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