Yes Chef, Marcus Samuelsson

6 Sep 2018

I spend far too much time at my computor these days, reading the various political American websites, obsessed as I am with the journey and ramifications of Donald Trump. Have forced myself away from the latest daily roundup of TV pundits who I like, in order to do something slightly more productive, before heading out for a walk...

This book is the story of the life of Marcus Samuelson, a chef made famous in the US by winning the Iron Chef TV cooking show. We don't tend to watch reality cooking shows on TV - sometimes we catch the tailend of something should we come back over to the house early and Hannah is ensconsed on the couch watching Masterchef, and I only usually survive 5 mins in front of it, before I'm forced to go and do some reading elsewhere, as the forcedness and contrivedness makes me start spluttering, uncontrollably.

Having shown that bias though, I am equally aware that many, many people love these shows and watch them regularly - they get discussed often at our cookschools, where people I think should know better!, entertain with stories of what they love and why. So I'm fully aware that while they may not fit within our perspective of our industry, many other people find them viewing worth undertaking.

The other function that they perform which I do understand is the way they caterbolt the participants into the public eye, giving them a platform and a brand that can help them find investors to open a restaurant, or to further their dreams of opening more restaurants. In that world visibility encourages viability.  I get that.  I just struggle over the fact it is just so far removed from the day to day reality of fronting every day in the cafe and restaurant business, that I am unable to give it serious credibility.  And there is also the hard fact that while there may be a  few over the years for whom the experience has meant major elevation,  most participants quickly disappear from public view I would guess.

Occasionally  I have been known to muse that we had the wrong approach with Somerset and we should have done more to create a 'celebrity' name tag to affix to Rick, to give us more exposure, rather than building our reputation the slow labourious way of repeat and  also recommended custom. Most of our customers that we see these days come to Somerset because they've been before and they like us enough to want to come back, or because they've asked where they should eat locally and been told by people who's opinions they value to try us. ( or, of course in todays world, by dint of google...) But I've never really indulged in any serious regret that that wasn't the avenue that we choose to pursue, because I very firmly believe that those who seek out the media spotlight will inevitably in the fullness of time, be supplanted  and replaced by the next generation wanting to experience their own moment of fame, and if you haven't build a credible business during that time of public attention, then when the crowds move onto the next hyped place, things could become very tough to survive. For all those reasons we're preferred to stick to our knitting, and to focus on our local community, because we always wanted to be here for a long time.

We're not quite as extreme as the very wonderful Kenny Shopsin,  who happened to die this week,  who's unorthodox personality  is captured brilliantly in a wonderful essay by Calvin Trillan, in which his adversorial and take no prisoner approach to running a restaurant is delightfully portrayed. And excerpt from which being:

One evening, when the place was nearly full, I saw a party of four come in the door; a couple of them may have been wearing neckties, which wouldn’t have been a plus in a restaurant whose waitress used to wear a T-shirt that said “Die Yuppie Scum.” Kenny took a quick glance from the kitchen and said, “No, we’re closed.” After a brief try at appealing the decision, the party left, and the waitress pulled the security gate partway down to discourage other latecomers.

“It’s only eight o’clock,” I said to Kenny.

“They were nothing but strangers,” he said.

“I think those are usually called customers,” I said. “They come here, you give them food, they give you money. It’s known as the restaurant business.”

Kenny shrugged. “Fuck ’em,” he said.

I'd read Kenny's book some years back : Eat me: The food and philosophy of Kenny Shopsin and it was laugh out loud brilliant, especially for someone who has to on a nightly basis watch and listen in a bemused  fashion to  some customers who exhibit a complete lack of self awareness and fundamental niceness. I'd never practise Kenny's particular mode of customer management, but I did very much enjoy reading about his philosophy. ( Although I was harangued on facebook recently from one particular table who took umbrage at being asked by me - in no uncertain terms, I fully conceed! - to please shut the front door on a freezing night when they felt inclined to hover with it wide open waiting for the member in their party to pay the cab driver. Apparently me asking them to do something for the comfort of the other customers was me being rude. I didn't think I was being remotely rude so there you go. ) At least with Kenny it was  his abiding philosophy  to be rude, so everyone knew where they stood.

But I digress...

Marcus Samuelsson is a very different sort of person and chef. He is someone who has done the extremely hard yards of training in the tradional french style kitchens of Europe back in the 90s, back when the work was ridiculously punishing, and the kitchen's absurdly hierarchial. He earned his stripes. In no small part because he also had the added disadvantage of his skin being a darker hue than all of his contempories and therefore having to also overcome institutionalised racist attitudes,

 An extraordinary life story really - an Ethiopian orphan who's mother died when he was too young to really remember her, and who was adopted along with his older sister by a Swedish couple, and who grew up in a small Swedish village, which he left to follow his dream of becoming a chef, and who's desire to be the very best saw him end up in New York, and where having worked for others for many years, he is now carving out a niche of his own. A restaurant empire of multiple entities. Utterly extraordinary.

But also fascinating from the perspective of food culture as his experiences from the traditional kitchens of Europe and in the US, to his own firmly held desire to start moving away from the strictures of classical French cooking, and to loosen up and mix and match the flavourings, just as the zeitgast was ready to embrace a new more relaxed way of dining out has all pushed toward a new attitude and widening of food cultural barriers. 

The food world has changed very much over the past 30/40 years - there has been a massive amount of evolution go on - and it was fascinating to read the perspective of someone who was gaining fame as much of attitude to what restaurants should be was starting to shift.

He now owns a number of restaurants and is a corporation in many ways. Kenny Shopsin who was never motivated by something as base as money, only ever owned one outlet, even though he was forced to shift a number of times as increasing rents pushed him out, represented a very different approach to how to run a food business.

What I love about our industry is that it is now big enough to cater to both those extremes of style and  to also allow for all the various interpretations inbetween those two approaches. It makes for a much more interesing, varied, nuanced eating world and that is good for all of us!


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