James Beard Award-winning chef Kwame Onwuachi opens up to Zibby about the events that shaped his life and went into his memoir, Notes from a Young Black Chef. He shares how he manages to maintain his positive mindset every day, why his approach to food, fashion, and nail polish is all the same, and the responsibility he feels to share his unique story with the world.


Zibby Owens: Thank you, Kwame, for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to talk about Notes from a Young Black Chef.

Kwame Onwuachi: Welcome. It’s great to be here. Thanks for having me.

Zibby: Of course. It’s funny, I kept going back and forth, I have both the grown-up version and the younger readers’ version. I would read part of it. Then I would go back to the adult version. It’s so funny to get the down and dirty vocabulary for the other one. It was really funny.

Kwame: That’s awesome. It’s like the Kidz Bop version.

Zibby: Exactly. I have two teenagers. I have four kids. I was reading it out loud to my older kids. They loved it. I was trying to get them roped in. Congratulations on this memoir, which was really, really amazing. I don’t know when you found time to also write this book and remember everything as clearly as you did. For listeners who aren’t as familiar with you, would you mind telling a little bit about what made you write this memoir to begin with? Obviously, you have such an inspiring story. What made you turn it into a book and take the time to even do that?

Kwame: I think everyone has a story, most importantly. You got to put yourself out there and believe in yourself. Writing this book, I knew that it would impact people in different ways, understand a different perspective than yours, feeling validated from feelings of oppression in different ways, giving a snapshot of what it’s like to come up in fine dining or catering. This is the food industry in general from a younger perspective. I think chefs are changing. We’re multifaceted now. We’re not stuck in a box. It’s given me the opportunity to write books like this, to open up nail polish companies and media companies and things like that. I think it’s special. Most importantly, I think everyone has a story to tell. That’s what this book is really, really about.

Zibby: I love, in the book, how during one of your first big events you tried to get everybody’s attention. You stood up on a chair. You’re like, “I’m the one cooking your meal. Come on over here. Come here.” I feel like that’s what you’re doing with this book. You’re just like, okay, let’s have a little time together. This is important. Listen up. I just love that.

Kwame: I remember that day so clearly. The funny part is it’s because I needed more time to plate up my dishes for the first course. It’s a long story. I saw how engaged people were. That’s when I knew I had something special.

Zibby: Wow. You write a lot about your ability to kind of go back and forth into different worlds and your ability sometimes to appear very guarded and keep your head down, your emotions in check, and then at other times — just that you can adapt to basically any circumstance. You even had a quote, you said, “My ability to slide through these two different worlds was my greatest assets in those years.” Tell me a little bit about that and how your ability to fit in everywhere and yet keep your most private stuff in check has helped you out in your career.

Kwame: Definitely, being a chameleon has helped me in my lifetime. I really think that you shouldn’t ever change who you are, but you should be open to other people’s perspectives. That’s the way that I was able to switch through different worlds whether I was in the South Bronx or I was in the Upper East Side. It was really about not thinking that my perspective was the only perspective, really listening and getting in tune with other people. That’s really what made me as successful as I am.

Zibby: It certainly can help with everything. You were so open in the book about your relationship with your dad. I think that when you are in a relationship that requires you to sort of feel like you’re auditioning for someone who’s supposed to love you, it gives you that extrasensory skill to adapt and everything. Just talk a little bit more about your relationship with your dad and the abuse that you had to deal with even down to after he gave you the Jeep in the middle of the book — in the middle of the book? In the middle of your life and how you got that Jeep and everything and then when you got arrested, crazily, that one night, which was ridiculous, how he wouldn’t even get the Jeep back. I know that’s just the end of the whole thing and not such a big example compared to the things you reference. Tell me a little about that.

Kwame: It’s something that I’ve grown to forgive from afar because there’s no book on parenting. Also, thinking about the black experience in the eighties of feeling free for the first time and also dealing with the injection of drugs into our communities from people that are supposed to be helping us, like the CIA and stuff like that, it’s hard even for me to be upset anymore. It doesn’t make me forget to the point where I want to have a relationship. Now that I have a greater knowledge of what the mental capacity was of someone of color in that timeframe just doing their best, it’s part of being a human being and having some empathy with that. The abuse that came from that, I think it molded me into the person that I am today. There’s definitely a lot of negative things that are still with me, that trauma, but it was something that directly correlated to my craft in my industry. When you’re in the kitchen, you have to be very focused and meticulous. You can’t make any mistakes. I wasn’t allowed to make any mistakes when I was a little kid, so it just transferred over to that. It’s not a good thing, but it is a byproduct of that abuse.

