Kwame Onwachi’s career is the stuff of legends. After a stint at the illustrious Per Se in New York before bursting into TV stardom top chefHe opened not one but two restaurants – all before the age of thirty.
Onwuachi, who was crowned Rising Star Chef of the Year by the James Beard Foundation in 2019, primarily grew up in the public eye, creating relentless pressure as he pursued his passion. He told Shondaland, “It was more difficult when I was younger, but I also think it pushes me to a certain level when I get checked out. It’s fuel for me. You can use that stuff as motivation.”
Now, he has charted his extraordinary journey in My America: Recipes from a Young Black Chef. The cookbook summarizes Unwashi’s early life in a way that challenges stereotypes of what it means to be a New Yorker. Forget the boiled sausage and greasy kebabs from the downtown wagon fame. Instead, Onwuachi glorifies the abundance in his Bronx neighborhood with recipes for Kalaloo – Both Jamaican and Trinidadian styles – to accompany stewed chicken. The latter is, of course, distinguished SofritoIt is a staple in Puerto Rican and Dominican cooking.
If the book, due for release on May 17, contained only cooking directions, it would already earn a place on the kitchen table for eager chefs. But the anecdotes accompanying each recipe are what illuminates as Onwuachi charts the journeys of various diasporas in his own blood and community.
Onwuachi recently spoke with Shondaland about how it feels to go back to his past when creating recipes for USAWhy is it important to stock your inventory, and what profession to embark on next. (Spoiler: Does not include food).
Gerald Tan: Start the book by writing, “Show me America is made of apple pie and hot dogs and baseball and Chevrolet, and I won’t recognize it.” What is the spirit behind USA?
Kwame Onwachi: Everyone has their version of America whether you are an immigrant, who is from here, or who grew up here. This is my version of what I learned about American food or comfort food growing up. It was my flight, but the people before me were also the ones who came. Giving a voice to the unheard was really important to me in this book. I wanted to share this with everyone – not just the recipes but the anecdotes and stories that really tell us about how these dishes came to be and why they matter.
This content is imported from Instagram. You may be able to find the same content in another format, or you may be able to find more information, on their website.
GT: Your mother is herself a professional chef. What was the most important lesson you learned from her that you carry to this day in the kitchen?
KO: Season my food well. She made all her spice blends from scratch. Growing up, we were not allowed to eat any processed food. It is directly related to my career, so I can take an interest in every aspect of the dish. You’ll see this in the book that begins with the pantry.
Before we start cooking, you should stock the pantry with certain things to make these dishes easier to prepare. House Spice is one of my favourites. It’s a blend that goes with everything, like green seasoning, Trinidadian seasoning for meats and vegetables.
JT: When are you most inspired to create dishes?
KO: Sometimes they are well thought out, sometimes they are accidental. 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 memory. I think this is the time when the most beautiful food comes in.
GT: Now I’ve cooked everywhere from the White House to the James Beard House. Do any of these challenges intimidate you?
KO: No no. Life is so beautiful, and all of these are beautiful opportunities that I don’t take for granted. I’m so excited to be a part of this stuff, and I don’t think I’m going to add anything on my palette that I can’t handle.
GT: Is fame making its way to the plate?
KO: All this attention at the end of the day. People look at you for certain reasons, so you can either stick tightly and prove them wrong or give in to the pressure.
GT: Set the scene for your dream dinner party. Where will you get it, who will you invite, and what will 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, Lauren Hill. And we probably have lobster and crab boil in my house – something we eat with our hands. This way, everyone is on an equal playing field. Everyone can let their hair go.
GT: Tell me about your personal style. You have a signature look – black painted nails – and your own nail polish line, too. How can this be achieved?
KO: I was wearing it on TV, Orly reached out to him, and they just wanted to have a conversation. The nail polish line was born from that. I wanted to express myself in a different way, and painting my nails is one of those ways. Self-expression in fashion is very important. It’s like food: we have to do it every day, so we might as well do it on our own.
GT: Looking at your career path, it sounds like you’re making a checklist of goals. With your very 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 express myself that way. I recently finished my first movie. it’s called sugarAnd it will be on Amazon.
GT: Do you play a chef?
KO: no! Everyone asks that. I am actually my character. You will have to keep in touch for more details. I actually act. I don’t play by myself.
Gerald Tan is a Washington, DC-based food writer, television host, and author Tuk Tok Mi: A photo of Penang street food. Follow him on Twitter Tweet embed.
Get Shondaland directly in your inbox: Subscribe today
This content is created and maintained by a third party, and is imported on this page to help users provide their email address. You may be able to find more information about this and similar content at piano.io