There’s no other way to put it: I fucked up my first interview with Kwame Onwuachi. I asked boring questions. I stumbled over my words. I hung up too soon. As you know, until last week, I had been writing one of these basically every day. And even though the Health app on my phone would tell you I’d been walking under 100 steps a day, by the time I dialed up the James Beard Award winning chef at Kith/Kin, I was exhausted.
So, after our phone call, I bought Kwame’s book, thinking I’d skim a few chapters and find a couple of details I could include to spice up the newsletter. But as soon as I started reading—and came across sentences like, “Fine dining lines are as white as the tablecloths that cover the tables and the patrons that sit around them”—I realized I wouldn’t be able to close down the Kindle app on my computer until I’d read every word. (Yes, I’m a Kindle guy. No, I’m not proud of it.)
Kwame’s memoir, “Notes From A Young Black Chef,” co-written with Joshua David Stein, is the best book about food that I’ve ever read. But, of course, that’s because it’s not really a book about food.
Yes, it includes recipes for dishes like egusi stew, gumbo, and shrimp étoufée, as well as stories from inside the kitchens of restaurants ranging from the McDonalds in Macy’s to Eleven Madison Park. But Kwame’s story is also about race; about resilience; about how it feels to go from selling candy on the subway to serving food at some of the best restaurants in the world.
And it’s about knowing that, no matter what you accomplish, everything you’ve built can fall to pieces overnight—because of deals gone bad; because of systems built to stop people who look like you; or even because of a pandemic no one could have seen coming. You should buy the book and read it for yourself. (If you’re running short on money right now, respond to this email, and I’ll buy it for the first ten of you who ask.) I hope you dig it as much as I did.
One of the parts of the book that hit me hardest was when Kwame talked about cooking on a boat for workers who were cleaning up the BP oil spill. Kwame was in his early 20s at the time. Before he arrived at Deepwater Horizon, the guys were being fed, in Kwame’s words, “tasteless bland slop.” There was no reason why Kwame had to cook them anything delicious. But he made sure that during every meal, the workers would find “a taste of home” and “a bit of love” in their food. Because his whole life had taught him that, when times are tough, there’s nothing better than that.
When I read that scene, I decided I had to ask if Kwame could do a second interview. Because I realized he had wisdom that went far beyond what you should cook with whatever you have in your pantry. And I wanted to hear how he’s thinking about the meaning of food in the time of corona.
Thankfully, Kwame gave me a second shot. And I’m so glad he did.
Here’s what he had to say over the course of our *two* interviews.
What he’s been cooking
Kwame: I’ve been cooking up a storm. I made braised oxtails, coconut rice, and peas on the side.
Editor’s Note: Kwame demonstrated how to cook oxtail on Bon Appétit’s Instagram story, which you can watch here. Brace your salivary glands.
I also made a salmon head miso stew, with yukon gold potatoes and fennel and I also marinated goat to make curry goat.
I went grocery shopping this morning. So I’m doing Pollo Guisado today, virtually catering for Freddy Yonnet, who played harmonica for Prince. He’s a good friend of mine, and he does these shows in his house, where he lifts all the windows up on Capitol Hill so the neighborhood can hear really cool live music. So I’m doing virtual catering for the interlude.
I’m doing osso bucco. Lots of chicken salads. Al Pastor. Going to get all that stuff.
I’ve been doing an Instagram show called Eating Clean While Quarantined. All of my dishes are, like, fat-free, sugar-free, low-carb, high protein dishes, so you don’t gain weight while you’re sitting around at home.
Why Cooking Is So Important At Moments Like This
Kwame: Cooking, as much as it’s an act of nourishment, is also an act of care and love. It’s putting a little bit of yourself into something and sharing it with someone. And the more detail oriented you are—which doesn’t have to mean perfect knife skills, it just means caring about the steps that go into cooking—the more you’re sharing a little bit of yourself.
I think that’s why cooking is very therapeutic for me and for most people. Because you’re putting emotion into something, and then, at the end of the day, someone is consuming that. I think it’s the only art form that people ingest.