Zibby: I’m really sorry that that happened to you. The chart on the wall, the whole thing, I’m just so sorry. Not that you need to hear this from me, but just as one of your bazillion readers, it broke my heart to have to read what you went through as a child.

Kwame: I really appreciate that. I really do, honestly.

Zibby: You got your start, essentially, with your mom’s catering business and then on the ship. By the way, that scene, you told it in such a visual way. I feel like I watched the movie of this whole thing playing out. In every instance, you just take the situation and you’re like, I’m going to figure it out. I’m just going to do it. I’ll figure it out once I get there. Then you do. You rise to the occasion. Do you feel like that’s just a gift, that’s just an innate part of your personality? Do you think that’s something that can be taught?

Kwame: It can be taught, but it has to become a habit first. You have to really practice it. I’m very free-spirited. I live my life off the wall. I go where the wind blows. For me, I’m myself no matter what. I walk into Jay-Z’s house and still just be my silly self. I walk into my grandma’s house and still be my silly self. I think when you’re just unapologetically you, you can roll with the punches because you know it’s not going to last. A painful moment is a moment. It’s not a painful eternity. When you really think about it like that, even feelings, when I’m sad, I’m like, this feeling is going to pass. I’m going to see something that’s going to make me laugh in the next four hours no matter how sad I am. When you think about that, then you start anticipating and looking for the rainbow and looking for those sunny days and then turning those rainy days into sunny days or then just appreciating those rainy days because you’ve been through sunny days. I guess it’s a gift that I’m able to just, it is what it is. Shit, let’s drink. I don’t know. Just have a good time all the time instead of really getting in your head and internalizing things. It’s not that serious. However serious you think it is, no one is thinking it’s that serious. If you’re ever having a bad time or a bad day and someone sees that and jumps on that, kicks you when you’re down, I just negate those people from my life, or what they were trying to do, because nobody that actually cares about me would kick me while I’m down. They would pick me up. It’s something that you have to work on. You have to work on positivity and positive thinking every single day.

Zibby: I feel like part of the narrative in the book was almost the narrow escape, all the odds stacked against you at the beginning. Not that you didn’t have amazing influences like your trip to Nigeria and your grandfather. Obviously, you’re super bright and all the rest. There were so many times in the book when you were deep into drug dealing or the moment where you turned your life around that day in the apartment and whatever where you just didn’t have to. You could’ve just not done that, obviously, but you did. So many other people did not or were not able to turn difficult circumstances into how you have created your whole personality and your career and all the contributions and everything. What does it feel like to have been that one? Not that you’re the only one, but you do feel like there’s a responsibility to go back and help others?

Kwame: There’s definitely a responsibility because my story is unique to me. I was able to get out of situations and turn my life around and build my life up. I don’t think everyone has those opportunities. I do realize that there’s a bit of probably just privilege, but privilege in the sense of my tenacity, that I keep going no matter what. I know everyone is not wired that way. There are people with mental health issues. There are people that don’t have the mental dexterity to even push through moments because they’ve been beaten down so much. They’ve gone through worse child abuse than I have. I’m never going to sit up here holier than thou. I do think it’s my obligation to then reach back and help out people. I think it all starts with mentorship. It starts with access to information. It starts with access to different cultures. With that, we can make the world a better place.

Zibby: Very true. Now that the book is out in the world, do you find that people look at you in a different way now that they know — do you feel like anything that you revealed has changed relationships in your life?

Kwame: No, nothing’s changed relationships. I would say it’s definitely strange when people walk up and say, “Hey, how’s Jewel?” I’m like, “How do you know my mom’s book name? Oh, it’s in the book.” Or they talk about the school that I went to or something. It’s very surreal in that regard. No relationships have changed. If anything, they’ve gotten stronger, me being able to tell my truth and my perspective of how my life went. It’s all exciting. It’s exciting that it’s being turned into a movie. That’s going to be another wave when people get to see it visually.

Zibby: Tell me the details of that. What can you say?

Kwame: A24 is producing it, the company behind Moonlight and Uncut Gems and other movies of that caliber. Lakeith Stanfield is playing me in the movie, which is pretty cool. I don’t think it’s really going to hit me until I’m sitting down eating popcorn watching someone portray me on a giant screen and try to look like me and stuff. I think that’s going to be really, really interesting.

