Review: Notes from a Young Black Chef
We’ve always known food was essential to the soul. Jiayang Fan writes poignantly on “weird” foods that remind her of home. The Chicken Soup series draws upon the comfort and familiarity that homemade food provides us. We feast our eyes and drink in sights to nourish our souls. But what Kwame Onwuachi underlines in Notes from a Young Black Chef, over and over again, is that food is identity.
In one particular scene, Kwame says at a job interview that the food he’s craving is foie gras crostini with white truffle and black garlic. In the moment, he’s actually craving his mom’s gumbo, tinged with pepper and spice and seafood, but the extravagance of the foie gras crostini is what impresses and gets him hired. Food can be as untouchable as abstract art: the loftier and more distant it seems, the better, in the case of fine dining. It’s not that there’s no room for the self in abstraction or fine things — it’s that some foods, like gumbo, could never have been considered art.
It’s that some identities could never have been considered artist.
Code-switching refers to the often subconscious change in self-presentation in different scenarios, based on different social codes. It’s a balancing act that Kwame puts together at various stages and arenas of his life: there’s the “Kwame of his father’s house and Kwame of his mother’s kitchen; Kwame at school and Kwame in Nigeria; Kwame the drug kingpin and Kwame on television.” It’s either-or, dictated not by Kwame but by who he’s around and what he sees them to expect of him.
Rippling throughout the book, though, is Kwame’s desire to break through these coded binaries of social identity. Everything falls together unexpectedly, stories jagging into each other as we try to piece it into a familiar narrative; and so the only voice we can listen to is Kwame’s. He grew up with an abusive father who beat him, and a loving mother who taught him to cook and connected him to employers. He wore Prada shoes and Air Jordans, and worked multiple jobs through culinary school. He dealt weed and externed at Per Se, a high-end restaurant in New York City. These codes he switches between become a powerful, sonorous identity together.
Even so, I caught myself wondering: who is speaking? Who is Kwame here, who has synthesized all these stories and speeches and viewpoints to create a fluid self who speaks in all of these codes in one voice? Despite its casually put-together title, Notes from a Young Black Chef — Notes, as though they were scribbled in margins and shuffled together last-minute — is anything but. Kwame’s voice is practiced and honest; heartfelt and contemplative, as though he were living it in the moment but also reflecting on it. He speaks in the past tense but with a present-tense presence, loud and clear and unmistakable, in an unapologetic amalgamation of codes and selves.
At his restaurant, the Shaw Bijou, Kwame serves “lamb sweetbreads glazed in a chicken jus with Kashmiri chili, atop a basmati rice chip, with a smoked sesame seed emulsion,” fine-dining longhand for “chicken or lamb with rice from halal carts…in the Bronx.” Kwame crisscrosses these two worlds with a steady hand, as well-versed in traversing worlds and social codes as in navigating the careful mise-en-place of a kitchen.