This book is full of spoilers. It tells how the memoir ends. If you’re looking for a review that doesn’t reveal the ending, see this post instead.
Notes From a Young Black Chef is a memoir about Kwame Onwuachi, written with Joshua David Stein.
It begins with Chef Onwuachi at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in DC. He takes a moment to reflect on the building and the history it contains. He’s been hired to feed 47 people an African American themed menu at a dinner hosted by Dom Perignon to celebrate the building’s architect, David Adjaye.
We learn that it’s less than three weeks before his restaurant opens, and the first time the team from the restaurant has worked together.
Kwame Growing Up
Kwame is born of parents with Caribbean, Creole and Nigerian roots. He grew up in the Bronx with both parents until their divorce. From then, life became tougher in two ways. Without his father’s support, his mother struggled to make ends meet, even after she’d started a catering business. Although his father was better off and didn’t live far away, visits to his father were challenging because of mental and physical abuse.
Kwame’s mother worked hard. One of the reasons for this was to be able to afford to send him to private school. At 10 years old, when Kwame starts acting too mannish, and getting in trouble with Westley, his mom’s partner, as well, his mother has had enough. The last straw may have been when he breaks the cutting board, although I suspect the plan was already in motion. It so happens that the day after he broke the chopping board, Kwame’s mother sends him to Nigeria to visit his paternal grandfather. Although she originally tells him it’s a summer visit, she actually sends him to learn respect, and he remains there for two years.
In Nigeria, Kwame learns about his roots. He develops respect for his culture. But this respect doesn’t transfer back to the US upon his return to live with his mom.
Kwame’s mother again sends him to a private school, where he continues to be mischievous. He makes some friends from the Projects and ends up joining a gang. The way he presents it in the book, he has no choice. We don’t get details of the things that he does, but when he shows up to start his last year of school, he is told that he has no more chances and was not invited to return. This left him with one option for high school, a public charter school near the projects.
Kwame in College
Kwame accepted that be needed to go to college, coming from a family that values education. His grandfather had taught at several black colleges. He applied and got accepted to the University of Bridgeport along with Jaquan, his best friend for years, from the projects.
Kwame had started selling drugs in high school. Once he was in college, be realized he could make money by selling an alcoholic drink and drugs to his classmates. With his business acumen, he grew his business, making about $3000 a week. He doesn’t bother to attend most of his classes but manages to evade the authorities until an administrator catches him, Jaquan and another friend smoking up on camera. Kwame convinces the man to give him a second chance, but that only delays the verdict.
The administrator agrees to let Kwame and his friends stay at the school if they pass a drug test. Jaquan and Kwame spent the weekend trying to clear out the drugs from their system. Not only was it unsuccessful but it turned their urine a telltale neon color. Their friend had better luck, using a fake penis to pee fake urine. The odd part of this is that he accidentally bought a white fake penis and managed to convince the nurse he was half white, and that it only affected his penis.
Picking Up After Being Thrown Out of College
From college, Jaquan moved back to the projects. Kwame, however, kept up his business. He awakes from his stupor one morning, hangover with a bunch of “friends”. Watching Obama on TV, who had just become president, inspired him to make a change. He went grocery shopping and cooked a meal that reminded him of home. Energized to make a change, he flushed the pills down the toilet, stashed the pot for his “friends” to find, and headed to Baton Rouge to sleep on his mom’s couch.
Kwame’s mom soon have him a push out the door to find a job. He finally landed at a restaurant as a server. The restaurant segregated black diners near the toilet, always in his section. This was a taste of racism, unnamed but obvious. Kwame would experience racism over and over again, through withheld promotions, slurs and outright hostility in the kitchen and from fellow chefs.
Discovering Being a Chef
Kwame was happy to leave that job to work on a trawler in the middle of the ocean, at the site of an oil spill. He was hired as a chef’s assistant but was unimpressed with the chefs meals, which consisted primarily of frying or warming frozen food. Kwame got permission to cook a meal from scratch and that caused a shift. First, they took turns preparing meals, but after a routinely scheduled holiday required by all employees, the chef was let go. Kwame became the lead chef then.
Being a chef on a boat on the middle of the ocean really give Kwame an opportunity to grow as a chef. Once he was done with that stint, with his mom having moved to New Orleans, he decided to return to New York.
Starting a Catering Business
Back in New York, Kwame stayed with his sister and decided to start a catering business. But he needed money, so he found something to do to make some quick cash.
The first thing that Kwame did to raise money for his catering business was to sell candy in the New York subway. Business is going well, until he faces his competition. The altercation, with another candy seller, is educational. He knew enough about the projects to evoke the right names and stay out of trouble, but he realized that the candy sellers what actually being controlled from the projects and that he was treading on their turf. He immediately stopped that hustle, and needed to find another job.
