When you think of the flavors that embody America, foods like french fries and hamburgers probably spring to mind. But for chef Kwame Onwuachi, America is a melting pot of Afro-Caribbean flavors that shaped his upbringing.
“I wanted to create a book that would reflect my journey and also show the versions of food I grew up eating in America,” says Onwuachi. “I wanted to create a book where people can find these foods that are comfort foods to me.”
Onwuachi’s first 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 have served as the foundation of the LA-based chef’s career. There are recipes inspired by his life in the Bronx where he was born (“Creole Hashbrowns”), recipes from living with his grandfather in Nigeria (“Suya”) and others from across the diaspora that are not only Onwuachi’s extensive palate, but also how important it was for him to combine food and family, an intersection that serves as the basis of his inspiration.
“I’ve learned to season everything flawlessly,” Onwuachi says of what he’s learned 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 was on his list of many things he wanted to achieve, Onwuachi has not sat still in recent years.
A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, Onwuachi has worked at restaurants such as Per Se and Eleven Madison Park. In 2016, after the competition on top chefran his own restaurant Shaw Bijou in DC, which closed less than three months after opening due to high operating costs. This experience served as the inspiration for his acclaimed 2019 memoir. Notes of a Young Chefadapting the A24 into a film starring Lakeith Stanfield as Onwuachi.
Onwuachi recently co-launched a nail polish line orlie proceeds from the collection go to Big & Small, a nationwide mentoring initiative for children and families. He also directs a fellowship program that offers a full trip to the Culinary Institute of America, as well as The Family Reunion, an immersive experience that celebrates Black and Brown’s contributions to the hospitality industry.
“I always make sure I’m intentional and effective in the things I do,” says Onwuachi.
And that’s the same energy that he brings My America. For Onwuachi, this cookbook is more than a collection of recipes—it’s lessons and insights about family, food, and community.
Always go back to your roots
“My journey as a chef started with my mother in her catering kitchen – and that wasn’t a commercial kitchen, it was our home. [I had] to help and keep the light on. That duty became a hobby, then a passion, and that passion became a profession. And within this career I wanted to learn from the best. The “best” were people cooking French-inspired modern American cuisine. And I want to put the best in quotes – how not that I think that’s the best, that was just said at the time. There weren’t many black chefs who cooked from my ethnicity, so I didn’t have to learn that. After that I thought back to the food that would make my family proud, the food I craved and grew up eating. How can I appreciate that? How can I honor that?”
Learn from the “best” and value your own
“There are the lessons about technique, attention to detail, different cooking practices – learning how to be a good leader, run a kitchen and work to a high standard. All of these things have contributed to where I am today. I find them beautiful in their essence. And it was quite fascinating for me that then I started to see the beauty in my own kitchen and the beauty in my own people’s food. I was able to expand on this based on the experiences from other kitchens.”
Advice for those on the come-up
“Make sure you work at the toughest restaurant in your neighborhood. I think it’s important to absorb everything when 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 be into comedy, romance, and drama. Because all of these things will only help your craft at the end of the day. That way you can absorb that information and then not lose sight of who it is. Apply that to what you want.”
My America: Recipes from a Young Black Chef will be released on May 17th.