At Ginny’s Supper Club in New York City on Tuesday night at a party for “Yes, Chef,” his recently published memoir, Marcus Samuelsson wanted to speak to everybody in the room. “I want to talk to everyone here for at least 20 minutes, half an hour,” Samuelsson said. “I know I won’t be able to, but everyone here is a part of this, of me, of this place. I am from a tribe and this is part of it, you are part of it.”
He did his best, navigating the thick scrum of friends and fans who jammed into the space, shaking hands and greeting revelers and regular diners who juggled signed copies of the book, themed cocktails, and small plates of his famed Helga’s meatballs with lingonberry. There was doro wat, an Ethiopian chicken stew on offer, too, along with cornbread madeleines, and an Ethiopian band in traditional garb from Washington, D.C. to play. “Let the band show you to how to dance to this,” Samuelsson urged the crowd.
The book jacket is emblazoned with a pile of berbere, a fiery-colored spice known for its garlic, ginger and sundried chili and in the text the chef notes it is one of the only connections he has to his mother, who died delivering him to the hospital, and whose face he cannot remember. “I know she cooked with it because it is in the DNA of every Ethiopian mother,” Samuelsson writes in the book. His desire to connect back to his heritage surges through the memoir.
“As a chef, I connected to Africa through the food first,” Samuelsson explained on Tuesday.
As “Yes Chef” details, Samuelsson possesses arguably one of the most interesting personal histories among A-list New York chef. He was orphaned in Ethiopia as a tuberculosis-riddled toddler and later adopted by Swedish parents, who raised him and his sister in Göteborg. Samuelsson details his education in the culinary arts from his adopted grandmother, his turns in cutthroat restaurants in Switzerland and France, his stints on cruise ships and his eventual arrival at Aquavit, where he earned a three-star rating at the age of 24. In the following years he received the 2003 James Beard Award and won Top Chef Masters, cooked for President Obama (whom he thanks in the acknowledgements section) and founded Red Rooster in Harlem, where he now lives with his family.
Of the award, Samuelsson writes in his book, “I felt a strong connection to the past, a sense of the roots that had given life to the food and flavors…in my cooking. I was born in Ethiopia, raised in Sweden, trained in Europe, but now, like Beard, I was American.” On Tuesday, Samuelsson noted that his mixed heritage and his presence in Harlem “represent[s] so many things to so many different people….His book isn’t about labels, it’s about the journey.” Later he thanked the crowds, crowing, “Can I hear a ‘Yes, Chef?!” They responded in kind. “I’m home,” he smiled, and was absorbed into the crowd.