Zibby: Gosh, if you thought this was surreal, that’s going to be crazy. I have to say, I first heard about your book from another chef, so I feel like that’s the highest accolade. My husband’s cousin is Robbie Felice who owns this restaurant called Viaggio. He was just like, “This is greatest story ever.” I was reading it. I was like, this is going to be a great movie. This is amazing. To have another chef love it is —

Kwame: — That’s the stamp of approval we need.

Zibby: How do you feel about having to do publicity interviews? Do you hate it? What do you think?

Kwame: No, I like it. At first, it was very tough. I was very stiff. I think now I’m a bit more relaxed and more comfortable in my skin. That’s come with time. It’s come from failing and not giving a crap anymore. I think I failed in the sense of the word that other people use. I don’t look at it as a failure, but I had something that did not work out to the way that I wanted it to. It taught me so much. With that happening, it was like, screw it. I’m going to just be myself because you’re going to hate me regardless for something that I have no control over. You might as well hate me because I’m being me unapologetically. Now the interviews and all of it, it’s like I’m talking to a friend.

Zibby: Awesome. Tell me about the nail polish. What’s that about?

Kwame: I like wearing nail polish. I started because I get my nieces every summer. One time, I took them to the salon. They were like, if I can get my nails done with them. I came out, and I loved them so much. I started this nail polish line. That’ll be sold everywhere soon. Pretty exciting.

Zibby: What about more fashion stuff? I feel like the book should’ve been sponsored by Prada or something like that. Maybe you could do some cross-marketing, get it for sale at the checkout.

Kwame: I love fashion so much. Just like I like nails, it’s an expression of who you are. You’re able to put on a costume for a day and go out into the world and be representative of how you want to look. I think it’s fun. Clothes are really fun. Clothes are really intricate. I think they carry a story just like a dish, just like a song, just like a film. It’s something that’s always been prevalent in my life. I’ve always invested a lot in the way that I look.

Zibby: You’ve got great glasses. Those are really .

Kwame: Thank you. They’re from the fifties.

Zibby: They’re very cool. I was struck in the book, it was a point in your life where you were really struggling for money, and you said you had gone about three years with your glasses being crooked because you hadn’t even stopped to fix them. Now here you are with these gorgeous glasses.

Kwame: Those rainy days will make you appreciate the sunny ones.

Zibby: Another thing was how you realized with the cooking, and I think this goes for anybody, even just the most basic home cook, that the best part was showing how much you care through your food and creating that sense of home. My husband cooks a lot. He’s always like, “You can taste the love. You can taste it. It’s different if I make this dish, if you have it in a restaurant because I’m doing it with all of me.” Tell me about how you use that in your life and how that’s informed your sense of cooking for everybody.

Kwame: I think when a dish tells a story, it has a soul. You’re not just cooking for perfect seasoning. You’re cooking to share something with someone, some nostalgia, a story, an experience. I think you do have to cook with love. You can taste the difference. When you’re cooking for someone that you really care about, you’re going to make sure everything is perfect with that. You can really get to know someone on a plate. You can get to know someone’s culture on a plate. It’s one of the only art forms you ingest. Food is so poetic in that way that you can even see who has been within a region based off of the food that is served. If there were some sort of Asian community in an area, if there was a European community in an area, based on the ingredients that are there, you can always trace back ingredients to a certain place. I think food is beautiful. It always should tell a story. You should always put your soul into it. If you wouldn’t serve it to the person that you love the most, don’t put the dish out. That’s normally what I tell my cooks in the restaurant.

Zibby: I loved your idea when you had the seven-course meal of basically telling your life story through the courses. I was thinking to myself, I was like, how would I even tell my life story through the courses? You’ve had such an interesting story. I live five blocks from where I grew up. I would be so boring. It would be cinnamon toast. I don’t even know, the same stuff I’ve been having my whole life.

Kwame: You do a bacon, egg, and cheese course and a Cinnamon Toast Crunch course. You do it. I got faith in you.

Zibby: That’s funny. What do you eat on a normal basis? What’d you have for breakfast today?

Kwame: I didn’t eat breakfast today. My mom is making chitlins. I am saving my appetite to eat a big bowl of it. She is in town right now, made her dishes. No one eats it anymore because they think it’s disgusting. I’m just like, more for me. I can’t wait until it’s ready. I can’t wait.

Zibby: You wrote about your mom with such respect, by the way. As a mom, I would only hope my kids would write about it. I feel like you see her in every way. You saw her struggles. You saw her gifts and just all of it. She was a full-on multidimensional person. I feel like some people only have the sliver of their parents that they can see in relation to themselves. That was totally not the case here.

