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