Marcus Samuelsson Talks Ten Years of Yes, Chef

Yes, Chef. Photo by Adrienne Thomas.

“With restaurants, people just want to take a picture. Being an author, people want to come up and talk,” says Chef Marcus Samuelsson. He’s reminiscing about the last ten years and how his 2012 memoir, Yes, Chef, changed his life and career, and how since its release, he’s become more than a little recognizable.

The discussion took place during a February visit to the Beaver Creek Culinary Weekend, which was, as luck would have it, the first of several visits the chef would be making to Colorado this year. He will return this weekend to the Food and Wine Classic in Aspen, where he will present Swediopian: Fresh and Modern Flavors from Sweden, Ethiopia and Beyond on the afternoon of Saturday, June 17.

READ: A Glimpse Inside the Fabulous Commotion That Was the 2021 Food and Wine Classic in Aspen

In Yes, Chef, Samuelsson traces his life from his birth in Ethiopia through his upbringing in Goteborg, Sweden, and across his fabled culinary career in New York and beyond. The book covers the themes of adoption, inclusion and the manifold sacrifices that success demands. In his frank appraisal of his own life, Samuelsson, with the help of friend and journalist Veronica Chambers, presents a blueprint for achieving greatness alongside a vivid portrayal of the complicated grind of kitchen life worldwide. “I wanted to be brutally honest about all the things that I didn’t do well and the things that I experienced,” he said. “It’s a privilege to write about yourself. I’d recommend it to anyone, whether it gets published or not.”

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When Yes, Chef first hit the stands, Samuelsson’s popular Harlem restaurant, the Red Rooster, had only recently debuted. He had been in the spotlight since 2003 when he was named Best Chef – New York City by the James Beard Foundation for his pivotal work as the executive chef of the Michelin-starred Scandinavian restaurant Aquavit. However, he still had yet to become a household name. He’s since grown to embody the new era’s prototypical celebrity chef, finding great success across the mediums of television, cookbooks and restaurant ownership. Throughout, he’s actively used his platform to fight for racial justice in the kitchen and beyond. “We never saw ourselves in these spaces, and now we’re here. We went from anonymous labor to being visible,” he said. With his finely-tuned public persona, Samuelsson has helped to usher in a new era of celebrity chefs, many who rightly find their public presence and distinct viewpoint to be as important as their cooking.

Though at the end of the day, Samuelsson is still driven by what fundamentally propelled him toward cooking in the first place. “I love more than anything, when you take the word celebrity away, being a chef. As a craft, I’m always going to be in love with food, farmers and wine-makers, famous or not,” he said. “Lebron is working on his craft every day. Not because he has to but because he’s deeply in love with the game of basketball. I do it for love of this art.”

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Samuelsson’s story is an important one, and the book aged well, arguably reading better now than when it was first released. In addition to chronicling his own experience, Samuelsson often returns to the question of why there are so few black chefs at the top of the culinary arena.

In the decade that Yes, Chef has been on the shelf, both the text and Samuelsson himself have played an important role in inspiring a younger generation of chefs to not only see their ambition as viable but to create their own lanes in a culture guilty of shutting them out. That the intended legacy already appears to be in motion makes a clear case for the book’s ongoing potency. “For me, it just came down to understanding the complexity of my journey and figuring out how to articulate it,” he said.

In 2023, Samuelsson opened Hav & Mar in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. The menu focuses on seafood with influences from the chef’s dual heritage.

While he’s continued to divulge his story across platforms, Samuelsson says that he plans to return to authorship. “There will be a Yes Chef 2. Now I feel like I’m getting into that space. I just needed to create more from a family point of view and a life point of view. I’m still in my restaurant, and I can only do one heavy lift at a time,” he said.

Samuelsson is clearly fit for the spotlight and thrives amidst everyday attention. “Just don’t approach me when I’m with my kids,” he continued with a grin.

All photography by Adrienne Thomas.

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