For What It's Worth

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Review: Notes from a Young Black Chef by Kwame Onwuachi, Joshua David Stein

A groundbreaking memoir about the intersection of race, fame, and food, from the Top Chef star and Forbes and Zagat 30 Under 30 honoree

By the time he was twenty-seven, Kwame Onwuachi had competed on Top Chef, cooked at the White House, and opened and closed one of the most talked about restaurants in America. In this inspiring memoir, he shares the remarkable story of his culinary coming-of-age. Growing up in the Bronx and Nigeria (where he was sent by his mother to "learn respect"), food was Onwuachi's great love. He launched his own catering company with twenty thousand dollars he made selling candy on the subway, and trained in the kitchens of some of the most acclaimed restaurants in the country. But the road to success is riddled with potholes. As a young chef, Onwuachi was forced to grapple with just how unwelcoming the world of fine dining can be for people of color, and his first restaurant, the culmination of years of planning, shuttered just months after opening. A powerful, heartfelt, and shockingly honest memoir of following your dreams--even when they don't turn out as you expected--Notes from a Young Black Chef is one man's pursuit of his passions, despite the odds. ~
Goodreads

Source: Library

Review:
Notes from a Young Black Chef had a rocky start. It seemed to lack a focus or a solid voice but, as it got going, you realize it’s much like it’s young black chef, Kwame Onwuachi, struggling to find his path and his own voice throughout. It picks up steam and it's almost impossible to not hold your breath, hoping that each opportunity is THE big break he’s looking for.

I love books about cooking and chefs but this one feels more like a coming of age story and I don’t mean that as a negative and, of course, food is the common thread and where Onwuachi always finds solace and strength. Over the course of his career, as a Nigerian-American, he has to keep from being pushed into the cliché chicken and southern food endeavors people expect from him and instead focuses on bringing the complex story of his own life, told through food, to the people.

He had such an interesting journey, originally working with his mother’s catering business, living and cooking with his grandfather in Nigeria, then on the Deepwater Horizon clean up ship during the oil clean up, and progressing to his own catering company, attending the CIA, competing on Top Chef & finally opening his own fine dining restaurant, that ultimately crashes and burns in 3 months.

I think there are a  few things that set this chef biography apart for me. He doesn’t start out having this singular dream of being a chef and he pretty much hits rock bottom – as a drug dealer and user. Broke– but scrappy, he manages to hustle his way into a few big breaks just doing what comes naturally to him. Feeding people.

Is he cocky and over confident? Yes, and I think you have to be in order to survive this brutal industry but he doesn't have that type of arrogance that makes you demean others in order to raise your own relevance.

His experience with an abusive father and a complicated relationship with his mom, drives him to find a better way to work with his staff. In all the #MeToo fallout that has hit restaurant industry, it’s important to acknowledge that there’s still work to be done with other communities as well. Onwuachi is given, and grabs hold of, amazing opportunities but is also the target of racism in (& out of) the kitchen.

Each chapter explores a period of time in his life that was pivotal in the making of Kwame Onwuachi’s story and ends with a relevant recipe that is actually felt like something I could make.

Notes from a  Young Black Chef is so much more approachable, with it's young with modern sensibilities chef, than most foodie biographies that I’ve read. Despite his confidence, he always seems slightly insecure and unsure if he can really make it and it’s really endearing.

On the other hand, co-writer Joshua David Stein keeps the tone a little too light and presents Kwame more as a *brand* that keeps the book from hitting another, deeper level and the ending is fairly abrupt – considering it ends in failure of his first fine dining establishment. It needed some type of closure or reflection in my opinion but still a good addition to the genre.  

*This has also been optioned for film with Lakeith Stanfield starring as Kwame Onwuachi
Eater

18 comments:

  1. It certainly sounds like an interesting read and kudos to him for overcoming all of that to become successful. I am glad that this ended up being worth the read despite the rocky start. Patience pays off.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I'd rather eat than read, but that movie sounds more to me :D

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Same but I do love combining the two! Eating AND a reading lol

      Delete
  3. I'm a Top Chef superfan and I loved him on the show. I had no idea that he'd written a book!!!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I don't watch any reality/competition shows so I hadn't heard of him but I'm curious about his personality on that. He's definitely cocky but not that alpha jerk a lot of chefs are.

      Delete
  4. Awesome review, Karen. This sounds like it goes deeper than “Hey I’m a chef and I won a cooking competition.” He’s obviously had some struggles along the way. Seems like they chose an odd place to end the book. Seems like they’d want to end on a high note.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It was sort of cool to see him fail in way?? lol Most people don't show that side and researching him I saw that he was hired on to open another fine dining place - but it just stopped.

      But I really liked that it wasn't just about an arrogant jerk working his way through jobs.

      Delete
  5. I'd struggle, I think, to read something like this let alone write an interesting review about it so high five to you!
    He sounds like an interesting guy.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ha! Thanks. He is! And this used to be the kind of book I read before blogging. Coming full circle again :-)

      Delete
  6. I've still to watch Top Chef but I have all the episodes waiting for me! I love that kind of show!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I don't really watch reality or competition shows so I didn't know him other than from news about his failed restaurant.

      Delete
  7. This sounds like an amazing story of hope and clawing your way back to the life you deserve rather than the life you feel you've been saddled with. I love the chapter breaks as being recipes, most of us love food and it feels like something that would endear readers. It doesn't seem like your usual cup of tea but so glad you enjoyed this one Lauren. Wonderful review!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. This was the only kind of book I used to read!! Before blogging, I only read about 12 books per year and they were almost all foodie biographies. Isn't that weird??!!

      Delete
  8. Sounds like it was a good story but the ending could have used a bit more.

    ReplyDelete
  9. I've never read a foodie memoir/biography, I don't believe. I like that it shows his triumphs and pitfalls. Sorry about the abrupt ending though!

    -Lauren
    www.shootingstarsmag.net

    ReplyDelete
  10. I always find it so intriguing when the writing style actually seems to follow what the character is going through and in the end they go hand in hand. I am glad you could warm up to the author's voice!!

    ReplyDelete
  11. I have had my eye on this book, off and on, so you've put it back on my radar. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. 👍✨

    ReplyDelete