American cuisine

Kwame Onwuachi spotlights American cuisine

Kwame Onwuachi’s career is the stuff of legends. After a stint at the illustrious Per Se in New York before rushing to TV stardom on Excellent chefhe opened not one but two restaurants — all before the age of 30.

This extraordinary journey is detailed in his new book, My America: the recipes of a young black chefwhich recounts not only its successes but also the myriad obstacles that racism presents both in and out of the kitchen.

Onwuachi, who was crowned Rising Star Chef of the Year by the James Beard Foundation in 2019, essentially grew up in the public eye, which created relentless pressure as he pursued his passion. “It was harder when I was younger,” he tells Shondaland, “but I also think it pushes me to a certain level when I’m scrutinized. It’s fuel for me. You can use that stuff like motivation.

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

My America distills Onwuachi’s early life in a way that challenges stereotypical ideas of what it is to be a New Yorker. Forget the boiled hot dogs and greasy kebabs of downtown cart fame. Instead, Onwuachi exalts his Bronx neighborhood’s cornucopia with recipes from callaloo — both Jamaican and Trinidadian — to accompany pollo guisado. The latter is naturally characterized by sofriteessential element of Puerto Rican and Dominican cuisine.

If the book, slated for release on May 17, contained only cooking instructions, it would already earn a place on the kitchen counter of avid cooks. But the anecdotes that accompany each recipe are what shines as Onwuachi traces the journeys of the various diasporas in his blood and his community.

Onwuachi recently spoke with Shondaland about the feeling of reliving his past when creating recipes for My America, why stocking your pantry is important, and what career he’s embarking on next. (Spoiler: It doesn’t involve food.)


GERALD TAN: You begin the book by writing, “Show me an America made of apple pie and hot dogs, baseballs and Chevys, and I won’t recognize it.” What was the philosophy behind My America?

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

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GT: Your mother is a professional chef herself. What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned from her that you carry into the kitchen to this day?

KO: Season my food well. She made all of her spice blends from scratch. Growing up, we weren’t allowed to eat processed foods. It was directly related to my professional life, so I can care about every aspect of a dish. You’ll see it in the book, which begins with a pantry.

Before you even start cooking, you need to stock the pantry with certain things to facilitate the preparation of these dishes. The house spice is one of my favorites. It’s a mix that goes on everything, just like Green Seasoning, a Trinidadian marinade for meats and vegetables.

GT: When are you most inspired to create dishes?

KO: Sometimes they’re super well thought out, and sometimes it’s a fluke. It all depends, but I think if a dish tells a story, it has a soul. You are actually cooking to share a piece of nostalgia and a memory. I think that’s when the most beautiful food happens.

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

Cheer

GT: You have now cooked everywhere, from the White House to the James Beard House. Are you intimidated by any of these challenges?

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

GT: Is fame making its way onto the plate?

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

2021 off land gastromagic music and arts festival
Kwame Onwuachi on the gastromagic stage at the Outside Lands music and arts festival in 2021.

Getty Images

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

KO: If I had a dream dinner it would be me, Barack Obama, LeBron James, Oprah, LaKeith Stanfield, Donald Glover, Dave Chappelle, Lauryn Hill. And we’d probably have crawfish and crab porridge at my house – something we’d eat with our hands. This way, everyone is on an equal footing. Anyone can just let their hair down.

GT: Tell me about your personal style. You have a signature look – black painted nails – and your own line of nail polish too. How did it happen?

KO: I was wearing it on TV, and Orly reached out, and they just wanted to have a conversation. The nail polish line was born from this. I wanted to express myself in a different way, and painting my nails is one of them. Self-expression with fashion is so important. It’s like food: we have to do it every day, we might as well do it in our own vein.

Kwame x ORLY – Beyond the Kitchen Set

Orly
orlybeauty.com

$36.00

GT: Looking at your career arc, you seem to be ticking off a list of goals. With your first cookbook under your belt, 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 I express myself that way. I finished my first film recently. It’s called Sugarand it’s going to be on Amazon.

GT: Do you play a chef?

KO: Nope! Everyone asks that. I’m actually my own character. You’ll have to stay tuned for more details. I actually play. 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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