Chopping It Up With Kwame Onwuachi About His New Memoir, 'Notes From A Young Black Chef'
Celebrity chef Kwame Onwuachi has been whetting appetites with his fusion style for the last few years but now he’s perking up ears with his compelling and moving self-narrated memoir.By Rachel Smalter HallApr 9, 2019 12:25 PM
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As a young man, Kwame Onwuachi was headed for trouble. The lure of the South Bronx streets that surrounded his home was strong, despite his mother’s machinations, even after she sent him to stay with family in Nigeria for a few years. That excursion didn’t immediately have the desired affect, but it did teach him more about his cultural heritage and lead to his newly awakened passion: cooking. Onwuachi went on to cook in the finest restaurants, such as Per Se and Eleven Madison Park, appear as a contestant on Top Chef, and get nominated for a James Beard award. Today, he is the executive chef at celebrated Afro-Caribbean restaurant Kith and Kin, and has released his memoir, Notes from a Young Black Chef.
Listen in as he talks with memoir editor Rachel Smalter Hall about joining a pantheon of chef memoirs and leaning into his story in a new and exciting way by narrating the audio for his memoir.
Note: Text has been edited and may not match audio exactly.
Rachel Smalter Hall: I am Rachel Smalter Hall, an editor at Audible, and today I have the pleasure of talking to Kwame Onwuachi, author of the new memoir, Notes from a Young Black Chef. Kwame Onwuachi is the executive chef at Kith and Kin in Washington, D.C., and has been named a 30 Under 30 honoree by both Zagat and Forbes. He’s opened five restaurants before turning 30 and has now published his first memoir. In Notes from a Young Black Chef, Onwuachi talks about his childhood in New York City, Nigeria, and Louisiana, and describes how his passion for food began in his mother’s kitchen in the Bronx and eventually blossomed into a successful career at some of the best restaurants in the world.
Chef Onwuachi, thanks for talking with me today.
Kwame Onwuachi: Absolutely. It’s a pleasure, pleasure, pleasure to be talking to you. Thank you for having me.
RSH: Wonderful. Of course. Just to jump right in, you’ve long been telling your stories through food, and now you’re telling your stories through words in your memoir. Are you surprised by any similarities between the two mediums?
KO: It’s a creative process. Most importantly, it’s a process. When you’re creating a dish, you have to think of how is it going to get from the pan to the plate in a timely manner before it gets to the diners. It’s the same way with writing a book. You have to figure out how to really convey that message properly so it can be absorbed.
RSH: Of course. I imagine there have been a lot of differences in the two experiences, too. How has writing a story been different from telling it through food?
KO: Writing the story is very therapeutic in ways. You have to start from the beginning and kind of map your life story out and see where there were challenges and where you had some successes.
RSH: Early on in the memoir, you really revisit some really painful memories. Are those things that you hadn’t revisited until you allowed yourself to go there through your memoir? Talk to me a little bit about that.
KO: Yeah, definitely. I think I can speak for most people that have been through traumatic or not had the best experience in their childhood. You kind of wrap it up in this small, tight ball and you put it somewhere very deep down inside of you and try to forget it so it doesn’t come back and haunt you and tell you that you’re not worth anything and just put you down. It was unraveling those thoughts and those memories and bringing them back up to light again.
RSH: Yeah. Have any of your family or friends who were part of your life during those early, really difficult times, had a chance to experience your memoir yet?
KO: No. No, I haven’t shared it with anyone yet. I really wanted them to feel the book and see it in its entirety, and be able to experience it along with the rest of the world.
RSH: Right. How are you feeling about that coming up here pretty soon?
KO: It’s always a little nerve-wracking when you’re telling your story. I don’t think many people get a chance to do that. It’s not a common thing, where you’re able to just put it all out there on the pages.
I think it’s like it’d be for anyone. Even if I had to tell somebody exactly what I did last weekend, I would be a little nervous.
