52 weeks – 18 November, 2012

Book

Yes, Chef, by Marcus Samuelsson: a memoir of Samuelsson’s life to date, with lots of details about food, from the simplest to the most complex dishes, and much to interest chefs and diners.

Samuelsson was born Kassahun Tsegie in Ethiopia. He and his sister were adopted by a Swedish family after their mother died of tuberculosis. He had a happy family life growing up in Sweden and decided to become a chef, at least in part because of a love of food passed on by his thrifty and down-to-earth grandmother. It appears to have been a long, hard struggle to get to where he is today, since the professional kitchen is a tough place where you have to slave for many years to reach higher levels. Additionally, many kitchens initially rejected the very idea of a black chef. After years of struggle, he has finally become a celebrity chef who has cooked for President Obama; he has won awards, has his own TV show, and now owns his own restaurant, Red Rooster.

You learn the basic details of Samuelsson’s life, but there is a core of unknowability that prevents you from getting to know the real person. There are details about what he did but few insights into why. Dwight Garner, in The New York Times, says:

There’s a strong undercurrent of loneliness in “Yes, Chef.” In part this is because, he says, blacks are “shamefully underrepresented at the high end of the business.” When bad things happen, like the time the voluble and unhinged British chef Gordon Ramsay used a racial insult to describe him, he felt he had few people to turn to for support. That loneliness is a part of Mr. Samuelsson’s reserve. We get close, but not too close, to him in this memoir. There’s always a bit of distance.

Finding a comfortable identity had to be challenging for Samuelsson. He is a black man with a white man’s upbringing. He now lives in New York although his Ethiopian roots, rediscovered later in life, exert a powerful influence. His cooking now attempts to meld Ethiopian and Swedish flavours and techniques with food that appeals to hip New Yorkers from the Upper West Side and Upper East Side as well as his adopted Harlem neighbourhood.

His choice of a place to live was based on finding a place where he fits in, albeit as part of a group of outsiders:

So much of what drew me to New York was the chance to blend in, to not stand out for once because of the color of my skin. In my personal life, I found a chosen family. On the subway and streets, I found my deepest, truest community. I was still playing soccer on the weekend with other Swedish expats. We called our team Blatte United because we were a multicultural tribe of guys who had all grown up as outsiders, in one way or another: our patois of Swedish, English, and soccer slang felt as good on my tongue as a cold beer at the end of a long, hot shift.

Food

The chicken caesar salad, nicely deconstructed. Served at Faubourg, my new favourite bakery café in Kerrisdale. The romaine leaves are coated lightly with dressing and threaded through the hole in a piece of toast that stands upright on the plate. A sliced chicken breast sits to the side on top of the missing piece of toast.

Afterwards, of course, you would choose something heavenly from the pastry counter, such as the lemon tart.

Play

The Number 14, at the Waterfront Theatre. The play (by the Axis Theatre company) was on its twentieth anniversary run. It seemed completely current, sharply observed, very physical, and very funny. The characters wear a variety of masks that allow six actors to take on the dozens of recognizable personalities of the bus riders.

It’s beautifully choreographed, and the actors deserve all kinds of admiration for their playing of multiple characters, their polished timing and impressive acrobatics.

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