Thursday, October 10, 2019

Kwame Onwuachi's "Notes from a Young Black Chef"

"At that time [1946, when the Culinary Institute of America was founded] being a chef was still a vocation, a blue-collar trade not unlike that of welder or electrician. Chefs were not seen as artists. It took nearly fifty years for cooking to become the exalted career it is today." (Notes from a Young Black Chef, p. 152)
From Newsweek right now, an article on Kwame Onwuachi.
The book is a current best-seller. (Photo from the article.)
Is cooking an exalted and artistic career? Or is it still a trade, a type of skilled manual labor? In the opinion of Kwame Onwuachi, a chef who has reached the peaks of achievement on food TV and in the restaurant business, there's no question at all that his profession requires artistic creation of the first order. Notes from a Young Black Chef, his bestselling memoir, explains how he reached these heights swiftly and despite the major obstacles of poverty and racism.

The type of food that's best-loved on the Food Network was Onwuachi's goal from his childhood in New York, when he loved to watch cooking contests on TV. At age 10, he was deprived of TV and all his urban life because his mother sent him to live with his father's family in rural Nigeria for around 2 years; among other things, he learned about Nigerian cooking. Although his parents were well-educated, his mother struggled to make a living as a caterer, and once he returned home to New York, he joined the kids from one of the tough and difficult "projects."

During high school and in a doomed few months at college, Onwuachi dealt drugs to make money. In an effort to get away from this environment he joined his mother, who by then had moved to New Orleans. There he worked low-end, poorly paid cooking jobs; to make more money, he took a job cooking for the crew on an oil-slick-clean-up boat in the Gulf. His goal was always to return to New York to establish a high-end catering business and to excel as a creator of fine food. He credits his mother with helping him launch his catering operation, and then he kept it going to earn the money to attend the Culinary Institute of America. As part of the CIA curriculum, he was an apprentice at Per Se, probably the most famous restaurant in New York, owned by famous chef Thomas Keller.

Onwuachi presents the descriptions of his early life and early success in a clear-headed and coherent way, sticking to two themes. First, everything he experienced contributed to his love of food and his dedication to the idea of being a chef of the type he saw on TV, a creative chef who combined food trends into incredible high-end menus with unusual and very expensive ingredients. Second, whenever he tried to enter the world of food and restaurant cooking, he experienced prejudice and outright hostility because he was a black man.

As you may know, I have read many food memoirs and other memoirs as well. Compared to many of them, Onwuachi presents his story with a very interesting "sense of urgency" (a term he quoted from Thomas Keller). I wasn't entirely surprised at the ugly bigotry he often encountered from gate keepers to culinary success, who often stated that the only appropriate food for a black chef to cook is the food of black people, whether from the American South or from Africa. I find especially depressing the un-surprising portrayal of racism in the kitchens of fine dining establishments. A major example of this racism occurred when Onwuachi called out a racist word used by a fellow employee at Per Se and was told "black people don't eat here anyway." After the book's publication, Per Se denied this (not too convincingly) to the New York Times. (source)

The author's life story is very similar to many stories of kids who grow up in disadvantaged areas of New York, with parents who struggle to get by, like his mother, and parents who are abusive and distant, like his father. So for me, there were many chapters that frankly seemed a bit boring, as if I had read it before.

That said, the author's success at getting funding for a very upscale and extremely expensive restaurant in Washington, D.C., was impressive. His qualifications at the time were sketchy, but he managed to find financing. I was a little suspicious that there was more to the story than I read in the book, as he says that the financial backers of the restaurant told him they had unlimited money -- who does that!? In any case, the restaurant ran out of money so quickly that it was only serving meals for 11 weeks.

This fiasco was the last thing covered by the memoir. According to updates in the reviews and the many other articles about him, Onwuachi ended up poor but with a fantastic reputation that enabled him to receive several major honors. He did manage to have his own restaurant. And all in the short time since he completed the book.

I'll close with a quote that captures for me the complex and ambiguous nature of Onwuachi's success. He was filling out an application to work at another famous New York restaurant: Craft owned by chef Tom Colicchio:
"It was a standard application, but aside from biographical information... the last question was 'If there was one dish you could eat right now, what would it be?' ... I knew it was a loaded question. What did I want to eat, and how honest did I want to be about it? What I really wanted was the comforting warmth of my mom's gumbo. The last time she cooked for me was a farewell feast the last night before I left Louisiana. Her small apartment kitchen in New Orleans was filled with the pepper-tinged seafood smell of gumbo, the faintly chlorinated scent of shrimp, and the spicy meatiness of andouille. But that's not what I wrote. 
"Instead, I came up with the most sophisticated and fancy-sounding combination of ingredients I could. Drawing on the knowledge gleaned from years of watching cooking shows and reading food magazines, from the menus of the places I had been that summer, I wrote: 'Foie gras crostini with white truffle and black garlic.'" (p. 140-141)
It's a reasonably good book, though considering all the similar ones I've read, I really can't quite understand why it's such a terrific best seller! Or why this particular memoir has been chosen as an upcoming movie. I'm glad it is the selection for the next meeting of my culinary reading group, and I'm looking forward to the discussion next week.

This review is © 2019 Mae Sander for maefood dot blogspot dot com. 
 If you read this elsewhere it's been stolen.


Angie's Recipes said...

Thank you for the honest review. I have problem to pronounce his name LOL

Pam said...

It seems like most others, but good for him! I agree with you about why it became a best seller. Thanks for your review, I'll read something else. Still haven't read Hershey chocolate book yet and posting but will get around to it when I decide to make some CC cookies... Have a fine day!

jama said...

I had not heard of him, but enjoyed reading your review. I do remember a time when being a chef didn't necessarily come with aspirations of becoming a celebrity.

Beth F said...

I usually enjoy culinary memoirs.

A Day in the Life on the Farm said...

I have never heard of this chef. It does seem that most chefs have the same background story.