Kwame Onwuachi, author of the cookbook “My America, Recipes From a Young Black Chef,” out this month, touches on cuisine from the Bronx and Louisiana, to Nigeria and Trinidad and Tobago, bringing flavors, histories and anecdotes of the food from his youth for the reader to enjoy.
Onwuachi, who also is a trained chef, will discuss his book during an event through the Wisconsin Book Festival later this month.
Q: Congratulations on the book! Could you start by talking to us about your background as an author and a chef?
A: I grew up in the Bronx in a one-bedroom apartment with my mom and my sister. My mom had a catering business that she ran out of the house and I was put to work. It was a chore that turned into a hobby that turned into a passion that turned into a career. I spent some time in Nigeria as well. I got to learn the “why” behind cooking and also appreciate where our food comes from. When you’re a kid growing up in America you’re just eating food … not asking what region this it’s from. My American cuisine looked a lot different from other people’s. (It comes from) Nigeria, Louisiana, Trinidad and Tobago.
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Q: This is your second book?
A: My first cookbook. My first book was a memoir. I told my story a lot of times to kids and through motivational speaking. There happened to be a literary agent in the crowd one time (which led to the memoir).
Q: Was one book harder to write?
A: The memoir was harder, more cathartic. Reliving moments you’ve forgotten. It was beautiful, too. It showed me all the things I’ve done in my life and never really celebrated.
Q: You say in the cookbook’s introduction that “food is how you make sense of the world.” Can you explain that?
A: Food can tell you so much about a nation, a culture, a people. If you really want to connect with someone you sit down and eat with them. I think food is the only art form that you ingest. It’s someone else experiencing it, but it’s also someone taking care of you.
Q: I enjoyed how the book was organized, starting with the “pantry” section, outlining recipes for stocks, spice blends and sauces — the building blocks to use in the recipes later in the book. Why is it important for people to think about cooking like this?
A: I think all rich cultures, West African, Caribbean, Latin culture, there is a pantry, always. That is where the flavor really starts, your marinades, your pickling liquids, house sauces. We build our pantry first and then we start cooking. You can use those (pantry elements) in other dishes (that) don’t pertain to this book.
Q: Some of the recipes in your book feature ingredients I haven’t come across anywhere else, and may seem a little intimidating to home cooks. What do you say to people who might be nervous about trying this at home?
A: Just relax for one, we’re just making dinner here, and have fun with it. That’s what we do in a restaurant, we have fun with it. Try it out, follow the recipe, go off course if you want to. Sub things out, make it your own. You’re cooking for yourself at the end of the day. Make it so you’ll eat it.
Q: And still, among all the sophisticated recipes, there’s one for your take on a McDonald’s Big Mac. Why include that?
A: That’s part of my American culture at the end of the day. Hamburgers, cheeseburgers, those are things I still crave. This cookbook is a cookbook for all.
Q: I especially loved your recipe for red velvet cake, which uses beetroot instead of food coloring. What is one of your favorite recipes?
A: The oxtail recipe is something that I love and could eat every single day. The jerk chicken is something I’m super proud of. There’s a lot of bad jerk chicken out there and this one is not, (although) it might take a little time to make.
Q: Do you see yourself writing another cookbook?
A: I hope to write another cookbook. I aspire to keep going … and find inspiration as I go. Everyone should know how to make oxtail and gumbo. They are important parts of America. I’m excited to continue to bring a voice to the inaudible.