Kwame Onwuachi with Joshua David Stein, Notes from a Young Black Chef (Knopf, 2019)

Gumbo, in its essential form, arrived shortly after 1720, carried in the taste and muscle memories of enslaved West African people. The word gumbo comes from the Gold Coast Twi term ki ngombo which means “okra” (itself an Igbo word, the language of my grandfather and my father )…..
Like stolen labor, this stew became part of a southern culture whose origins rest on the corrupt scaffolding of slavery. Nothing about what it has become undoes this fact, though the dish never stopped growing and evolving. When Germans arrived in Louisiana, they introduced spicy andouille sausage. When the Spanish took over in the late 18th century, they threw in their famous jamón and added a salty meatiness to the stew. And after the Spanish government brought fishermen over from the Canary Islands in the late 1700s shrimp and crab pulled from the Gulf of Mexico were added, and seafood gumbo, my favorite, became common too.

When I put this book on my list, I had no idea Onwuachi had been a contestant on Top Chef. I stopped watching a long time ago, but still have a lot of residual fondness for the show. I simply wanted to read another chef book, and getting a black perspective appealed to me.

Onwuachi’s life sort of mimics the gumbo he makes. Instead of various cultures coming to him, he’s been born in them, gone to them, and searched them out. He started out in Queens, NYC, was sent to live with his grandfather in Nigeria “to learn respect” when he was eleven, became a gang member in his teens, dealt drugs in college until he got kicked out, and moved to Louisiana with his mother when he decided to pull himself together. He didn’t cook much in his youth, unlike many chefs; his mom ran a catering business so he was around food, but his forays into restaurants were short-term and unsatisfying.

Until he went to work on a ship cleaning up the Gulf oil spill. This guy’s life is a metaphor.

Onboard ship, he developed the kind of appreciation of flavor, technique, and innovation that would serve him well as a chef. But he knew he needed more training, so he talked himself into a spot at the Culinary Institute of America and moved heaven and earth to figure out how to pay for it. That included his first catering company, put together with duct tape and sheer nerve over a thin but resilient layer of confidence. Along the way he got a prized externship at Per Se, and later, a gig at Eleven Madison Park, two of the swankiest restaurants in a city that eats swanky restaurants for breakfast.

As he graduated from the CIA (the foodie one, no spies), the hierarchy at EMP changed, and he decided to leave. The tirade his boss hit him with on his way out is memorable:

“Think of your ancestors!” he exploded. “Think of Carême and Escoffier. Fuck, think of Chang and Keller,“ he said, reeling off the list of famous chefs who had shaped the fine dining world. There was a great irony in Flint echoing what my grandfather had said about my ancestors when I was living with him in Nigeria: “Your ancestors will never leave you. They are part of who you are.“ Here was Flint, a guy who I knew thought black chefs had no place atop the kitchen hierarchy, telling me to think of my ancestors, as if my ancestors were his ancestors too. But no, my ancestors aren’t Carême and Escoffier or Keller or even Daniel Humm or David Chang. My ancestors are the ones I thanked after granddad killed [the rooster] Red, back in the dusty courtyard of Ibusa. My ancestors are those who, like Aunti Mi, ground cassava flour for hours, soaked stockfish, and hit kola trees until the nuts fell down. My ancestors are steeped in the curries and jerk of Jamaica and found in the stews and rouxs, gumbos and jambalayas of Louisiana. It wasn’t something I’d ever expect Flint to understand, but it was something I couldn’t deny any longer.

From there, he developed his catering company, competed in Top Chef, then opened – and quickly closed – his first restaurant in DC. And he was 27 years old. Time to write a book, and figure out the next step.

One of his anecdotes concerns a TV producer, unnamed, who tells him “America isn’t ready for a black chef who makes this kind of food…. Fine dining: veloute. What the world wants to see is a black chef making black food, you know. Fried chicken and cornbread and collards.” I’m not sure about America, but to this TV viewer, this is definitely the attitude of competitive-reality TV producers. I’ve watched (not recently; things may have changed) a host of different shows, and time and again I’ve seen a LatinX and Asian chefs told to abandon ideas of French brunch or farm-to-table and their CIA training and go with what fits with their last name. And here Onwuachi is making what is authentic to him – a fascinating fusion of New York, East Texas/Louisiana, Jamaica, and West Africa – but it doesn’t match with the producer’s idea of what kind of food black people make. This is a theme from the start of the book: “I am an African American chef, so if I cook my food, isn’t every menu I create African American by default?”

The book opens with a wonderful chapter capturing his thoughts while catering the dinner honoring the architect of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. He’s aware of every detail happening on the fifth floor as the food is prepared and served, but he’s also aware of the exhibits below, and how his story adds to that larger story. Then we back up and go through the uneven childhood, the growing pains, the twists and turns that got him to the fifth floor, directing a crew that a few months later would staff his restaurant.

That the restaurant failed is not glossed over at all; it’s dissected in detail. I remember reading something in some book somewhere that it’s a workout rule to “never end on failure”, but the book seems to end on failure with the closing of Shaw Bijou. Yet it left me with the sense that Onwuachi viewed it as a low point on which he could plant his feet and take another leap of faith. That attitude seems to be reaping rewards: he’s the chef for a hot DC hotel restaurant, and just won the 2019 James Beard Rising Star award. Seems to fit in my math prof’s theme of “You learn more from your mistakes than your successes.”

Like gumbo, Kwame Onwuachi has picked up a lot from various influences, and has adapted to a wide variety of settings and expectations. Because he’s so young – he’ll be 30 in the fall – it’s a gestation story, a first installment on what promises to be a life that continues to absorb and react and grow. Or, who knows, maybe he’ll settle down, having sowed his wild oats, and run the same restaurant for the next 40 years. We’ll have to watch what happens.

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