Kwame Onwuachi illuminates American cuisine – Advice Eating

Kwame Onwuachi’s career is legendary. After a stint with the illustrious Per Se in New York before rising to TV stardom top chefHe opened not one, but two restaurants — all before he turned 30.

This extraordinary journey is described in detail in his new book. My America: Recipes from a Young Black Chefwho not only talks about his successes, but also about the countless obstacles that racism poses inside and outside the kitchen.

Crowned 2019 Rising Star Chef of the Year by the James Beard Foundation, Onwuachi essentially grew up in the public eye, which put unrelenting pressure on him as he pursued his passion. “It was tougher when I was younger,” he tells Shondaland, “but I also think that being scrutinized takes me to a certain level. It’s fuel for me. You can use that stuff as motivation.”

My America: Recipes from a Young Black Chef: A Cookbook

My America distills Onwuachi’s early life in a way that challenges stereotypical notions of what it means to be a New Yorker. Forget the cooked hot dogs and greasy kebabs that Midtown Carts is famous for. Instead, Onwuachi raises the cornucopia of his Bronx neighborhood with recipes for callaloo – both Jamaican and Trinidadian style – to accompany pollo guisado. The latter, of course, stands out sofritowhich is fundamental to Puerto Rican and Dominican cuisine.

If the book, due out on May 17, contained only cooking instructions, it would already earn a spot on the kitchen counter of avid cooks. But the accompanying anecdotes with each recipe are what shines as Onwuachi chronicles the journeys of various diasporas in his blood and community.

Onwuachi recently spoke to Shondaland about what it feels like to experience his past while making recipes for My America, why it’s important to stock your pantry, and what career he’s pursuing next. (Spoilers: It’s not about food.)


GERALD TAN: You start the book by saying, “Show me an America of apple pie and hot dogs, baseball and Chevrolet, and I won’t recognize it.” What was the ethos behind it My America?

KWAME ONWUACHI: Everyone has their version of America, whether you’re an immigrant, local, or grew up here. This is my version and what I knew about American food, or home cooking, growing up. It was my journey, but it was also the people who came before me. Giving the inaudible a voice was very important to me in this book. That’s what I wanted to share with everyone – not just recipes, but also anecdotes and stories that really tell how these dishes came to be and why they’re important.

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GT: Your mother is a professional cook herself. What’s the most important lesson you learned from her and take with you in the kitchen to this day?

KO: Season my food well. She made all of her spice blends from scratch. When we were growing up, we weren’t allowed to eat processed foods. It correlates directly with my professional life, allowing me to take care of every aspect of a dish. You will see this in the book starting with a pantry.

Before we even start cooking, there are certain things you need to stock the pantry with to make these dishes easier to prepare. House spice is one of my favorites. It’s a mix that goes with everything, as does green spices, a Trinidadian marinade for meat and vegetables.

GT: When are you most inspired to create dishes?

KO: Sometimes they’re super thought out, and sometimes they’re a coincidence. It all depends, but I think when a dish tells a story, it has a soul. They actually cook to share a piece of nostalgia and a memory. I think that’s where the most beautiful dishes are made.

Top chef season 13

Kwame Onwuachi was originally a contestant in the 13th season of top chef.

Bravo

GT: You’ve cooked everywhere now, from the White House to the James Beard House. Do you feel intimidated by any of these challenges?

KO: No no. Life is so beautiful and these are all beautiful opportunities that I don’t take for granted. I’m just so excited to be a part of these things and I don’t think I would put anything on my plate that I can’t handle.

GT: Does the fame come to the plate?

KO: It’s all attention at the end of the day. People look at you for specific reasons, so you can either give in and prove them wrong or give in to the pressure.

2021 music and arts festival outside the countries gastromagic

Kwame Onwuachi performing on the Gastromagic Stage at Outside Lands Music and Arts Festival in 2021.

Getty Images

GT: Set the stage for your dream dinner party. Where would you have it, who would you invite and what would you serve?

KO: If I had a dream dinner party it would be me, Barack Obama, LeBron James, Oprah, LaKeith Stanfield, Donald Glover, Dave Chappelle, Lauryn Hill. And we’d probably have a crawfish and crab cook-up at my house — something we’d eat with our hands. So everyone is on an equal footing. Everyone can just let off steam.

GT: Tell me about your personal style. They have a signature look – black painted nails – and also their own line of nail polishes. How did that happen?

KO: I wore it on TV and Orly held out his hand and they just wanted to chat. This resulted in the nail polish line. I wanted to express myself in a different way and painting my nails is one of them. Expressing yourself with fashion is so important. It’s like eating: we have to do it every day, so we might as well do it our way.

Kwame x ORLY – Beyond the Kitchen Bundle

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$36.00

GT: When you look at your career record, you seem to tick off a checklist of goals. Now that you’ve bagged your first cookbook, what’s the next big thing we can expect from Chef Kwame?

KO: I would like to open more restaurants. I just started acting, so I got more roles and expressed myself that way. I recently finished my first film. It’s called sugarand it will be on Amazon.

GT: Do you play a chef?

KO: No! Everyone asks that. I’m actually my own character. You’ll have to stay tuned for more details. I actually act. I don’t play myself.


Gerald Tan is a Washington, DC-based food writer, television host, and author of Tok Tok Mee: A Portrait of Penang Street Food. Follow him on Twitter @GeraldoTan.

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