Kwame found work as a server at a nice restaurant while continuing to work to realize his catering business. While trying to get a famous black author to notice him, he inadvertently finds an interested customer. He subsequently impressed her with his sample meal and manages to to book his first catering gig, for 1600 meals. His mother came to New York to help, and also provided him with some useful contacts to set up the sample meal. This first event set him up to be able to do follow-up events.
Developing at Culinary Institute of Art
In an effort to grow his catering business and learn more about the business, Kwame learned about Bruce Mattel. This took him to the Culinary Institute of Art, where he got to meet his mentor. Bruce convinced Kwame that he needed to attend the school.
Although the tuition was quite expensive and he could not afford it, Kwame worked out a payment plan with the school so that he could make an initial payment and then monthly payments. But scrapping up that initial payment was challenging. He went to the people that he knew to try to wrangle the $4,000. He got money from Jaquan and from his mom. His father grudgingly gave him a few hundred dollars and a used vehicle to get to and from school, after asking why he didn’t sell drugs to make the money. He declined his father’s offer to go in business with him selling drugs.
Kwame was completely focused on becoming a chef. He continued to work as a server while he attended CIA. He also had his catering business, which was mostly managed by his friend Greg while he was at school. CIA also provided him with a a group of people that he could employ for his business.
Kwame was lucky. He got stopped for a busted taillight on his way back to campus after work one night. He managed to bail himself out and didn’t miss any work or school. His father was abusive when he found out. Kwame walked away, and his father probably got the car back out of pound.
After the first year, students at CIA do an extern, which is like an apprenticeship. Kwame set his sights on a fine dining establishment in New York and managed to get to the position there. He learned a lot during that time, including some of the challenges of being black and working in the industry.
During his last semester of school, he got to visit a kitchen with 3 Michelin stars to see if he would find a fit there. He passed the test preparing a meal for the chef and was hired. He worked there on weekend’s while he finished school and then full time, along with is friend Greg. The chef put him on a fast track and he enjoyed working at with that chef. Things changed when the chef was replaced by another, a volatile man who acted in racist ways. Kwame stayed in the position for some time until a better opportunity came along.
Kwame was given a chance to design and present his own menu at a pop-up restaurant. Between that and going on Top Chef Kwame built his reputation as a chef. He also participated in a chef competition and won, but the expected funding for the winner fell through. However, those opportunities his gave him a chance to attract investors, and he selected two investors with whom he would open his restaurant.
Being a Black Chef
The restaurant was called Shaw Bijou and was located in Washington DC. It was an ambitious project, with no limits. Kwame didn’t want to be held back by what was considered black food. He didn’t want to follow other people’s definition of what it meant to be a black cook. He wanted to be a black chef.
Greg and Kwame moved to Washington and spent their time focused on making the dream work. The plan was a fine dining restaurant with a high price for a tasting menu tied to Kwame’s autobiography.
The negative press began before the restaurant opened. Everyone felt the pressure, including the investors who had run out of money. But the restaurant opened with an excited, hopeful staff.
In the end, a terrible opening review, mismanagement, financial woes, and distrust between the partners was too much for the restaurant. Shaw Bijou closed after only 3 months.
The Next Chapter for Kwame
At the end of Notes From a Young Black Chef, we see Kwame trying to decide what direction to go in with his dream and his ambitions. He shares his dream of being a chef in a place with a multicultural kitchen, seven food from Africa and from the African diaspora, with guess that are of all shades, including black and brown.
Thoughts on Notes From a Young Black Chef
The memoir, to me, reads as if it’s a bit sanitized. But perhaps that is true of all memoirs. It’s interesting to read about the journey of a black chef, one who shares his failure, an analysis of that failure, and his dream for the future. Given that Kwame currently has his own restaurant and has been featured in multiple places, and given that he opened his first restaurant before 30, this is a story of achievement. Regardless of failure or success, what we see is a story of passion, exploration, action. And I believe that this is the most important thing. What use is a dream if it is never accompanied by any action?
We get some information from Kwame about his parents and his relationship with them, as well as a glimpse of the people in his family. Notes From a Young Black Chef is a memoir about Kwame Onwuachi’s professional life. We see the making of the chef, a black chef, but by his own admittance, he plays to different audiences. I’m not sure what lies behind the bravado and drive to succeed. Kwame’s professional life is rooted in his identity and his autobiography. After all, his first restaurant concept was inspired by the food that he ate growing up and his a sense of identity. It’s also possible that with his focus on his goals and dreams, there isn’t that much time for a personal life, but we do find out that he’s engaged
I enjoyed reading Notes From a Young Black Chef, but I also felt that it was missing something. There seemed to be some holes or some smoothing done. There are also some justifications made for example about black boys being discriminated against by teachers in schools. I’m not suggesting that those are inaccurate or dishonest, but rather that the author is trying to tell me something rather than showing it to me and letting me derive meaning. I found that to detract from the memoir at times. I give this book 3 stars. ⭐️⭐️⭐️