Kwame Onwuachi, is a thirty-year old Bronx native, who went from selling sweets on the subway and peddling drugs at a community college that got him kicked out, to starting a catering business. He eventually found a spot at the coveted CIA, not the agency, but the Culinary Institute of America, to owning his restaurants and now, evolving into a film executive producer after the rights of his book, Notes from a Young Black Chef were sold to bring it to life on screen.
Notes from a Young Black Chef is set in New York where Kwame was born to a Nigerian father Patrick and Creole mother Jewel from Louisiana. He was their only child. Although he considers his conception and coming into this world as his parents union’s best thing, it is worth noting that his mother did try her best. There was a lot of yelling, and by the time they’d moved on from each other, Kwame was enduring beatings from his father. His mother, ever the hard working, lost her stable accounting job, then she turned to her side hustle, the catering she’d been doing to pay the bills for him and his sister. This is how he started his career; by watching his mother bring recipes to life in the sanctity of the kitchen in the small apartment they shared. In subsequent years, being too much for his mother to handle, his father Patrick sent him to his ancestral village in Nigeria where he stayed with his grandfather and his wives.
Written with the help of a journalist Joshua David Stein, Notes from a Young Black Chef pulsates with simple English, drawing from the well of experience and hindsight. It’s definitely tailored at a simple, but curious audience and reads like a type of manual for young people of colour trying to make it in the West. It’s not just about rising to become the cream of the crop in the kitchen. There’s the culture of working in an interracial environment, the value of hard work, bone gritting persistence, and passion that drives.
The book also carries a journey of Kwame’s life, giving you a taste in the form of recipes at the end of the chapters that reflect his multi-ethnic, multicultural upbringing, merging the worlds of his parents with that of the America he was raised in. The ingredients include flavours from Africa and the seafood from his mother’s heritage, not forgetting the classical French cuisine chefs are taught in cooking school.
The tough journey of growing up poor in America, seemed to have prepared him for life as an entrepreneur where things didn’t go according to plan — as seen when he opened his first fine dining restaurant, Bijou in Washington. He learnt from the acclaim, the tremor of failure, as well as public opinion and the importance of maintaining a cool head under pressure, even in kitchens fanned with racism on the back burner.
Kwame is a fascinating character with great panache for capturing the mind of the reader to stay hooked. In telling his story, there was a lull as in his life journey to becoming the celebrated chef that he is, which reflected in the book. It felt as though it could have been cut to fewer pages, less than the 271 that got published, and perhaps even ended differently.