And he uttered — and murmured and shouted — “Yes, chef,” more times than he can count, even after having a plate of scallops thrown at him by a chef who, it goes without saying, wasn’t happy.
But one never challenges the chef. Marcus, instead, vomited regularly, then went back to work. No one knew, he says. And he emerged the committed, disciplined chef he is today.
But Samuelsson says the phrase is much more than one spoken by abused line cooks in fear or shame. It’s not just the part of the scripted drama of “reality” TV and chefs from hell.
“ ‘Yes, chef’ — it’s the identity of my life. I’ve been saying it longer than anything else — ‘Oui, chef,’ ‘Yes, chef.’ People now say it to me,” Samuelsson says.
“It’s also a sense of belonging. I feel comfortable in the kitchen — my study, my lab, my church. ‘Yes, chef’ looks very harsh to people outside looking in, but it’s a tone issue. It can be said in the kindest way, with honor and respect.”
Nice guys don’t always finish last. Samuelsson has been in command of his own kitchens in New York for years now (He has two restaurants in Sweden.) And he refuses to make the super-heated atmosphere of abuse one of the ingredients of his success. Pot-throwing genius maniac, no; firm and resolute in the face of displeasure, yes.
“I don’t get abusive. It’s all how you inspire and lead.
“There were a lot of things that happened to me, as you see in Yes, Chef,” Samuelsson says.
“I condense the good things from the journey, not the bad stuff. When I was coming up, there were no women in the kitchen. I make sure that there are 50 percent women and 50 percent men in the kitchen.
“There were no blacks, no people of color in the kitchen when I was coming up. I will make sure it’s very diverse.
“All those people screaming and yelling, I make sure that I lead in a different way.
He writes in Yes, Chef about kitchen drama at the Red Rooster: “Tammy, my lead runner, walked out. “She said, ‘I feel like I’m being disrespected by some of my male co-workers.’ And I couldn’t argue with her, she was being disrespected, I just wish she had stayed and helped me fight it out.
“The Muslim brother didn’t want to take orders from a woman and he threw a racial slur at our white general manager, so he’s out. We couldn’t educate him, so we had to fire him.”
But there’s another reason some chefs can be over the top: “Kitchens are a dangerous place. You can get hurt. There’s hot food, knives, slippery floors, you have fast speed. The strictness comes from protecting the staff. You can’t fool around. That’s why you have to be firm.”
Samuelsson is using his considerable voice, talent, sense of history — and dreams of the future — to do more than serve good food. He’s nurturing a diverse generation of food professionals. He knows he’s a rare bird: “I’m sensitive to the fact that black people worked hard to get out of the kitchen. Now they have to work hard to get into the kitchen” — especially in positions of authority.
He’s taking on what he calls the “food chasm” in an increasingly affluent but still poor Harlem; and he’s making sure that kids see him in action and taste the results. In his own apartment kitchen in Harlem, he recreated for kids the meal he made for President Obama’s first state dinner, for the Indian prime minister.
He lived in Harlem for more than five years before opening the Red Rooster, which pays homage to a legendary speakeasy and is filled with the work of local artists, huge chalk-scribbled blackboards and dark wooden shelves crammed with books, preserves, knick-knacks, you name it. He walked the streets, talked to people, gave them cooking classes.
The menu is a mash-up of flavors — chimichurri on the chicken sandwich; pikliz, the spicy Haitian vinegar, with the jerk bacon and eggs; “Helga’s meatballs” with lingonberries and braised green cabbage.
His patrons make up that “gorgeous mosaic” former New York Mayor David Dinkins touted so long ago. “It’s about having people in the inner city say, ‘We can eat at a great restaurant,’ Samuelsson says, “not about building the best tasting menu.”