KO: Like, “Okay … Some people will want to hear about this. Do people even care?” That thing. That human nature of, “What are people going to think?” I think the reason why I wrote this book is to get people to think, more importantly. And I’m overjoyed. I feel like it’s like opening a restaurant. It’s a whirlwind of emotions and that’s how I feel right now. But most importantly, I’m excited for the generation of people that hopefully I will be able to inspire for years to come.
RSH: That’s wonderful. I am our memoir editor here at Audible. I listen to and read a lot of memoirs and one of the first questions I always ask myself with a new memoir I’m experiencing is was the author too afraid to be honest or not?
KO: Mm-hmm. Yes!
RSH: I found your honesty is very … I love it. I wasn’t sure what to expect. I love the early stories of your friends in high school.
KO: Thank you. I appreciate it.
RSH: I really feel like listeners are going to love this, too. I’m excited for it to come out.
All right. Let me dive into my next question for you. One of my favorite early stories in the book is about you taking your first job as a chef on ship called The Main. I love everything about that experience by the way, but you mention that you brought a few books with you, including The Autobiography of Malcolm X.
RSH: Do you happen to remember what other books you brought with you?
KO: The Dean & DeLuca Cookbook.
KO: Honestly, those were the only two books that really stand out to me.
RSH: If you can describe a little bit for our listeners who haven’t had a chance to hear your memoir yet, you were on that ship for how long?
KO: I was on that ship for the entire summer of that year. It was the entire time they were out there cleaning up the oil. I was there for three weeks on and one week off. We worked three weeks straight and we would have a chef partner. So one person would be the head chef and another person would be the sous chef. We would create meals three times a day for the crew. It would be about 30 people a day. We were in charge of planning the meals, ordering. There would be a huge drop every two weeks. It was a very, very, very interesting experience, even just getting there. We had to drive from New Orleans to Homer, Louisiana, which are those skinny little strings that come off of the state of Louisiana when you’re looking at it on a map. It’s just like it looks. There’s a road and water on both sides of the road.
We get down there and I get on a small passenger ship and that takes me for four hours into the gulf. I’m awoken by the smell of gasoline and it’s just as far as the eye can see, black everywhere.
RSH: The refreshing smell of gasoline in the morning.
KO: Most people like to smell it a little bit at the gas station, that’s some people’s guilty pleasure, the smell of gas. This is not that.
KO: It’s like that times 50, to the point where if you stayed out on the deck long enough, you could pass out from the fumes.
RSH: Yeah. You found yourself on this ship for the first time and you’re an assistant chef. How did you find yourself passing the time in this totally different world from anything you’d experienced before?
KO: Well, I had cooking. The beautiful thing about cooking, that a lot of people don’t understand, is that you don’t wave a wand and it’s all done. I would spend a lot of time preparing the meals and just taking my time with it. If I wasn’t doing that, there was an entertainment room on the ship where they just had a Nintendo Wii and a DVD player, so whenever guys would go off for their week they would bring back a bunch of DVDs and we’d watch movies all together. It was a lot of fun when I look back at it. We’d tell stories about back home. I would read a lot, listen to music. I would write poetry. It was a life-changing experience.
RSH: Yeah. I love how you evoke that in the book, this unexpected sense of bonding with these guys that you wouldn’t have necessarily expected to have bonded with. It sounds like books have been with you throughout your life. What are some books that you’ve loved throughout growing up? I’m also wondering if you listen to any audiobooks.
KO: Yeah. Well, Harry Potter. Harry Potter kept me company in Nigeria.
KO: As the readers will read in the book, I ended up in Nigeria under some unfortunate circumstances.
KO: There’s no electricity, so there’s no just running to the PlayStation and playing games. You have to figure them out. You’re on your own. When you grow tired of that, I was left with books. I had the whole Harry Potter series up to book four or five and I just immersed myself into the wizarding world of Harry Potter.
KO: When I grew tired of reading, I would just listen to the audiobooks.
RSH: Did you have the audiobooks for the Harry Potter books, as well?
