Notes From a Young Black Chef is one of our Buddy Reads for October
Notes From a Young Black Chef by Kwame Onwuachi
Published 2019, 288 pages
I didn’t know who Kwame was, but in our Buddy Reads we try and choose books that we normally wouldn’t read, plus I watch a lot of cooking shows on TV so it held some interest for me. This memoir covers his upbringing, facing racism, his roots in Nigeria, doing drugs, paying his dues at culinary schools and working in world-acclaimed restaurants, to his rise as a fine-dining chef.
Right from the start I was impressed by the writing which was a good start. His life and what he’s had to deal with is worlds apart from mine, which is often a good reason to read any book. His confidence in himself, that he could achieve what he set out to do, is evident throughout the book.
One comment he makes during his drug-use years is: “We’d smoke as much weed as we could, sitting around until smoke filled the house and the ceiling fan just pushed the haze around. I pictured myself as a benevolent king, ruling over a debauched court. In some way I did act like a lord.”
His turning point came.
“I had never felt so alone or so rootless. I was hungover, strung out, and depressed. When I looked at what my life had become, at who I had become, I felt a total estrangement. Something about seeing Obama on the television and, when I turned the set off, seeing myself in the reflection, brought my situation into clear focus. I felt the world was moving forward without me.”
As to be expected, there are many descriptions of food – the ingredients, how to prepare them, how to cook them, how to serve the dish. He included several recipes, probably only one that I would eat (Corn Velouté – had to look it up, it’s a sauce). No red meat, fish or feet or tongue or kidneys for this girl! Or funky mushrooms or caviar.
Opening his first restaurant in Washington D.C. he writes “D.C. is a city whose culinary landscape has long suffered from the preferences of deep-pocketed politicians for the unchallenging, dick-swinging food of steakhouses.” Couldn’t help but laugh at that.
This paragraph reflects his life view:
“When the best thing – doesn’t matter what it is, shoe, restaurant, accolade – is out there staring you in the face, I’ve never understood how some could settle for less. Surround yourself with the subpar, and you can’t blame anyone for thinking you are too. Surround yourself with the best, and the best rubs off. My motto has always been to do better every single year. Don’t settle for a step down.”
Reading this was definitely worth my time. Because he’s not even 30, it will be interesting to see where his promising beginning as an upscale chef leads him.
Donna did a great job of laying out the format of this memoir and the trajectory of his life. Poverty and questionable friends and choices definitely started him down the path of drugs and troubles. To his credit, he worked very hard to pull himself out of that tailspin and turn his life around. He borrowed money, he worked his tail off, he schmoozed anyone and everyone to try to get catering gigs or to give him an opportunity. He did NOT wait around with his hand out or sit back and hope that his life would change. He actively MADE it happen. That lesson alone is worth reading this book.
In Notes From a Young Black Chef, Kwame takes the reader behind the scenes in restaurant kitchens, from the lowliest fast food joint, to a space-age, ultra clean kitchen. I found it fascinating to learn about the hierarchy in kitchens and how a well run kitchen should run. Unfortunately, it certainly seems that many kitchens are run like fiefdoms where the head chef is a screamer/yeller and his minions just take the verbal abuse and if you're not white, you're pretty much invisible. Definitely not a job for me!
"Fine-dining lines are as white as the tablecloths that cover the tables and the patrons that sit around them. And, from my experience, being the only black guy on the line makes you stick out like a minor note on a major scale. No one lets you forget you don't belong."
One defining time in his life that Donna didn't mention is his time in Nigeria staying with his grandfather. He was 10 or 12 years old and a troublemaker at home and school. Going to Nigeria for over a year showed him a different lifestyle, helped him realize some things about himself, and expanded his cooking abilities and taste. As a teen he moved to Louisiana, found a job cooking and had a few more realizations:
"Before that summer, I had thought of working in a kitchen as simply a job. ... What I gained that summer was passion. I realized that being a cook wasn't only about providing people with food, but rather about providing them with the feeling that they were cared for."
I appreciated Kwame's reflections and comments about racism. It's always eye-opening to me to realize how little I actually know or understand about the black life experience - it's so different from my own. His story illustrates how devasting even unconscious racism can be. It's another good reminder to be more mindful of my actions and comments. Isn't that part of the goal of a well-written book? To provide insight? To illustrate a lifestyle or cause the reader to reflect on their own life/decisions/ideas?
"The most insidious kind of racism isn't always being called the N-word. At least that's shameless enough to get you fired. It's the unspoken shit, the hard-to-prove, hard-to-pin-down, can't-go-viral day-to-day shit. It's being passed over, time and time again. It's having opportunities you know you earned never materialize. It's that no matter how hard you work, it's never good enough."
I agree with Donna that this book is worth your time and could be a good book club choice if you're looking for something a little different. It reads quickly but there are plenty of points for discussion. If you enjoy reading about mouth-watering food descriptions, a life of determination with a touch of arrogance, or just getting a peek into a different culture and career, this is for you.
Reading Challenge: #ReadHarder20 #13: food from a cuisine I haven't tried; #BooklistQueen20 #17: celebrity memoir; #Bookworm20 #54: occupation in the title; #PopSugar20 #41: written by someone in their 20s
top photo Pixabay via pexels.com; lower photo by Terrie Purkey, Bali