At the end of Kwame Onwuachi’s “Notes From a Young Black Chef,” the then-27-year-old is dusting himself off after the sudden closing of his debut restaurant, Shaw Bijou. That difficult setback arrived at the end of a long Icarian rise. Onwuachi grew up hard in the Bronx, living modestly with his mother, who is also a chef, because his father was temperamental and violent.
Troubles and talents took Onwuachi to Nigeria, back to the Bronx, to New Orleans, to a cooking job in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico, to the Culinary Institute of America, to kitchens at two of the finest establishments in Manhattan, to numerous cities as a competitor in a pop-up restaurant competition called Dinner Lab, to San Francisco for the television show “Top Chef,” then to Washington, D.C., where he was lured to launch Shaw Bijou.
Onwuachi’s vision as a chef is inspired by his desire to make the fine-dining dishes he wants in a country that many insiders and investors argue isn’t ready for a black chef making anything beyond upscale versions of fried chicken and macaroni and cheese.
His experiences working in New York at Per Se and Eleven Madison Park amplified his desire to have a kitchen rich in diversity, where standards of excellence are prioritized but despotic behavior is disallowed. Other admirable millennial sensibilities inform his vision, too. In an Onwuachi kitchen, all team members are encouraged to contribute ideas.
Significant people and experiences in Onwuachi’s life inspire the dishes he wants to make. He’s Nigerian on his father’s side, and Jamaican and Trinidadian on his mother’s. His desire to share family dishes and dishes he learned through his life and travels is so profound that he ends every chapter with a recipe. He learned the chicken curry from a neighbor and developed the London broil after uninspired meals at the home of childhood friends. A few recipes require a practiced hand — some readers won’t have the experience needed to build and maintain a consommé raft — but even a literary critic with underdeveloped kitchen skills can make a tasty meal from Onwuachi’s recipe for shrimp étouffée.
As a book, “Notes From a Young Black Chef” is engaging and well crafted. The narrative is largely chronological, and Onwuachi’s life is so full of adventure and fascinating detours that the story never drags. The memoir is written with restaurant critic Joshua David Stein, and while the seams between one writer and the other aren’t evident, there are moments when emotional urgency seems diminished by an arm’s length presentation.
But the book is worthy of attention, and Onwuachi is, too. He’s currently maintaining spectacular altitude as executive chef at D.C. hot spot Kith/Kin.
Michael Kleber-Diggs is a poet and essayist in St. Paul.
Notes From a Young Black Chef
By: Kwame Onwuachi, with Joshua David Stein.
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, 271 pages, $26.
Event: Club Book, 6:30 p.m. April 15, North Regional Library, 1315 Lowry Av. N., Mpls.