KO: Yeah. My cousin had all the books. I wasn’t even really into it. My father tried to get me to read it and I wouldn’t. Then, when I got to Nigeria, I just read the first one and I was like, “This is amazing. This book is so good.” Then, my cousin had all the other volumes plus the audiobooks.
RSH: Oh, that’s so great. The Harry Potter audiobooks were my very first experience of falling in love with audiobooks, so I very much relate to that. They’re so good on audio.
KO: I was found, honestly. I was not thinking of writing a book. I used to do a lot of speeches about my life story. There was a clear narrative. I started in the Bronx. My mother quit her job to become a caterer. Then I started helping her. And then I dropped out. It was an easy way to tell my story. I could make it as long as needed to be or I could make it short like an elevator pitch.
KO: I did one at a food conference called Bitten in New York City and there was a literary agent in the crowd. It was the longest [presentation] I’d ever done. I had PowerPoints, pictures throughout my life story. She was very intrigued and said, “You need to write a book.” I was like, “All right, let’s do it.”
RSH: Nice. I love knowing that because I will say, as I’ve been diving into your memoir, the stories have a really spoken quality to them. They sound like stories that you would tell over and over, refining them.
They really have that quality of being stories you tell out loud to your friends about your life. So I love that that’s the origin of this book. This kind of leads into a question I had about you working with former food critic and author Joshua David Stein to capture your stories and bring them to life. Can you talk to me a little bit about how that partnership began?
KO: It started with a conversation, like most relationships. I’d say it developed into a relationship. I still talk to him once a week now.
RSH: Oh, wow.
KO: At one point we were talking every single day. At first, he drove down to DC and we spent the day together. Then we would spend time on the phone. Then he was like, “All right. Tell me the story that you’ve told a million people before.” So I started with that story. He wrote down the most interesting parts of those stories and kind of the arcs of my life. He talked about starting in the Bronx. “Okay, well, you talk about when you were a kid with your mom. What was your dad doing at this time?” He had to unravel these things. I was like, “Oh, he was there. I saw him on the weekends.” “What did you guys do?” “Not much.” “What do you mean not much?” It just keeps unraveling these things. Then, if I would talk to him about my mom, maybe like, “Okay. I’m going to go spend time with your mom for a week.” And he would go and sit with my mom and talk with her. “Okay, you spent time on Webster where you were in a gang and stuff. I’m going to go spend time on Webster and hang out with [Jay-quan] for a couple days.”
RSH: Oh, wow. Oh, wow.
KO: Yeah. Yeah. That’s how in-depth he got with my life story. He was like, “Cool, I got your perspective. I want to hear the perspective of people that were around you at that time.”
RSH: Yeah. Wow. I’ve had the joy of both reading and listening to different parts of your memoir and I have to say your narration adds another layer of depth to the experience.
KO: You enjoyed the audio?
RSH: Oh, I love it. I absolutely love it. It adds this whole other dimension. I feel like there’s a cooking term that you would use. Like the flavor profile getting deeper? Tell me about that.
KO: The what?
RSH: In cooking, when you’re trying to bring out extra flavors in a …
RSH: This is maybe kind of a silly tangent to go on. We can edit this out if we need to. It’s like when you …
KO: Like adding layers of flavor?
KO: Like developing flavors of the dish?
RSH: Right, because that’s definitely a technique that I’m sure you use all the time with food.
KO: Yes, absolutely. I really got into it. We did the first chapter, the second chapter, and I got it. It clicked for me. I was like, “All right. Let’s do them all over again. I want to do them all over again.” I was just really into every aspect of the audiobook. I really enjoyed it.
For me, it brought the book to life. I’m reading it out loud and hearing myself say these things out loud. It was very, very good. I liked it.
RSH: It really kind of drove home this idea for me that these are stories. I love that Joshua asked you, “Tell me a story you’ve told a million times.” They really have that quality. They’re very entertaining and poignant and really, your performance of them just really drives that home. I need to ask you what was it like to go into the recording studio and perform stories from your own life that Joshua had helped capture on the page?
