Too Many Cooks in the Kitchen? Not here.

Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library - Central Library

Too Many Cooks in the Kitchen? Not here.

Two recently published memoirs paint a fascinating portrait of the culinary landscape in the United States and of the American experience in general. Each book concludes in New York City and tells the story of two men who could not have come from more different backgrounds or taken such divergent paths to get to the “Big Apple” (and beyond)! One black, one white; one straight, one gay; one African-born, one American-born -- each man in his own way has had a significant impact on today’s food culture. 

ManwhochangedthewayweeatThomas McNamee’s The Man Who Changed the Way We Eat: Craig Claiborne and the American Food Renaissance tells the story of the fabled former food editor of the New York TimesCraig Claiborne. McNammee chronicles Claiborne’s early life from his humble upbringing in the Mississippi Delta through his tour of duty with the U.S. Navy during World War II. A personal journey takes Claiborne from a two-year hospitality program in Switzerland to his post as the food editor of the New York Times

The impact that Claiborne had upon the New York restaurant scene and, indeed, the nation at large cannot be understated. His reviews of restaurants and food in general exposed the American public to a world much larger than what was then known in the 1950s and 1960s. McNamee examines Claiborne’s professional successes while also examining his sometimes troubled personal life. Claiborne never seemed to be completely comfortable with his sexuality and struggled with alcohol abuse.  He later in life became somewhat of a recluse alienating many of his friends. In spite his personal demons, Claiborne helped pave the way for many in today’s food industry and today’s “celebrity chef” culture. 

Yes,ChefThe other memoir which piggybacks nicely upon McNamee’s is celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson’s Yes, Chef: A Memoir. Samuelsson, an orphan in Ethiopia, was adopted at three years old by a Swedish couple from Goteborg after his mother died of tuberculosis. Samuelsson, owner of the famous Red Rooster restaurant in Harlem and winner of the Top Chef Masters (Season 2), chronicles his life from his youth in Sweden, where he pursued his love for soccer and later for cooking. His passion, dedication and hard work brought him around the globe, apprenticing in some of the world’s top restaurants, before finally landing a position at the three-star Aquavit in New York City. 

His story is one of overcoming obstacles through hard work and creating a masterfully delicious and rich life made out of any ingredients that life might deal you. Samuelsson is brutally honest about mistakes made, reconciliations resolved and the resulting healing that ensues. Family looms large and is beautifully woven throughout this memoir. He vividly portrays the whirlwind competitive environment that is the inside of restaurant kitchen culture. His passion for food and for empowering the lesser privileged and marginalized has inspired many in his new home of Harlem and around the world – culinary and then some - making this a fascinating and inspiring read.  

Together these books dovetail nicely in telling the story of how far our nation has moved within a relatively short time-span when it comes to what and how we eat. More importantly, each shows how one individual can make a real difference in the world.    
- S. McDermott