A Messy, Good Life in a Chef’s Memoir for Teens

BookendsLynn: The maxim that kids want to see themselves reflected in books is true. Also true: they want to see what they can become. Marcus Samuelsson’s memoir, Make It Messy: My Perfectly Imperfect Life (2015), an adaptation of Samuelsson’s memoir for adults, Yes, Chef (2012), does both these things. Samuelsson provides a look at a world rarely written about for a teenage audience: the world of food and cooking. Although there are some gaps and abrupt transitions, the teen version is otherwise a recipe for enjoyment and inspiration.

Make It Messy: My Perfectly Imperfect Life by Marcus SamuelssonSamuelsson’s story is a truly remarkable one. Born in Ethiopia during a tuberculosis epidemic, his desperately ill mother walked 75 miles seeking help for her two small children. Her bravery saved her sick children, but she could not save herself. After such a grave misfortune, luck turned for 3-year-old Marcus and his older sister Linda when they were adopted by a caring Swedish family. His adoptive parents knew that growing up “blatte” in Sweden would cause problems, and Samuelsson credits them for doing everything they could to prepare him and his sister for the challenges ahead. Samuelsson’s father taught him to work hard, to be humble, and, if messes happen, to clean them up and keep going. His Swedish grandmother taught him to love cooking, which lead him to become a chef after his initial plans of being a professional soccer player fell through.

Samuelsson’s voice is conversational and charmingly sincere. He clearly wants to share his life lessons with teens, but he avoids sounding dogmatic by wrapping up what he learned in very interesting stories. As a foodie, my favorite parts of the book are his stories about cooking and food, but his inspiring life as a whole makes the book so much fun.

Cindy: My recent school library book fairs have seen an uptick in cookbooks. When I ask middle-schoolers if they are buying them for their parents, almost to a one, they say, “No, it’s for me.” One student bought two identical cookbooks during the BOGO fair we just held—one for himself and one for a friend. Teens are watching the Food Network, and many of them are developing an interest in culinary training and careers, so biographies of famous chefs are sure to have an audience. Pickled herring and foie gras are probably not on most teens’ menus, but reading about Samuelsson’s successes and setbacks on the soccer field and the school yard, at culinary school, and in hierarchical professional kitchens will leave teens wishing they could roller-blade to work with him and smell and taste the street vendor fare along the way. Samuelsson emphasizes the hard work involved in his job, from scrubbing out the fish bins in the walk-in cooler, to putting in long hours, to dealing with demanding and cantankerous bosses. The coarse language of a busy kitchen is much rougher than he portrays for his teen audience!

Instead, the book is full of mouth-watering imagery and sweet metaphors, like this one about the closet at the bottom of the basement stairs that his grandmother used as a pantry for her preserves:

That dark little closet was my grandmother’s version of a jewelry case,
and the bright jellies and jams were her gemstones.

As the title suggests, Samuelsson has made his share of mistakes—some of them mildly embarrassing food prep mistakes, others far more disappointing, even heartbreaking. His mantra will impart an important message to teens: Mistakes happen, but it is important to learn from them and make amends when possible. Life is messy.

BTW: If you’ve eaten at Marcus’ NYC restaurant, Red Rooster Harlem, please leave us your food review here. Your stories will have to do until we can make it there ourselves.



About the Author:

Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan are Booklist reviewers and middle-school librarians who have chaired both ALA’s Best Books for Young Adults and the Michael L. Printz Award for YA Literature committees. Follow Bookends on Twitter at @BookendsBlog. You can also find Cindy at @cdobrez and Lynn at @482april.

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