Notes from a Young Black Chef by Kwame Onwuachi

Notes from a Young Black Chef
By Kwame Onwuachi
Paperback, 288 pages

Kwame Onwuachi’s memoir holds no punches about racial tension, hard work in kitchens

By Jay Wiener
Special to the Mississippi Clarion Ledger

Delusion that people of color were never systematically subjected to second class citizenship—denied access to education, housing, and voting—is psychotic. Refusal to acknowledge Constitutional Amendments, Judicial Mandates, and evolving community sentiments is tantamount to Holocaust denial.

The refrain from “Bloody Mary”, in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific”, provides reasonable response to people resisting progress: “Now ain’t that too damn bad!”

Everyone else should proceed apace. The satisfaction of savoring new ways of being and thinking compensates for momentary disruptions when old habits dissipate.

Appreciation abounds for books such as “Notes from a Young Black Chef” (Vintage), celebrating American diversity, which would never have been published previously.

Author Kwame Onwuachi is unflinching identifying obstacles to his professional advancement.

“… [I]nfuriating is the question about to whom I should have been paying dues. It seems like the only ones keeping track are the white guys with tall chef’s hats. And how did they make it big? By paying dues to older white guys with even taller chef’s hats. As for the thousands of black and brown chefs—called cooks, domestics, servants, boys, and mammies who were kept out of restaurant kitchens (or overlooked within them)—they were beyond consideration. Their work was invisible. Their food and heritage were invisible. And they themselves—these men and women chefs—were invisible, too. So for those who criticize me as an ungrateful nobody, I get that it must be confusing. After all, the people I pay my dues to are the people who are barely seen or acknowledged by mainstream culture. They are people who do not exist in the spotlight.”

Those unable to understand never will.

“There were other moments, too, when I felt like I was being called the N-word with no one actually saying it. No one had to and maybe they were too smart to. So it was left to me to decide whether it was because I was black or because it was just me that I was the only one greeted with a growling ‘Get back in the prep kitchen!’ when I ran food out to chefs on the line. From that point on, I took those words to heart. I didn’t have conversations. I came in and did my job, getting better and better each service, but I didn’t look for friends or colleagues. I had my mask on and shield up. It was that old familiar feeling of being confused, scared, unsafe. And as I did as a boy, I did now as a man, cutting off the wires of my emotions. When the other chefs yelled at me, I was no longer there. But I felt foolish to have imagined that I could ever escape the power dynamic… [W]ould I ever find a kitchen in America not poisoned by racism?”

Onwauchi found transcendence: “The belief that African American cuisine couldn’t rise above the Mason-Dixon Line was exactly the sort of stereotype I wanted to destroy. Though southern cooking had played a huge part in my own upbringing, it wasn’t the entire story. To emphasize only that aspect would mean becoming an actor in the long and ugly play of degrading black culture for the benefit of white people.”

Notwithstanding individuals incapable of burying the racism of their ancestors, “Whether it was teachers, cops, fathers, chefs, business partners, or restaurant critics, I had been told so many times that I wasn’t worth it, that I was too much trouble, too ambitious, too proud. Maybe I was. Maybe I am. But I will never believe that my culture, black culture, African culture, Caribbean culture, the blood of my father and mother and my granddad… doesn’t matter.”

Professionally, commercially, Onwauchi returned to the essence of edible Eden: “… something that reminded them of home, something made with love.”

Memorable meals are ultimately “self-expression”, “… my food, an extension of who I am…”

While giving thanks on Thursday, please provide prayers of thanksgiving that all Americans inherit our national and biblical birthright, becoming more and offering more with every passing year.

Jay Wiener is a Jackson attorney.


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