Wednesday, February 22, 2023

Notes from a Young Black Chef by Kwame Onwuachi


For Black History Month, I'm reading all of the books by Black authors that I had on my Kindle that I wasn't able to get to throughout the rest of the year. NOTES FROM A YOUNG BLACK CHEF was a book that I was very excited to read, because one of my favorite types of memoirs is the foodie memoir. I love food of all kinds, and I really admire the people who are good at making it, and how they translate culture and science into exquisite-- and edible-- creations.

Kwame Onwuachi was apparently on Top Chef, which I did not know because I do not watch that show, but it seems like he was a crowd fave for the season he was on. After reading this book, I can see why. He's a fascinating guy. His memoir starts with him doing a fancy museum dinner for an African Studies tie-in, but then launches back to his upbringing and the various experiences that put him on the track to culinary stardom. We learn about the time his mom sent him to his grandfather in Nigeria to teach him discipline, his brushes with gang life in the Bronx, what it was like cooking on a ship, and how he scrimped and saved to get money learning how to cook at the CIA (which I stupidly assumed was the Central Intelligence Agency, to which I thought, "Oh, is that where they teach their spies how to cook?)

There were some things I loved about this memoir but fell just short of me loving it. First though, I want to address some of the reviews slamming him for being young and arrogant. I am not sure where this assumption comes that people who are under forty don't have anything worthwhile to say about their lives. I think a lot of young people these days are accomplishing great things and I want to read about them. Memoirs are only as interesting as the life someone has lived and trust me, I've read plenty of memoirs from older individuals who thought they were fascinating and clever, but were not. Second, while I agree that Onwuachi comes off as abrasive in his memoir, I do feel it's justified. He works hard and dealt with some pretty awful stuff when he was younger. He even says something in this memoir to the affect that being meek and mild within the oppressive structure of society when you yourself are a member of the oppressed isn't going to get you very far. Maybe some of his persona is defensive, and maybe some of that is who is, but I think it's totally valid. You don't become successful by being a pushover. Not in his industry, anyway. Being a professional chef is brutal. It's probably one hundred times harder as a man of color, with so many people just gleefully hoping you'll fail.

That said, I do wish that this had been more food-focused. He does talk a lot about cooking but a lot of it got too technical for me. I actually think people like my mom, who aren't professional chefs but have some culinary training, would appreciate this more than I did. My favorite portions of the book were actually about the parts of his life when he was in Nigeria and the Bronx, and how some of what he ate there shaped his cooking. For example, I had no idea that gumbo comes from a Twi word (I think that's what they speak in Ghana?), and that the Creole dish has African and German influences. I also LOVED that he included so many recipes that tied into his life's story. That was really neat.

So overall, not a bad book. It wasn't quite what I expected but I ended up liking it anyway and I think it's a great addition to the culinary canon of those such as Anthony Bourdain and Padma Lakshmi.

2.5 to 3 out of 5 stars

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