Updated: Dec 7, 2019
Below are questions to help guide your discussions as you read Kwame Onwuachi's "Notes from a Young Black Chef." You can also submit your own questions or reactions in the comments section below. Please click here if you are interested in creating or joining a Food Readers book club chapter.
*This post will be updated as I work my way through the book*
Standing on Stories
While standing on the balcony of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Kwame told us that “the city spread below seems full of promise” (6). What do you think Kwame meant by this? Why do you think he choose to start his memoir like this?
In writing about opening his dream restaurant, Kwame explained that he is "seizing opportunities manufactured to be beyond my grasp” (8). What does it mean to go beyond what society has deemed appropriate for you? How does one go about seizing an opportunity that was created without you in mind?
While preparing to open the Shaw Bijou restaurant, Kwame decided to not take reservations. Instead they would sell nonrefundable tickets to interested diners. People buy tickets for many other types of events, is applying this approach to fine dining acceptable to you?
Kwame was hired by Dom Perignon to create an African American themed menu to celebrate David Adjaye, a Ghanaian British architect. He balked initially, having said, “I don’t do “African American-themed” (13) menus. “I am an African American chef, so if I cook my food, isn’t every menu I create African American by default” (13)? Is it true that the identity of the chef makes the food that identity as well?
We learned about Kwame’s mother who was a caterer. He admired her ability to stay calm when faced with clients last minute demands to change their orders. How do you stay calm when faced with uncertainty? Have you ever been that person to cause additional work to the person you have hired?
While describing the complex nuances involved with serving high-end food to the Dom Perignon party patrons, Kwame remarks that “We live in the era of the bespoke” (21). What are some advantages and disadvantages of living in an era that promotes a highly individualized approach to the fine dining experience? Do you see this type of approach used in other industries as well?
Kwame tells us, while preparing to leave the Dom Perignon party kitchen to deliver remarks for the guests, that “There are two of me-well, more than two, but two have starring roles for tonight: Chef Kwame and Kwame All Smiles” (25). Can you identify with Kwame? If so, what has been your own experience with having to manage different versions of yourself?
The chapter opens with Kwame remembering the smells from when his mother’s side of the family would cook. He talks about the “peppers frying in butter, onions turning translucent and garlic turning golden, the buttery perfume of a roux and the sea-shack scent of shrimp” (31). When his mother would cook egusi stew “It meant that [his] parents were at least trying to get along” (31). To Kwame, food was much more than just something to nourish his body. When you were growing up, did food have special meaning in your family? Do you have any specific memories that have stayed with you over the years?
Does Kwame’s characterization of his mother's use of the kitchen as “the only place where [she] could make my dad love her” (39) seem disrespectful to his mother and her perspective? Is this a limited way of viewing his mother’s love?
Passing the Gifted and Talented exam opened up many new and exciting opportunities for Kwame such as being able to attend P.S. 153 instead of the Dickensian. As a result, he was able to meet new friends and participate in activities (Pokémon, Legos, K’NEX etc.) that may not have been available had he attended Dickensian. What similar opportunities have you benefited from or wished were made available to others?
In response to his making fun of Mrs. Fran’s London Broil, Kwame said, “Like every child I was learning about the world by trespassing on it” (63). Are there any experiences in your life where you felt like you were trespassing in a similar way? In your older age, what wisdom, if any, would you give your younger self if you had the chance?
Were you surprised when Kwame’s mother decided to send him to Africa to live with his grandfather?
Compare and contrast Kwame’s kitchen life at home in the Bronx, in Nigeria with his grandfather, and in a professional setting such as Per Se, Eleven Madison Park, and Shaw Bijou.
What do you think about Kwame’s take on why his mom was reluctant to rely on government assistance (e.g. it damages pride, it is an admission of defeat, it is proof you are actually poor)?
Did your impressions or underlying assumptions of Kwame change after learning about his experience as a drug dealer and gang member?
In your opinion, what are some of the causes which allowed Kwame, amid so much danger and hardship, to succeed while others failed?
We learn about Kwame waking up one morning in a drug induced haze. Tired of living the party lifestyle, he stumbled to the television and saw Obama’s face shortly after his election. Witnessing this stirred his creative energy. He began to cook immediately and ended up making chicken curry which “reminded [him] of home all those years ago” (134). What food or dish reminds you of your home or family?
The most important lesson Kwame learned from his mother was to always keep moving. What does always keep moving mean to you? What role, if any, does it play in shaping your values or beliefs?
In reacting to his hurried decision to work as a cook aboard the Maine Responder vessel in the Gulf, Kwame said, "It occurred to me that just because an opportunity was offered didn't mean it was a good idea to take it" (151). Do you believe that patience plays a role in making good decisions?
Finding my Craft
Liz Bacelar, executive producer of the Singularity Conference, gave an unproven Kwame his first big break at professional catering, a 1,600 person conference in New York City. Have you had a similar turning point / big break in your professional or personal life? What impact did it have on you?
How did you react when Kwame's father, whose a well paid architect, suggested he start dealing drugs again instead of providing him with financial support to attend the Culinary Institute of America? Or when his father snapped at him during the conversation they had shortly after Kwame was arrested for an out taillight, telling him how he knew he'd find a way to fail at culinary school. How do you think this abuse and conflict with his father influences Kwame's decisions and actions?
Blood on the Eggshells
From Old Guard to Start-Up
What do you think about the working environment in fine dining kitchens like Per Se and Eleven Madison Park? Are there any aspects that appeal to you? Are there things you find discouraging?
How did you react to Chef Flint of Eleven Madison Park challenging Kwame's decision to tender his resignation in order to cook his own meal for Dinner Lab? Can you draw a comparison between Chef Flint and his father, Patrick Onwuachi?
What were your initial reactions to Glenn and Kelly? Do you believe they were genuine in their assurance to Kwame that money was no issue at all during the initial planning for Shaw Bijou?