes, Chef,” traces his life and career, beginning with his birth in Ethiopia and adoption to a Swedish family, a move that eventually led him to cooking. Soccer was his first love, but it was a sport he had to drop because of his size. Instead, his hard work was applied in the kitchen, and it brought him early successes, including at age 24 becoming the youngest chef to ever receive a three-star New York Times rating.

While his television stints, most popular being Bravo’s “Top Chef Masters,” have brought him fame, it’s his restaurant, “Red Rooster” in New York’s Harlem neighborhood, that has cemented his status in the food industry.

Samuelsson recently sat down with Ray Suarez to discuss the serendipitous nature of life, leaving his mark in Harlem and how race has impacted his life.

After the jump, you can read a transcript of their conversation, as well as the first chapter of “Yes, Chef.”

RAY SUAREZ: Hi, it’s Ray Suarez. I’m joined by Marcus Samuelsson. He’s a restaurateur. He is the winner of “Top Chef Masters,” and now he’s an author with a book, “Yes, Chef.” Welcome to the Newshour.

MARCUS SAMUELSSON: Thank you so much for having me. How are you?

RAY SUAREZ: Ok. I was tempted sometimes to just put down this book and shake my head, because it’s a wonderful series of accidents that allows you to become the person that you are. Over and over again there are moments when your life could have gone in a totally other way.

MARCUS SAMUELSSON: I’m so happy that you bring that up, because in “Yes, Chef” what I also wanted to explain was that we think that we are here just because of ourselves. We are so wrong. There are so many times there could have been a left turn instead of a right turn in all people’s lives. I think mine are pretty crystal clear, because of being adopted, being born in Ethiopia, being adopted to Sweden. But even there, my mother passed away. She had tuberculosis, and my sister and I had tuberculosis. We survived, but there was the goodness of the nurse in the hospital to say, ‘You know what, I’m going to take these two kids in.’ That’s not — you know, what’s the likelihood of that happening?
RAY SUAREZ: Could have just as easily gone the other way.

MARCUS SAMUELSSON: Gone the other way. I think numerous times in “Yes, Chef,” it’s a lot of left and right turns in life.

RAY SUAREZ: But I kept saying, Oh wait, but it’s not an accident when someone is as disciplined, as ambitious and has an iron will. You didn’t let anything get in your way. MARCUS SAMUELSSON: No.

RAY SUAREZ: Even in a very tough racket, which the food business is.

MARCUS SAMUELSSON: No, the food business is very tough, but there’s also a lot of love and very giving. I’ve been lucky to travel and work all over the world through the lens of the back of the house, and I love that monocle. I love that lens, because it’s real people. You share heritage through food and you get to know a person even if you don’t know their language, you know who they are and what they eat and that’s fantastic. That’s enriched my life so much.

RAY SUAREZ: It’s a reminder also because there is a lot about this world I don’t know, so it was a nice introduction for me, but it’s a combination of chemistry, painting, design and art — you have to be an artist to make this

MARCUS SAMUELSSON: And a craftsman. It’s a craft. I always tell the young cooks coming — they are excited about us being on TV — I say you have to love the craft first, and being a chef for me is to getting to know yourself. Today, I am working toward being the chef I would like to be, and also I’m working toward being the person I’d like to be. And that’s why I divide it up to boy, man, chef in the book.

RAY SUAREZ: You also meet a lot of people along the way, including many talented people, and you pick out the ones who aren’t going to make it. You can tell who doesn’t have it in here, who is not willing to work as hard as you are, and that’s an interesting reminder. Every business has its own competition inside that no one else sees, it’s own hierarchy, and I learned about what goes on in a kitchen from this book.

MARCUS SAMUELSSON: We watch and we learn about chefs, and it’s a highly emotional place in the kitchen. One of the reasons why the chefs are so loud is because you are always worried about the weakest link. The kitchen is a dangerous place — it could be — there is hot oil, there is the wet floor, there can be someone slipping with a knife, there is always this tension, and you always need to keep an eye on the weakest link in the kitchen. That’s one of the reasons why it’s so emotionally charged. The other thing is that there’s also a lot of love in the kitchen. My first chef said to me, “I’m going to fire you in three years.” I’m like, “What do you mean you are going to fire me? I just started.” But what I didn’t understand was that he would send me away to the next place. When he felt that I got everything I knew from this place, he couldn’t do anymore for me, he sent me to go to Switzerland. So I hope the TV shows can show a little bit more about how love there is in the kitchen.

