When you think of the flavors that encapsulate America, foods like French fries and hamburgers probably come to mind. But for chef Kwame Onwuachi, his America is a melting pot of Afro-Caribbean flavors that colored his upbringing.
“I wanted to create a book that reflected my journey and also show the versions of food I grew up on in America,” Onwuachi says. “I wanted to create a book that people can go to for these dishes that are comfort food to me.”
Onwuachi’s debut cookbook, My America: Recipes From A Young Black Chef (co-written with Joshua David Stein) is a love letter to the sounds and flavors that serve as the very foundation of the LA-based chef’s career. There are recipes inspired from his life in the Bronx where he was born (“Creole Hashbrowns”), recipes from living with his grandfather in Nigeria (“Suya”), and others across the diaspora that not only speak to Onwuachi’s extensive palate, but to how important it’s been for him to intertwine food and family, an intersection that serves as the base of his inspiration.
“I’ve learned to season everything immaculately,” Onwuachi says of what he’s picked up from watching and cooking with family members, “but also to cook with love. It was a way of showing each other that we loved each other. It was an act of service.”
While this cookbook has been on his list of many things to achieve, Onwuachi hasn’t sat still over the past couple of years.
A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, Onwuachi has worked in restaurants including Per Se and Eleven Madison Park. In 2016, after competing on Top Chef, he went on to helm his own D.C.-based restaurant Shaw Bijou, which shut down less than three months after opening due to high operating costs. That experience served as the inspiration for his acclaimed 2019 memoir, Notes From A Young Chef, which A24 is adapting into a film starring Lakeith Stanfield as Onwuachi.
Onwuachi recently launched a nail polish line with Orly with proceeds from the collection going to Bigs & Littles, a nationwide mentoring initiative for children and families. He also spearheads a scholarship program that provides a full-ride to the Culinary Institute of America, as well as The Family Reunion, an immersive experience that celebrates the Black and Brown contributions to the hospitality industry.
“I always make sure that I’m intentional and impactful with the things that I’m doing,” Onwuachi says.
And that’s the same energy he’s bringing to My America. To Onwuachi, this cookbook is more than a collection of recipes—it’s lessons and learnings on family, food, and community.
Always go back to your roots
“My journey of being a chef started with my mom in her catering kitchen—and this wasn’t a commercial kitchen it was our apartment. [I had] to help out and keep the lights on. This chore turned into a hobby, then into a passion, and that passion turned into a career. And within that career I wanted to learn from the best. The ‘best’ was people cooking French-inspired modern American cuisine. And I want to preface the best in quotation marks—like not that I think that’s the best, that’s just what was said at the time. There weren’t many Black chefs cooking from the ethnicities that I am, so I didn’t have that to learn. So after that, I thought back to the food that would make my family proud, the food I crave and grew up on. How can I pay homage to that? How can I honor that?”
Learning from the “best” and appreciating your own
“There are the lessons of technique, attention to detail, different cooking practices—learning how to be a good leader, running a kitchen and working at a high level. All of those things contributed to where I am today. I think they’re beautiful in their essence. And it was quite fascinating to me that then I started to see the beauty in my own cuisine and the beauty in my own people’s food. I was able to expand on that because of the lessons I learned from other kitchens.”
Advice for those on the come-up
“Make sure you’re working at the hardest restaurant in your neighborhood. I think it’s important that you absorb everything when you’re trying to perfect a craft. You don’t know what it’s going to apply to what you’re trying to do. If you’re an actor, you should look into comedy and romance and drama. Because all those things are just going to help your craft at the end of the day. So you can absorb that information and then don’t lose sight of who are. Apply that to what you want.”
My America: Recipes From a Young Black Chef comes out May 17.