From Candyman to Caterer to Chef: Chronicles of a Young Chef (Part Three)

This is the third in a series by Kwame Onwuachi chronicling his story about finding his passion as a young chef. Click to read Part One and Part Two.

I believe in order to get somewhere in life that you have never been, you have to do something you’ve never done. I was in a bind. I needed capital in order to start my catering business.

A kid came up to me on the train one day with the usual spiel about selling candy. I chuckled for a little bit and then quickly did the math in my head. I figured out that this kid makes more in a day than most people with a nine to five. I had an idea. I bought some candy from a wholesale store and the next day I went out and started to sell candy on the C train in Harlem. It was hard at first, especially since I grew up in New York City, when I had the potential to bump into old friends and family. But, I had to swallow my pride in order to achieve my goal. In a few months, I saved up enough money to register my business as a limited liability corporation and obtained a million dollars worth of catering insurance.

I started doing events all around the city from parent-teacher conferences to celebrity soirées. I also catered a 2,000-person summit at the 92nd Street YMCA. I was even featured in the Daily News for my cooking accolades. Schools and motivational conferences also started calling me as well so that I could speak to kids my age about entrepreneurialism. I flew to Europe to taste the food in Paris to see what the hype was about and even went back to that village in Nigeria that shaped me as a man. I finally started to see the fruits of my labor, but I felt that it was time to take a step back.

I was never formally trained in the culinary arts. I learned how to cook by watching my mother and experimenting on my own time after watching Iron Chef Japan. (Yes, they had overenthusiastic English voiceovers and a very eccentric chairman, but the food was very traditional and executed with finesse.) My dream school was the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY. Many of the chefs that you know in the industry have been trained at that school. It is referred to as the Harvard of cooking schools. It also has a Harvard price tag on it as well, so I always believed it to be out of my reach. But after starting my business, I came to find that determination, with lots of perseverance, is the stuff miracles are made of.

So I applied to the school and began attending all sorts of classes that pertained to the culinary arts: Gastronomy, Product Knowledge, Culinary Fundamentals. I continued to do events after I started classes and even gave some students at the school a chance to get some real life catering experience.

While enrolled in school, I met Marcus Samuelsson when I was interning at Chef John Besh’s restaurant August in New Orleans. Marcus was on his Yes, Chef tour doing a collaboration dinner with Chef Besh. Chef Samuelsson walked into the kitchen of the restaurant when I was prepping his berbere chicken on June 20th. I had seen him many times in his restaurant in Harlem and at his events that he hosted around the city, but I didn’t feel that it was ever the right time to talk to him. Today felt different.

He introduced himself to me and after service I got a chance to speak to him in the dining room. I had my copy of Yes, Chef in hand, which he readily signed. It was a surreal experience talking to him, but I tried to keep my cool. He was sitting down signing my book and I bent down and told him how much of an inspiration he was to me and that he was my idol. He was one of the most humble people I have met and after sharing my thoughts and story to him not only did he offer me a job at his restaurant he gave me the opportunity to be mentored by him. I have always looked up to Chef Marcus because of his journey and achievements in the culinary industry and now I am able to learn directly from him. I have a lot in common with Chef Marcus, not only do our birthdays fall on November 11th, but we share a similar appreciation for food and our culture. It is not everyday that you get to meet your idol, and luckily, I was given the opportunity to do just that.

Being a young African American chef in this industry will not stop me from achieving anything, I know that to be true because Chef Marcus Samuelsson is a living testament.

Photo: Sean Gilligan 

From Candyman to Caterer to Chef: Chronicles of a Young Chef (Part One)

In this series, Kwame Onwuachi discusses how he went from living in Nigeria as a child to finding his passion as a chef and entrepreneur. 

What is life without passion?  Frankly, I didn’t even care until recently when “food saved my life.” I join many chefs in owning that phrase, but in my case, that phrase means overcoming the struggles of poverty, finding my identity, developing an entrepreneurial mind, and seeing—for the first time—my dreams becoming reality. Meeting Chef Marcus Samuelsson was one of these dreams. But before I tell you how that happened, you need to know the story of my journey in becoming a chef.