Kwame: She’s been my mentor for the past ten years solid, strong. Any question I have, I go to her. I don’t really have mentors in the food world. It was more like she was trying to guide me through my life based off of what she would’ve done differently. I remember even ten years ago, this is when I first knew I could ask her a question and she wouldn’t treat me like her son. She’d treat me like her. It was the iPhone, the very first iPhone. It had to be like twelve years ago, thirteen years ago. I saved up for it. I had a thousand dollars. I don’t know how I saved that up, but I did. I was eighteen years old. I was like, “Ma, I really want this phone.” She was like, “How much is it?” I was like, “I think it’s like a thousand dollars all in.” She was like, “That one phone’s worth a thousand dollars?” Phones, at the most, were two hundred dollars. That was an expensive phone, like a Razer phone or something. She was like, “That’s a ridiculous amount of money to spend on a phone.” I was like, “I get it, but I have it.” She was like, “That’s irresponsible.” I was like, “Okay, think of it this way. If you were my age and you had no bills, no children –” I had a job — “and you had a thousand dollars saved up and you really, really wanted it, would you get it?” She was like, “Absolutely. Of course, I would. Now that you put it way, of course, I would get it.” At that moment, I was like, I can actually come to her for advice and she wouldn’t treat me like — if I called my grandma and asked her if I could buy a phone, she’d be like, “Are you kidding? You know how many meals I can cook with a thousand dollars and how much this, this, that, and the third?” It’s like, well, I’m not in your shoes, so think about me and my shoes, please. I need advice from an elder. My mom, she navigated me throughout the world. I really give her a lot of credit for the past ten years of my life.

Zibby: Wow, that’s amazing. I love that. You have your regular adult book. You have the younger readers’ book. Are you going to make a children’s book, a picture book?

Kwame: I really want to, actually. I really want to make a children’s book, a picture book. I want to do a children’s cookbook. I wanted to do a children’s animated series. I have a lot of ideas in this crazy head that I want to put out into the world.

Zibby: Awesome. Is there anything that you’re actively focused on now so all these other things have to wait? What’s taking up most of your time?

Kwame: Most of my time is this event called The Family Reunion that I’m doing with Food & Wine magazine at Salamander Resort & Spa in Virginia. It’s a food conference that’s celebrating all the contributions of black and brown people to the food industry that so many times go unnoticed. I have forty-seven people coming out and doing panel discussions and breakout sessions and demonstrations and events. It’s a lot of coordination. I was telling my culinary director, I was like, “The only thing harder than this has been opening a restaurant.” There’s so many moving parts. It’s taken up a lot of my time, but it’s a lot of fun. I want it to be inaugural, so once we get it right this first year, next year will be a little bit easier.

Zibby: That’s awesome. I’m doing something on a much smaller scale. I’m doing a retreat in November with forty participating authors and all sorts of panels and all of this stuff, and rooms and assignments. I’m like, oh, my gosh. I made the mistake of getting involved with the rooms. Next thing you know, everyone’s like, for the meals, I keep kosher. I have celiac. I was like, okay, hold on, there are so many of you. I can keep this all straight. Hold on. I’m doing other things.

Kwame: It’s a lot. I get it. Event planning, it’s a nightmare. I’m just going to say it. It’s a nightmare.

Zibby: But you know it’s going to be great in the end, so it’s worth it.

Kwame: It’s amazing in the end. It’s just getting to that finish line. That’s the most important part.

Zibby: Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Kwame: Write it down. Make it happen. That’s it. Just start writing. Take it one day at a time. If you want to write a memoir, I would write out the coolest points of your life or the most interesting points of your life and then try to bridge them together harmoniously. It’s a process. It took me two years to write this book. In the order of hard, restaurant is the hardest, then event, then a book. It’s right up there with the hardest things you’re going to do in your life. There’s so many editing. I read the book probably like thirty-seven times. Then it’s cathartic. You’re reliving these moments that you tried to hide away and not talk about ever again, or you’re reliving moments where you can celebrate and realize that you did have an interesting life or you have come a long way. I would just start it. It’s the only thing you can do, is start.

Zibby: Awesome. Thank you so much for your time. I hope you go enjoy your mom’s great meal.

Kwame: I will. Appreciate it.

Zibby: Take care. Thank you. Buh-bye.

Kwame: Bye.



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