Party With Kwame Onwuachi and Gregory Gourdet at the Launch of Onwuachi's New Cookbook

Onwuachi, named “the most important chef in America” by the San Francisco Chronicle in 2019, is visiting Portland on tour for his cookbook My America: Recipes from a Young Black Chef.

By Katherine Chew Hamilton May 20, 2022

Onwuachi's new cookbook, My America: Recipes from a Young Black Chef, was released May 17.

Image: Courtesy

 “Show me an America made of apple pie and hot dogs, baseball and Chevrolet and I won’t recognize it,” writes chef Kwame Onwuachi in his cookbook My America: Recipes from a Young Black Chef, released May 17 (Knopf). “My America is full of internal rhymes, studded with a thousand languages, references, allusions, bits snatched from here or there, some bits shared, but mostly taken.” 

The cookbook includes 125 recipes, ranging from crawfish pie to callaloo (both Jamaican and Trinidadian versions), Ethiopian awaze tibs to Nigerian moi moi. Next to each recipe’s yield and ingredient list is its region of origin. Chapters are organized by ingredient—rice to tubers to legumes to seafood—rather than by geography. The influences are vast, but they all make sense in this cookbook, all tied to Onwuachi’s lived experience and the widespread influence of the African diaspora across cuisines.

Kwame Onwuachi

Image: Courtesy

 Among his many accomplishments—including authoring a critically acclaimed memoir, Notes From a Young Black Chef, winning a James Beard Rising Star Chef award in 2019, and hosting the upcoming awards this year—Onwuachi was also a guest judge on the Portland-set Top Chef Season 18 along with Gregory Gourdet, even taking contestants on a pan-African eating tour around Portland. On May 30, both Onwuachi and Gourdet will appear at a launch party for My America, where guests will have the chance to meet Onwuachi at Hunt and Gather Catering’s event space (1203 NW Glisan St) from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. The menu will include Onwuachi’s crawfish pie, shrimp etouffee, and Trinidadian pork belly geerah; Gourdet will also be cooking some to-be-announced appetizers, while DJ Rev Shines spins music. Tickets are currently available for $100 per person and include a signed cookbook and appetizers.  

Growing up in a culinary-minded family in the Bronx—his mother, grandfather, grandmother, and sister are all chefs—Onwuachi drew from Dominican and Puerto Rican influences in his neighborhood. His family is Southern Creole, Nigerian, Jamaican, and Trinidadian; at age ten, his mother sent him to live with his grandfather in Nigeria, where the family grew their own vegetables and raised their own meat, and he grew to love goat and okra stew. He studied French technique at the Culinary Institute of America, and that influence makes its way into this cookbook, too, via stocks and cooking techniques. “So much has been taken from us; there’s no harm in taking some back,” he writes. And while most recipes in this book claim a single region of origin, a few recipes combine ingredients from across the diaspora in a single dish. The cucumber and avocado salad uses Trinidadian-style meat marinade for the cucumber, and the piri piri is inspired by South Africa, with his own addition of gooseberry.

In between stops on his nine-city book tour, we talked with Onwuachi in advance of the launch party to learn more about the process behind this impressive, wide-ranging book.

What was the research process like for this cookbook?

I went back to Trinidad and Tobago with my grandfather, walked the roads that he played on as a kid. I went back to his elementary school, which he hadn't been to in 60 years. And I got to eat at his restaurant, restaurants that he loves, and also go to my family's houses. I went to Mamou, Louisiana with my grandma and was able to see where she was born—the house that she grew up in was still there—and eat the food there. I got to go back to Jamaica, went to Nigeria. So it was great. I got to know my family a bit more, and that's what this book is really about, is putting it on a pedestal—my heritage and my ancestors.

What’s one recipe in this book that you’re particularly proud of, or that represents you particularly well? 

I think the jerk chicken, because there’s such attention to detail with it. You know, you're making a jerk brine, you’re making a marinade, you’re making a curry powder, you’re making a jerk paste. So I love that recipe. The cucumber-avocado salad is really great as well.

What else are you up to now other than, you know, completing this massive cookbook?

I have this event [in August through Food and Wine Magazine] called the Family Reunion. It’s a four-day food festival in Middleburg, Virginia, with Sheila Johnson at Salamander Resort. [Note: it’s Onwuachi’s second time hosting this festival celebrating Black chefs and foodways.] We have 40 of the top chefs in the country, and also food writers and beverage specialists, winemakers, and we throw the dopest party you've ever seen. It starts with a cookout, but instead of your uncle behind the grill, it's Rodney Scott and Brian Furman and Virginia Ali from Ben's Chili Bowl. And we have panel discussions and breakout sessions, everything from the history of jerk to the history of soul food with Dr. Jessica B. Harris, to ziplining with Gregory Gourdet. He takes everyone ziplining, zipping through the trees. 

What has reception to your cookbook been like so far?

Overwhelmingly positive. People are just appreciative of giving a voice to the inaudible. Having these recipes documented in such a way that a lot of people have cherished, and now they have this lexicon, this catalog of recipes that really showcases Black foodways. It’s been awesome getting to hang out with people, talking to them. It's gonna be a nice big party. Greg's cooking some stuff. I'm cooking some stuff. You got a DJ, we're gonna have ourselves a good time. 

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