Some of my earliest memories are food related, like the smoke billowing out of the fire escape coming from my mother’s Weber Grill that she used for her catering business, the scent of mahogany chips and jerk chicken filling the whole house. Olfactory memories like this are what started the foundation of my passion.

I grew up in a 6th floor apartment building in the Bronx with my mother and my sister. I attended P.S. 153 in the Bronx, but luckily, I was in the gifted program so I wasn’t really exposed to the public school system in its true essence. Even so, the direction that my life was going in was not the greatest path. I did not realize the opportunities I had here in America or the sacrifices my mother made in order to provide for our family. My stepfather came into the picture when I was about nine years old (he was the only true father figure I had in my life), but by the time he was trying to be a father, I was too far gone to listen to anyone who would try and speak some sense into me. My biological father is of Nigerian descent, and my mother remained close with my grandfather who lived in Africa. So, she made a decision that took courage: she sent me to Africa to live with my grandfather at the age of 12.

Different scents are triggers in the mind of chefs. Certain smells will bring back different memories depending upon the person. The smell of Nigeria when I stepped off the plane is one of the things I will never forget; it just smelled fresh, like home. My mother's decision, which I am very appreciative for now, had me one day in America watching Nickelodeon and playing Playstation, and the next day doing my homework by candlelight and killing my own dinner. Like Marcus’s grandmother says in the book Yes, Chef, “You learn to respect food in a different way when you have to kill it yourself.”

I spent two years in a village in Nigeria going to school, hand washing my own laundry, catching my dinner, fetching my water to bathe with, and so on. At fourteen, I came back to America with a newfound appreciation for life. If it wasn’t for that trip to Africa, I would not be the man I am today; I may not even be alive.

For the second part of Kwame's story, click here.

Photo: John Robinson

From Candyman to Caterer to Chef: Chronicles of a Young Chef (Part Two)

This is the second in a series by Kwame Onwuachi chronicling his story about finding his passion as a young chef. To read Part One, click here.

I went to college for Business Administration because that was the right thing to do, not because I loved it. When you decide to do something because it’s the right thing to do, at least in my case, you end up feeling like you are wasting time and money. So, I left The University of Bridgeport with a lot of student loans after two years. I needed a change of scenery and my mother had recently moved to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, so I decided that I’d give it a try.

Growing up in New York, I didn’t encounter as much racism as you do down south. Basically, some kitchens interpreted my desire to work as a cook for a desire to wash dishes. I am definitely not the type to “fall in line,” so I ended up working on a boat in the Gulf of Mexico as a cook for the oil spill workers during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster. Eventually, after the spill was cleaned, I moved back to New York City where I felt like I was existing to wait tables.

One day, I happened to be walking around SoHo and checking out some new shops in the area when I came across one store. I headed in and began to strike up a conversation with one of the employees, or so I thought. It happened to be the owner of the store, and she was telling me how she was interested in finding a caterer for her store’s grand opening. In a very confident tone, I told her that she needed to look no further and that I was the person she was looking for. Because of my age, she didn’t believe me and asked if we could set up a tasting. I told her that in addition to setting up a tasting I would cater the event for free as long as she covered the cost of the food. We agreed to these conditions and, most importantly, to the menu. Mini cheesecakes, seared filet mignon topped with bleu cheese crème frâiche, and butternut squash wontons with a plum dipping sauce.

I had never made any of these items in my life, but I would give it a try, so I stayed up all night trying to perfect a cheesecake and the rest of these dishes. It was about 5 o’clock in the morning, the sound of the city just starting to awaken crept in through the window, and that’s when I found my passion for cooking. I had stayed up all night for something that I was not getting paid for or procrastinating about, rather I was genuinely enjoying myself. I remember thinking, “This is what it feels like to live.” I went on to do the tasting, and she loved it. I soon after became the official caterer of the store and opened my own catering company.

But, that wouldn’t come without some obstacles.

To read Part Three of Kwame's story, stay tuned to tomorrow's post.

Photo: John Robinson