My favorite book of 2020 is Kwame Onwuachi’s “Notes From A Young Black Chef” that tells an inspiring story about Onwuachi’s rise as one of America’s most admired chefs. It’s the perfect story to read while we’re stuck at home looking for stories to uplift and inspire you.
Onwuachi’s memoir is a timeless tale about persevering even when the cards are stacked against you. It’s an inspiring story that’s filled with valuable life lessons that will resonate universally. Movie production firm A24 agrees. A feature film adaption of “Notes From A Young Black Chef” is currently in the works with producer Stephen “Dr” Love.
Onwuachi’s life story is remarkable. He went from growing up in a rough-and-tumble part of the Bronx to moving to Nigeria to live with his grandfather. Onwuachi returned to the U.S. where he ended up cooking for the crew of Main Responder, a Deepwater Horizon cleanup ship in the Gulf of Mexico. The young cook then headed back to New York City, worked at several elite restaurants, attended the Culinary Institute of America and sold candy in New York subway trains to save up money to start a catering business. He ended up opening his first restaurant in Washington D.C. in 2016 at the age of 25.
With every turn in the long and winding road of Onwuachi’s burgeoning career, the young chef continued to reinvent himself while observing, learning and figuring out what his next move was going to be. He describes in the book that the attitude to keep pushing was something his mother instilled in him.
From [my mother] I learned perhaps the most important lesson in my life: Always keep moving.
I love rooting for the underdog, and I love reading books about the underdog coming out on top. Notes From A Young Black Chef” is one of those books. Onwuachi’s memoir is a page-turning read that will leave you hopeful, plus, yes, it will get you in the mood to cook. Every chapter in the book is followed by a delicious recipe from Chef Kwame’s hands, including a London broil, chicken curry, cheesecake, and chicken consommé with charred vegetables, Verde, and feta. (Kwame is a master of consommé, so make sure to pay close attention — he has it down to a science.)
Always the charmer, Onwuachi also has lots of great stories about his “hustler sense” and his fake-it-till-you-slay-it attitude that helped him get things done. A great example is when he launched his catering business by signing up the Singularity Summit as a client to cook for 1600 conference attendees. He had no experience cooking for that many people, but he was able to get the job and pull it off. It’s one of the book’s highlights and explains perfectly what drives the young chef.
“Notes from a Young Black Chef” also provides a candid look at the lack of diversity in professional kitchens — including many of America’s top restaurants. It’s a topic that the award-winning Onwuachi addresses subtly but frankly when writing about his experience working as an apprentice at Per Se, a high-end restaurant at New York’s Time Warner Center. The kitchen’s strict hierarchy, strive for perfection and militant prep process fueled fits of anger among cooks that was often misdirected and exposed ignorance. Onwuachi took it in stride and used the experience to become a better cook.
(. . .) I took those words to heart. I didn’t have conversation. I came in and did my job, getting better and better with each service (. . .) If it was alive and well at Per Se, would I ever find a kitchen in America not poisoned by racism?
Onwuachi appeared as a contestant on the fifteenth season of Bravo’s Top Chef while he was in the middle of planning the opening of his first restaurant, Shaw Bijou, in Washington D.C. His restaurant closed soon after its opening due to circumstances beyond Onwuachi’s control. It wasn’t a wasted experience for the young chef who turned the experience into his life motto.
(. . . ) Never be sorry for doing something different, for trying and failing. That every day is day one.
That creed was relevant then and still applies today as Onwuachi closed his new D.C. restaurant, Kith and Kin, earlier this year due to the global pandemic. As we’ve learned about Onwuachi, he knows how to best apply his talents to do good. In 2020, he has been a vocal supporter of the independent restaurant coalition lobbying for more government support to aid struggling businesses. He has also been filming a new season of Bravo’s Top Chef to be on the judging panel this time. From contestant to judge; what a difference just a few years makes.
Half-way through the book, Onwuachi sums up how hardship and challenges have guided him to become better. It’s a good reminder for readers on how to cope with challenges in life.
I thought about how so many of my earlier struggles had come to help me now. How being left on my own as a teenager gave me a leg up when it came to being a self-starter; how building a business, first with Nutcrackers and then with weed; how those sweaty claustrophobic nights on the Main equipped me to deal with pressure. I wouldn’t change any of it.
Onwuachi’s memoir is an excellent read about life, commitment and perseverance. Plus, it will get you in the mood to cook and serve meals with love. Highly recommended.
Notes From A Young Black Chef — A Memoir
Written by Kwame Onwuachi with Joshua David Stein
Published by Penguin Random House