Chef Kwame Onwuachi Continues To Give A Taste of Diasporic Soul
Food is directly linked to one’s culture, with every herb, grain and protein of choice packed with generational storytelling. A taste of a rich meal can immediately transport you to various realms, from your immigrant ancestors’ journey to America to the comfort of your grandmother’s home. Kwame Onwuachi (@chefkwameonwuachi) relates to this all too well—the chef is now unveiling the beauty of diasporic cuisine in his debut cookbook, My America: Recipes From a Young Black Chef: A Cookbook (released in May via Penguin Random House).
Chef Kwame Onwuachi PHOTO BY STORM SANTOS
Long before he was a James Beard Award-winning chef, author of the critically acclaimed memoir Notes From a Young Black Chef (which is being adapted into a feature film by A24) and Top Chef Season 13 contestant in 2015 and Season 18 judge in 2021, Onwuachi’s passion for the culinary arts began right in his mother’s kitchen in the Bronx, N.Y. So it’s no surprise that the book is dedicated to her.
The chef cites two childhood meals that ignited his love for food: egusi soup (a Nigerian dish with ground egusi melon seeds as the base) with fufu (a West Africa-originated starchy accompaniment to soups and stews made from cassava) and curry goat roti.
Cucumber and avocado salad inspired by Trinidadian and South African cooking techniques. PHOTO BY CLAY WILLIAMS/COURTESY OF PENGUIN RANDOM HOUSE
“I remember taking the first bites when I was around two years old,” Onwuachi recalls. “It was like fireworks went off in my mouth. Imagine all the different flavors. They’re a lot different than the typical peas and carrots puree, which I was also eating.”
My America is not only a cookbook but a love letter to Onwuachi’s heritage (his mother has Creole and Jamaican roots, while his father is Nigerian) and a food diary that tracks the dishes that stuck with him throughout various travels through Lousiana, Trinidad and Tobago, Nigeria, Jamaica and New York City.
Nigerian moi moi (black-eyed peas) wrapped in banana leaves COOBOOK PHOTO BY CLAY WILLIAMS/COURTESY OF PENGUIN RANDOM HOUSE
“It was a pretty cathartic experience to relive these moments and dig up my memories,” he explains. “[The cookbook] really shows you how diverse we are as people and how many different nationalities really influenced me in my upbringing. It made me understand myself better as a chef.”
Onwuachi began working on the book at the start of the pandemic in 2020, testing the recipes after long hours of filming Top Chef as a judge. He sourced the dishes from everything he grew up eating. But don’t come looking for the stereotypical American foods like hot dogs or apple pie. My America highlights the country’s rich and colorful culinary history, which derives from the diaspora.
Ethiopian vegetarian dulet with herbed labneh and m’semen, a North African flatbread. COOBOOK PHOTO BY CLAY WILLIAMS/COURTESY OF PENGUIN RANDOM HOUSE
“We weren’t just eating roasted chicken and gravy [at home],” Onwuachi says. “I was eating [meals like] pollo risotto, which is Dominican roasted chicken on rice. So this was American food to me, and that’s what I want to show the world.”
While the book doubles as a history lesson, the chef also wants everyone to have fun with their food. My America takes a less complicated approach to cooking, breaking down various pantry essentials, and dishes highlighting rice, greens, legumes, seafood, poultry, meats, bread and pastries. And it’s all intertwined with Onwuachi’s first-person storytelling.
Chef Onwuachi KWAME ONWUACHI PHOTO BY STORM SANTOS
“There are some steps that need to be taken, and that’s why we start with a pantry,” he continues. “Because once you get the pantry rocking and you have all your purees, marinades, and seasonings, then it’s easier to execute the recipes themselves. So I think [the book] is pretty good for the moderate home cook. There are some recipes that may test your skills, but for the most part, it’s a book for everyone.”