Knowing what a Nordic food geek and Marcus Samuelsson devotee I am, my sister invited me to visit her book club last week when they discussed Samuelsson’s memoir, “Yes, Chef.” I trekked to Gaylord, Minnesota for an afternoon of good food and lively discussion. We cooked from Samuelsson’s most recent cookbook, “New American Table,” and our menu included a seared tuna glazed with maple-Dijon glaze, curried pear-potato salad, and apple cake.
My sister Cheryl’s book club friends clamored into the kitchen bubbling with New Year greetings for one another and carrying copies of “Yes, Chef.” As they settled in around the table with chilled glasses of Greyhounds (a Swedish spin on the classic cocktail) they began discussing the book and its author Chef Marcus Samuelsson. “Didn’t you find it fascinating?” “His birth mother, his adoptive mother, his wife! The strength of these women in his life! Wow!”
A few weeks earlier Cheryl borrowed my tattered copies of “Aquavit,” “Soul of a New Cuisine,” and “New American Table,” and asked if I’d be willing to cook something from one of them for her book club. As a food geek and Chef Marcus devotee, I was thrilled to accept her invitation, and anxious to hear her clubs’ assessment of the memoir. Each month the group plans their menu around the book they’ve read, and our lunch included recipes inspired by Marcus’s journey from Ethiopia to Sweden to Harlem.
“What shocked me was that he threw up from nerves when he first started cooking. I never imagined that cooking could be such a brutal profession,” someone said. We talked about the kind of drive it takes to be successful in such a competitive field and about what Chef Marcus sacrificed to ambition. The kitchen always took priority while family, friends, and secondary pursuits came last.
Marcus and his sister’s story of adoption is especially poignant to my sister, who adopted her two children from Korea. We talked about the impossible 75-mile walk Marcus’s birth mother made with her two small children so they could receive treatment for tuberculosis. “I cried through the first three chapters,” I admitted. We agreed that it is a tribute to Marcus’s birth mother’s sacrifice that he now has relationships with family still living in Ethiopia, and how remarkable that he is able to send his sisters to school.
Hearing I’d met Chef Marcus, a few ladies got personal, “Is he as sexy in person as he looks?” Several women had never seen Chef Marcus on his various television appearances and asked, “What does he sound like?” Someone brought the book on CD, so Cheryl popped a disc into the stereo and we listened as Marcus described his experience in a Swiss kitchen.
I took my place at the stove while the conversation continued. I smiled at the speculation and seared ten tuna steaks then drizzled the fish with maple-mustard glaze. The pear-potato salad was fragrant with curry and garlic, still slightly warm and tossed with spinach, almonds and lemon. We served the tuna and salad family-style along with green beans and almonds, and an anise-kissed fruit salad.
“Wonderful!” the book club agreed. “This tuna is so good! And what are the flavors in this potato salad?”
By the time dessert was served, the book club had moved on to talk of vacations in France and Barcelona, visits to summer cabins just a few short Minnesota winter months away, and what sports or colleges their kids were pursuing. I munched on Apple Cake (made using Marcus’s mom’s recipe) and thought about how good books and good food are made better with a good story. “Yes, Chef” has both.
Photos: Patrice Johnson