In Notes from a Young Black Chef (Knopf, Apr.), Kwame Onwuachi, with coauthor Joshua David Stein, recalls his journey from his Bronx childhood, to graduating from the Culinary Institute of America and competing on Top Chef, to opening his Washington, D.C., restaurant Kith and Kin—all before his 30th birthday. PW asked Onwuachi about sharing his cultural influences in his book and through his cooking.
Why did you decide on an Afro-Caribbean menu for Kith and Kin?
It’s all of my background: Nigerian, Jamaican, Trinidadian, and Creole. Those different cuisines and cultures really shaped me as a person, and they also shaped my dining room table. They’re cousins of each other and grandchildren of Africa. Gumbo is the long-distance cousin of okra stew, and jambalaya is the long-distance cousin of jollof rice.
When you were 10, your mother sent you to live with your grandfather in Nigeria for two years. How did that experience enrich your identity and sharpen your culinary skills?
If we wanted chicken, we had to catch the chicken and kill it. We had to pump our water. So, we knew what it took to create a plate from the very beginning.
My African identity was identifiable to me as a child. My dad had taken me to Nigeria when I was four, and my grandfather taught us where we came from, that we were descended from royalty. So I’ve always had a sense of my African identity. My name is Kwame Onwuachi. I can never get away from that.
You also worked with your mother, who ran a home catering business, when you were young. How did that experience affect you?
It had a big influence on me—it made me fall in love with cooking. Everything was made with love. It was something I had to do as a necessity, to keep the lights on. But it was also a way for me to spend time with my mom, which are some of the happiest memories I have. And cooking is connected with that.
Your skills as a chef took you from the Bronx to, on two occasions, President Obama’s White House. What has success been like for you?
I feel that people of color always have to navigate choppy waters. I was taught how to do that by my parents, ever since I was young. Honestly, every time I went back to the block, my homeboys would say, “Don’t come back.” Not because they didn’t want me there. They were like, “You don’t need to be over here. Keep going. We’re doing the same thing we were doing five years ago.” I got a lot of encouragement from them.
Rather than write a cookbook, you wrote a memoir with a handful of recipes. Why did you go that route?
I like to do things differently. I thought, “Why not start with a story, and then go into the recipes?” My story is an interesting story, and we don’t have enough of those for people of color: doing something that’s different, sticking with it, and making it.