A groove had formed in the linoleum in front of the stove where Mom spent hours cooking. Next to that were four indentations from the little wooden step stool on which I often stood to watch her.
Chef Kwame Onwuachi was born to an American mother and Nigerian father in the Bronx. His parents’ relationship fizzled early, and he spent most of his time with his mother, with some interludes with his dad.
As a boy, frustrated with behavioral issues that likely stemmed from his abusive father, his mother sent him to Nigeria to live temporarily with his grandfather, an African academic and intellectual. Kwame eventually returned to the US, a little wiser and with a different understanding of discipline, but not without some troubling missteps yet to come. Still, the seeds of cultural heritage had been planted in his father’s homeland, and these would help influence the path his life would soon take.
In addition to his family life, sometimes sweetly heartwarming and elsewhere showing why he struggled to find his path with this troubling background, he describes branching out in childhood, experiencing cuisines from other cultures. This happens through his school friendship with a pair of Irish twins, and his observance of their family weekday dinnertime rituals, including an overcooked London broil.
Interestingly, Onwuachi may be more widely known, outside the world of fine dining aficionados, for his appearance on cooking competition show Top Chef. I expected, because of this, that his time on the show would occupy more page space in his memoir, but it doesn’t. As someone unfamiliar with the show, I loved this editorial choice. I found it much more illuminating to read about his unusual experiences elsewhere, in life and in a range of kitchens running the gamut from ship galley-basic to the world’s finest. The brief bit dedicated to Top Chef and his feelings about reality show chefs and what it means for careers were thoughtful and well put.
He almost didn’t even take that opportunity, after being disappointed with encounters with producers in the past, recounting this conversation after serving an exquisite-sounding gourmet meal to one:
“The problem is, Kwame, and I hate to say it, but America isn’t ready for a black chef who makes this kind of food.”
“What kind?” I asked.
“Fine dining: veloute. What the world wants to see is a black chef making black food, you know. Fried chicken and cornbread and collards.”
The challenges as a black man in an industry not particularly accommodating to the demographic unless serving soul food, meant he faced an uphill battle to carve out a place for himself.
It’s rare that I think I wouldn’t mind if a book was longer, but that was the case here. The majority fills in his early life and the roots that would lead to his incredibly unique (and delicious-sounding) culinary style, with the last few chapters feeling a bit rushed. He’s open about his mistakes and what he’s learned, and although there’s not much distance, he still manages to draw some meaningful reflections. A little more perspective may have been helpful in distilling his thoughts and reactions into something deeper, but considering the short time I was impressed.
Although at times the narrative focuses on specific moments and incidents that show his love for cooking and how it began to develop, there also seem to be steps from that process missing. It makes the title seem fitting – this is less a detailed, progress-mapping memoir, more notes from a life. I like that, but because I found his stories and professional development so interesting, I would’ve liked a more thorough progression too.
His pivotal moment came in 2008, while dealing drugs on campus and feeling depressed, alone, and suffering the effects of alcohol and Ecstasy use. One hungover morning, he pulled himself together to cook a post-party chicken curry.
The old rhythms of cooking came back to me. The click of the gas stove and the purr of the flame, the sizzle of the oil and the chicken as it browned. The comforting softening of onions and garlic as they released their sweet aromas into the apartment. Everything was predictable; everything made sense. I wasn’t just cooking a recipe, I was regaining my sanity.
The way he felt making the curry, so in his element, was his cue to call his mother, who’d relocated to Baton Rouge running a catering company. He started taking kitchen work in restaurants there, despite the pay gap between $20 a shift and thousands available dealing drugs. It was the beginning of the change he needed, and the first steps on a career path that would take him through kitchens onboard a ship doing cleanup at the Deepwater Horizon oil spill to one of the finest in the world, Manhattan’s vaunted Per Se.
Kwame eventually enrolled at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America and studied classical French cooking, landing that coveted but trying apprenticeship as a Per Se line cook. There, he learned how stressful and even abusive fine dining kitchens can be, but he also took something from it to apply towards running his own later. “My skin was bulletproof by this point,” he writes near the end of that apprenticeship, but this workplace vitriol wasn’t what he wanted to emulate. “From Per Se, I try to extract the sense of urgency without the poison of anger.”
I hesitate with “fine dining” food stories because the kind of food served at places like Per Se isn’t my taste. If it’s a tiny bit of fancy food on a giant plate with sauce dotted around it, or involves foams, I’m not interested. His description of the tasting menu served at his first restaurant opening in DC falls under this category, but the influences he incorporates is what makes it intriguingly unique, including his varied cultural background and classic New York City food truck chicken and rice. A full meal of his must be amazing.
Some of his recipes given sound fantastic and easily manageable for home cooks – I’m excited to try an African suya with chicken and shrimp and a spice blend including peanuts, ginger and cayenne pepper, roasted tomato soubise (minus the Wagyu beef), and his chicken curry which has some interesting twists. Despite his fine dining background, the recipes are accessible and sound like they would be intensely flavorful, seasoned from his immersion in multiple cultures.
I had found a way to convert, through food, not just the warmth and love of my upbringing but also the struggles I’d faced.
A heartfelt story of struggle and success among setbacks, from an honest voice and a promising chef.
Notes from a Young Black Chef: A Memoir
by Kwame Onwuachi with Joshua David Stein
published April 9, 2019 by Knopf
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.