Yes, Chef

By: Nikki Nies Samuelsson_Yes-Chef_pb

I can’t get over how much I enjoyed the Yes, Chef memoir, retelling Marcus Samuelsson’s journey from an Ethiopian orphan to acclimating to life in Sweden and his culinary experiences and eagerness to learn from the best.  The best part was that it wasn’t at all what I was expecting to read.  Besides seeing advertisements for ABC’s The Taste, I’ve only seen Samuelsson’s face a handful of times. In his memoir, Yes, Chef Samuelsson artfully describes how his work ethic and dreams for greatness led him to his current status as an internationally acclaimed chef. While reading his memoir, I jotted down some lessons and themes that were reiterated several times.

While my notes reflect implementation into the culinary and dietetic world, all industries are competitive and the points can applied to any part of life. Points I learned:

  • Don’t forget your roots: Your youth and environment play an influential role in who you are, what interests you have and can interestingly be weaved into your career; while ethnically Ethiopian, he has learned an equal amount of knowledge on Swiss, French and Swedish cuisine; don’t forget those supporting you along your journey and lean on them to stay grounded
  • If your initial plan has a dead end, find a new road: Samuelsson grew up playing soccer with his good friend Mats, dreaming to play professional together one day.  While Mats had the physique to become a stellar professional soccer player, Samuelsson didn’t make the professional league.  Since cooking with his grandmother had always been a favorite past time, not a chore, it was only natural for Samuelsson to dive into that interest when soccer star chances concluded.
  • Passion trumps any work: It was clear Samuelsson was passionate about cooking from a young age and would do anything to get into the kitchen, learning everything and everything.  When he initially started out he was in charge of keeping the fish stocked and cleaned.  While not the best smelling job, with time he learned how to get his job done in the half the time he initially started out with, being able to watch and learn from the chefs he aspired to be.
  • Arriving early and leaving late: Not only would be scribble down the menus and not leave the kitchen until it was immaculately cleaned, taking the initiative to learn from the best can go a long way.  He stayed humble with his craft, knowing that learning from watching and hands on practice would give him more skills
  • Find mentors: Being an Ethiopian, dark-skinned, lanky man in the Swedish, French and Swiss community had its discrimination, but those barriers didn’t allow Marcus to give up on his dream.  Everywhere he went, he wasn’t afraid to ask questions, to learn all he could and perfect his craft from any one willing to teach.  Trust me, any where you go, if you look hard enough, you’ll find someone who wants to share their passion with you.
  • Catering to your audience: While in Switzerland, Samuelsson worked in a kitchen with a brash culinary genius, Stocker.  While abrasive behind the scenes Stocker knew keeping your clients in mind is key to maintaining a business and widening one’s skill level

[Stocker]…took a real interest in the international travelers who made up more than 80 percent  f the hotel’s guests, and he would tweak the menu accordingly.  On a week when we had several Arab parties coming in, he would tone down the pork entrees and amp up the vegetables and fish.  When a group wealthy Japanese people came in for a week of skiing, lots of sticky rice and exotic mushrooms suddenly appeared on the menu…our guest population was not homogenous and we did our job well not only when they were happy with what they had ordered…we had the experience and ingenuity to figure out what the guests might want, before they knew they wanted it (Samuelsson).

  • Success doesn’t happen overnight or by default:Samuelsson started cooking at a young age, like a sponge, soaking up all the knowledge and skills he needed to get him to where he is today
  • Have the right tools at your disposal: Samuelsson’s first chef knife given to him by his 2 sisters, Anne and Fantaye, is still one of his cherished gifts and tools; the right tools provide you confidence in honing your craft
  • If you want to work at a specific company: Find your niche and sell your own brand; i.e. if you want to become a RD in a specific restaurant chain, explain how financially you can save the company money by buying fresh and staying “current” on dietary trends, catering to more people’s interests in enjoying a great meal, while being promised quality ingredients
  • The importance of a RD in the restaurant setting:  Samuelsson’s first encounter with a RD, Margrit, helped him understand how to respect guests with dietary needs and for chefs to be smart businessman; helped tweak meals to accommodate allergies and offer heart healthy entrees; ability to work in food service, while maintaining respect in the kitchen
  • Learn from the best to be the best: While applying for jobs, he only applied to restaurants that had received 3 stars or more.  While some might say, “beggars can’t be choosers”, and I’m one of them, Samuelsson wanted to learn only from top quality professionals.
  • Focus on what you can control, not what you can’t: While Samuelsson faced a lot of adversity due to the color of his skin, he didn’t allow that to deter his dreams; at first it was hard navigating the culinary world, not having many African American role models to turn too, but having a good work ethic is crucial in any industry, when you’re facing adversity, showing you can keep up can make or break your chances of getting to where you want to go; if you don’t get the first job you apply for, move on, the right job will come if you perservere
  • Constantly evolving: Samuelsson mentality of constant improvement was evident in his approach to jobs.  Whenever he was offered a job, he saw that as his endgame, where he had learned all he could at the current restaurant or facility.  He was hungry for knowledge and saw a job offer as his time to move onto a new learning environment

No matter what your career goals or interests are, we all have them, assess what you’re doing this very moment to get to where you want to be.  While Samuelsson’s path to success was in the culinary world, his attitude and passion can be utilized in any industry.  Thank you Samuelsson for sharing your story! Source:

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