A memoir about one of the best chefs around who happens to come from my family’s hometown? You bet I would read that?
Yes, Chef begins with the story Marcus had been told of how he came to be a child in Sweden. His mother took him and his older sister with her to a hospital during an outbreak of tuberculosis in Ethiopia in the early 1970s. Mom did not survive, which is how her children became eligible for adoption. The couple who would become mama and papa were in their early 40s and lived in Göteborg with another adopted child. Reading his stories of youth took me back to my own many visits to the country in my youth. While my full knowledge of the city’s geography is not perfect, I was able to ask my mother (who read the book before me and loved it) where specific places were. I also understand the ethos in which he was raised. It’s not something I can explain, but you know it when you meet someone who is Scandinavian. I loved that sense of familiar.
I also loved reading about Marcus growing up cooking with his mormor(maternal grandmother), because the only grandparent I ever knew was my own mormor. Despite the fact that Swedish food was apparently quite boring in 1970s, Marcus still caught the bug for cooking and making the best food he could. He kept cooking and would wind up in the one cooking school in Göteborg. His ambition far outstripped the food culture of the country at the time too. While his first internships kept Marcus within the city, he kept working and asking, and eventually got what all potential chefs dream of: “sent away.” This means that the chef or manager thinks so highly of you that they will send you to another restaurant (and country!) to learn new skills and develop talent.
This sending away would take him to Austria, and hunting through France, making friends, working his way up from gathering vegetables in the garden, and trying to find a a space in a more prestigious restaurant location, like France or the United States.
Which is how he wound up at Aquavit in New York City. And would become one of the youngest executive chefs in the world.
One thing which impressed me about both the book and Marcus is something which I have not found in other restaurant-related memoirs: no drug or alcohol abuse. His professionalism shines through in these pages.
The book wraps up with Marcus’s appearance (and win! Hurrah!) on Top Chef Masters and opening up Red Rooster in Harlem. In between he has also discovered his Ethiopian family and gotten married… but I don’t want to spoil too much more.
This book is a swift and engaging read, and worth every minute. Thumbs up!