RAY SUAREZ: Also, you can do a lot of things right — choose your menu right, choose your location right — but there is something there has got to be an X factor, a certain something that makes one restaurant a huge success and another just paying its bills. And you’ve had both.

MARCUS SAMUELSSON: Well, absolutely. You need a perfect storm, and you need also the audience you’re cooking for, your guests, to really want you to succeed, you know. It’s an interpretation, and any time there is a dialog with the public, whether it’s the theater, or whether it’s cooking, whether it’s art, you truly need the public to be like, “I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt.” You are cooking for the public — all they ask is for sense of authenticity or authorship. I talk about it in “Yes, Chef” — a lot I learned mostly on things that failed just as much as on the things I succeeded. I was committed not to make a book that would be a victory lap, that really talks about my failures.

RAY SUAREZ: In some ways some of the most interesting passages of the book, you get Ethiopia back in your life. A lot of people who are internationally adopted never get to that place that they are from, but it was tugging at you and now it’s a real part of your life.

MARCUS SAMUELSSON: It is. Me and my sister, we found our birth father. We have eight sisters and brothers. Two of them are in college right now, which is a huge success, for us to be able to take young girls from the countryside of Ethiopia, that basically after two years in school they are done with school, taking them all the way to university — that’s a big deal for us.

RAY SUAREZ: And you are going back and it’s a living, regular part of your life. And your wife is Ethiopian

MARCUS SAMUELSSON: Yeah, my wife is Ethiopian and I thank her for always making the strong connection. It’s fascinating when your from another place, but you don’t speak the language. So all these other things that you have to then pick up. I look Ethiopia, I am Ethiopian, I know the food, I’ve learned about the culture, I’ve been to weddings and big events, but yet when I don’t speak the language I have to then pick up smells, things that I see and it’s a good way actually to involve your senses more and connect in other ways.

RAY SUAREZ: The dream of opening Red Rooster, your current restaurant, starts to be out there in the future, you want to do it, you can’t make it happen, but now it’s a success. Every time I pass it up in Harlem it’s full, which I take is a good thing. But the restaurant business seems to be from the outside one where a chef gets a little restless after awhile and has to do something else, not just say, “I made this place, it’s a success, I’m done.”

MARCUS SAMUELSSON: I think that’s a very valid point. It’s a great point. For me, I’m committed to the evolution of Rooster, an evolution of Harlem, and I have other goals. I want Harlem to be a place where a young chef says, “You know, I worked in Harlem,” and it means something, just as much as it means that if I’m an artist I had my art at the Studio Museum in Harlem, or I sang at the Apollo. We have a bit to go there now, we have a ways to go for that. Next time one of my former cooks is opening a restaurant across the street or somewhere else — there are other measurements of success here. It’s not just being packed, so I think as a community leader, as chef in that community, I take that to heart.

RAY SUAREZ: As an African child who is adopted into Sweden — one of the whitest places in the world basically –

MARCUS SAMUELSSON: I would agree with that.

RAY SUAREZ: You were aware of color and the difference it made, but it never crushed you. You were very realistic about it, but unsentimental about it. And that’s a tough line to walk. You’ve got it, even though there is no reason why you should have got it so young but you did. How did that happen?

MARCUS SAMUELSSON: I think it’s not just because of me, but it’s because of my parents. You know, my father — we talked about this a lot — he had to constantly prepare me for the workplace. That was his job to me more than anything, give me the work ethics. I was prepared, but also he understood that being a black child is not necessarily fair but so many things in life are not just fair. As a chef I like bitter, but in life you can’t get stuck on bitter.

RAY SUAREZ: Marcus Samuelsson, a great pleasure. The book is “Yes, Chef.” Thanks for joining us.

MARCUS SAMUELSSON: Thanks for having me.

YES, CHEF by Marcus Samuelsson (an excerpt)