Many accomplished chefs cook from the heart drawing on skills gathered from many places. What are their life experiences? Who and what influences them? I recently read a fascinating book by chef Marcus Samuelson that wonderfully demonstrates how many places and experiences can come together to nurture ones heart. Here are three books written about people who cook from the heart that have touched me and helped me better understand the art and culture of cooking, and the people that do it well.
Yes Chef; A Memoir – Marcus Samuelson was born in Ethiopia to a tubercular mother and an absent father. After a seventy-five mile journey on foot to a hospital in Addis Ababa, a hospital his mother never left, Marcus at the age of two, and his sister were adopted and came to live with a Swedish couple in GÖteborg, Sweden. His formative years in Sweden were influenced by his devoted mother, an honest and hardworking father, and his maternal grandmother – a gifted cook. This is the story of how Samuelson, from humble beginnings, through hard work, devotion to the art of cooking, and a little luck, became the award-winning chef and television personality today known around the world. Samuelson is often a judge on the Food Network television show, “Chopped” where contestant’s dishes prepared on the show are evaluated. The contestants sometimes argue with the judges about the quality of their dishes and it is interesting to see the bemused look on Samuelson’s face when his opinion is questioned. Thus the title of his book: “Yes, Chef”, a response, Samuelson suggests, serious cooks should always give to their superiors. Most master chefs, having reached the top levels of their craft, have paid their dues and then some (sorry Giada, your culinary skills are not what got you on television). None have worked harder or taken a more circuitous route to the top than Samuelson. Marcus Samuelson is a fascinating man with a story to tell and it is delightful getting to know him.
Samuelson, Marcus, with Veronica Chambers. Yes, Chef: A Memoir. New York: Random House, 2012. Print.
My Life In France – More than probably any other chef, Julia Child brought French cooking to the American family. Through her charming television show and her well thought out cookbooks she became more than a celebrity, she became a friend of the family. Her book describes how she and her husband came to be stationed in France while both worked for the U.S. government just after World War II. From the beginning Julia Child fell in love with France and it shows through her beautiful description of the life, culture, and scenery of her adopted home. From what must have been copious notes, meticulously archived letters, and a prodigious memory she recounts in detail places they dined, the proprietor’s names, what they ate, and what wines they drank. She spent a rather long time in the country before she decided on a whim to attend the culinary academy, Le Cordon Bleu, where women students were almost unheard of. With virtually no background in cooking but with some impressive negotiation skills perhaps learned in the diplomatic corps she gained admission. With determination, hard work, endless practice, and experiments served to her husband and sometimes hapless dinner guests, she gained the skills that would make her famous. Many articles, books and films exist that portray Julia Child’s life and work but none give you a view of the person as well as this book does. Despite the considerable contribution she made to cooking and to French cooking in particular, cooking was only a part of her life – she had a delightful marriage, a devoted family. and many friends. This is the story of a complex, fascinating woman who enjoyed life to the fullest and was loved the world over.
Child, Julia, with Alex Prud’homme. My Life In France. New York: Anchor Books, 2007. Print
An Excuse to Be Together – This title came close to becoming the heading of my website. It articulates one of the big reasons that I like cooking for others. Robert Reynolds founded Portland’s Chef Studio cooking school, mentored many well-known chefs and co-wrote cookbooks with some of the world’s best chefs. Reynolds passed away in 2012 but he is remembered as a chef’s chef, a teacher, and a gifted writer. Classically trained in France he brought French cuisine to the San Francisco Bay Area at his restaurant Le Trou in the ’80s and later moved to Portland in the ’90s. An Excuse to Be Together is a journal of cooking classes he held while traveling through France with students and friends. A meal for Reynolds starts with a trip to the markets to see what is available to place on the menu that day. Reynold’s philosophy is to throw nothing away – all parts of a beet, a chicken, or a fish come together to form a satisfying meal. The meals are often simple with the fresh ingredients in the starring role with rich sauces and skilled techniques subtly seen as the supporting cast. The food, the people, and the place come together to form that unique, never to be repeated, occasion that explains why we love to cook and share those moments. Reynolds brings those times together in his book with an ease and charm that draws you from place to place and meal to meal. Reynolds closes his book writing: “We’ll eat well and have things to talk about.” I felt as I read his book that I was there. How I wish it had been so.
Reynolds, Robert. An Excuse to Be Together. Portland: Self published with StudioRiley and the NW Culinary Forum, 2005. Print
A special thank you to my friend Mike Tucker for his expert editing of the illustration used in the An Excuse to Be Together review.