KO: It was great. I’ve read the book a million times and I’m very familiar with the stories. It was just interesting being in front of people I’ve never met before, now speaking these things out loud.
Because I’ve talked about them with Joshua, the people that I have given the book, like my fiancé. She’s reading it in her privacy, it’s not like I’m sitting there reading it to her, but these people are hearing it for the first time from my mouth. It took some getting used to. For me, what I did was say, “Cut all the lights in the studio. I want to feel like I’m alone while I’m talking.”
It was just the light from the iPad and I was 100% more comfortable.
RSH: Oh, wow. I love that. One of the things I love most about your memoir is how you describe ingredients and flavors that I’ve never tasted. Is it a challenge to make dishes—
KO: Jump off the page?
RSH: Right. How do you say egusi stew? I totally said that wrong.
KO: No, you got that right. Egusi stew.
RSH: Is that right? Okay. I’ve never tasted egusi, iru, Scotch bonnet pepper, Maggi Cube?
KO: Maggi. Maggi Cube. Like the Simpsons, Maggie Simpson.
RSH: Maggi Cube. Okay.
RSH: Pumpkin leaf. I imagine that has to be challenging, to try to bring those flavors to life through your stories.
KO: Yeah. It is, but it’s part of my story. I just talk about it like … It’s Maggi Cube. Like everyone should know what I’m talking about while trying to still describe it and give them some information.
KO: All these things are things that I grew up with so they’re as common as black pepper to me.
RSH: Right. The dishes definitely do come to life in my imagination, but it also makes me wish, like, “Oh, I wish I could taste this so I could know if the way I’ve imagined it is right.” I really love that, and I love how each chapter is capped off with a recipe of your own.
KO: Yeah. I tried to pull inspiration from whatever chapter I’m talking about. There’s usually some dish associated with it.
RSH: Right. The dish isn’t always the main focus of the chapter, but it’s there in some way, giving an essence to the chapter. It’s really lovely.
In one of the early chapters, you describe parties in Hell’s Kitchen that you tagged along to with your mom with members of the Black cultural elite, like Fela Kuti and Spike Lee, and, of course, your own grandfather was prominent in the Pan-Africanism movement of the ’60s and ’70s and taught at Howard University, and he was an elder in his community in Nigeria. The list goes on and on. What does this lineage mean to you now, looking back?
KO: It means that I have something to live up to, as well, naturally. My grandfather would always say that we come from royalty and we need to act as such. However you want to interpret that, whether it’s clearly royal roots or just the way you carry yourself, I have something that I have to live up to based on the way that he lived his life with what he had.
RSH: Are you guys still close?
KO: He passed away.
RSH: Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.
KO: Yeah. It’s okay.
RSH: I think readers and listeners are going to really love the chapter where you do go to Nigeria as a teen. You were … remind me, 12, 13?
RSH: Yeah. I have to ask who did you write your memoir for? Who do you hope will pick it up?
KO: I hope people that are struggling with, “What if?” or, “Should I? Should I try to do this? What if I’m not successful? Am I good enough? Can I do it?” People that have those questions before doing anything I think should read this book. It doesn’t matter what industry you’re in. I think it can pertain to anyone that is trying to chase their dreams and chase happiness.
RSH: Well, I wish you the best of luck with the release. I think it’s such a wonderful memoir. I’ll say it’s been interesting to talk to other people who have narrated their own memoirs. They talk about how having their friends and family members hear them tell their story in their own voice was really a transformative experience in their relationship, so I’ll be curious if your fiancé or your mom or anyone ends up listening to the memoir. I’ve heard that it can be a really great experience, so good luck!
KO: Well, thank you. Thank you. I’m looking forward to it, too. I’ll keep you posted.
RSH: All right. Sounds great. Thank you so much, Kwame Onwuachi, for talking to me today.