In his new memoir, “Yes, Chef,” Samuelsson details his journey as an Ethiopian orphan to his childhood in Sweden to a James Beard award-winning chef and “Top Chef: Masters” winner. His restaurants include Red Rooster Harlem in New York.
‘I had a specific narrative I wanted to craft and the place that I felt was ready to deal with that was America, specifically New York, where we had come far in diversity.’
On July 30, Samuelsson will sign books at Whole Foods Market, 340 River St., Cambridge, from 11 a.m.-1 p.m., and be a guest chef at Coppa, 253 Shawmut Ave., Boston, 617-391-0902, www.coppaboston.com.
Q. What inspired you to write this book?
A. I felt like as a young chef there wasn’t a book like that, when I was coming up. There’s so many people that relate to part of my experience, whether it’s adopted kids or adoptive parents, whether it’s immigrants, chefs, whether it’s Africans coming to America or African-Americans. So I felt I should carefully craft and put together my working journey, which is different based on coming from one place, being raised in another place, and living in a third. I just wanted to share that. I feel like there are so many aspects where people can kind of make the book their own.
Q. You write that one of the things that drew you to New York was the opportunity to not stand out. What else drew you to America?
A. Being in Europe at that time for any black professional was very hard. My goal and aspiration was not to just be a cook. I wanted to be a chef. And I had a specific narrative I wanted to craft and the place that I felt was ready to deal with that was America, specifically New York, where we had come far in diversity. So before cooking, I had to put myself in a place where I felt it was diverse enough. I knew if I just worked hard at it, my skills would come through. I just didn’t trust, 20 years ago, the European mentality that I would get a shot. I can’t base that on fact. I just based it on my gut instinct.
Q. You landed a job in New York at Aquavit, where your reputation skyrocketed.
A. Aquavit was a very established restaurant in midtown New York. You know you cook for the world. That was a great opportunity. Getting a break was crucial. I was a young chef, the youngest chef to get three stars [from The New York Times, at 24]. It was not just about getting respect, it was about getting the opportunity to present my food, my vision, at an early age.
Q. In the book, you recall your experience cooking in 2009 for President Obama’s first state dinner, in honor of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. What was that like?
A. My crew was nervous and I was nervous, but it was no place for me to show that. I had to deliver. And it was an amazing experience, the pressure and wanting to deliver excellence, and just being part of something that was much bigger than myself and being proud. I mean, I’m patriotic to America because it’s the country that’s given me opportunity and that’s one of my proudest moments.
Q. It was also incidentally the inspiration for the book’s title.
A. [The president] was nice enough to come around and talk to not just me, but my whole staff, which was amazing. That’s essentially where the “Yes, Chef” title comes from. “Yes, chef” is what you say in the kitchen, but when Chef Michael meets Obama, my chef says, “yes, chef” [in response to one of the president’s questions]. We just started to laugh because why would you say “yes, chef” to the president? It was just a moment after all that nervous energy, just a moment for us to relax and have fun.