So it’s an extension of you. It’s an extension of your nostalgia. It’s an extension of your story. It’s an extension of who you are.
So that’s why I think cooking is so important in times of need because it’s comforting. You think about when you’re sick, you look forward to meals as that moment of distraction from whatever ailment you have that also nourishes your body. So I think there’s a huge emotional connection with food that’s psychological as well as physical.
What You Can Do To Make Your Meals Feel Extra Special During Quarantine
Kwame: I always revert back to connecting food to a moment of nostalgia. When a dish has a story, it has a soul. And you’re not just cooking for perfect seasoning or just to eat, you’re cooking to remind yourself of something. Those are the times when cooking, for me, nourishes more than just my appetite. It nourishes something in me that needs something on an emotional level.
And you don’t have to cook it for yourself. For me, eating and experiencing the food that makes me happy is really important.
My meal when I’m feeling down or in a rut is Chinese takeout. It reminds me of my childhood growing up in New York City, eating chicken wings and pork fried rice with my family. It was a cheap meal. It fed the whole family for like a day and a half.
But it was more than the price point. It was more than even the socioeconomics of that dish—of Chinese people trying to adhere to the American palate in the 70s. It’s more than all that shit. It’s not a history lesson. It’s the way I feel when I eat it.
Editor’s Note: In our first interview, Kwame mentioned that when he’s sad, he also eats egusi stew, a dish that plays a prominent role in his book. Here’s his recipe.
Why We Can’t Afford to Lose Restaurants As A Result Of This Pandemic
Kwame: Think about the immigrants that come here or the people that have saved up everything to open up their restaurants. They don’t give a shit about awards or anything. The people who opened these restaurants wanted to give opportunities to their children to go to college or get out of a certain scenario.
And they might not have the tax documents or records that would make them eligible to get any of the long term benefits from the PPP [Paycheck Protection Program] or things like that.
I’m worried about that because those are the restaurants that feed America. They’re the restaurants I go to as well. But those are the restaurants that Americans go to to eat for nourishment. They’re the restaurants that fed me as a child when my mother was scraping together money and just didn’t want to cook—and wanted that moment of solace and peace in this world of chaos.
So I think those restaurants are just as, if not more, important than the restaurants that are striving for awards day in and day out.
These restaurants are the heartbeat of America.
Cooking Advice For People Who Used To Go Out For Every Meal
Kwame: Cooking is an act of love. It’s not always meant to be scrutinized. You know, I posted a recipe the other day, and someone was like: “I don’t have apricots or sultanas, white raisins. I only have these ingredients, What do I do?”
I was like: “Have fun with it. It’s cooking. Use another dry fruit.”
Cooking is easy, you just have to put a little love in it—that’s what Leah Chase said. So don’t be afraid to experiment and don’t be afraid to use as few ingredients as possible. Like, you don’t have to do the elaborate recipes. A lot of my recipes are five, six ingredients. So have fun with it.
There’s this perception that you have to be perfect every single time you cook. But it’s okay to make mistakes. And it’s okay to not be good at something and then become good at something. There’s a beauty in that—in not being good at something, and then working at it every single day, and you look back a month later and you’re a totally different person than you were when you started said task.
Think of it that way. I don’t care what you’re good at—whether you’re a computer programmer or you make fucking dog leashes—the first time you did it, you weren’t great.
Pantry Staples You Should Have, Which You Might Not Think of On Your Own
Kwame: Really good spice blends. You can get a really good curry that’ll last you a couple months. Or, like, Creole spices. Different types of chiles—dried chiles are really good to have on hand. Tomato paste is always a good thing to have on hand. And preserved anchovies—because you can always chop them up and put them in a sauce.
Editor’s Note: Kwame shared some other pantry staples with GQ. No, I’m not mad they blatantly stole the concept of this newsletter. Why would I be mad? That would be so petty!
How He Finds Strength in Difficult Moments
Kwame: I try to remember that man plans and God laughs. You can plan all day but shit, things happen, opportunities present themselves, opportunities fall through, and it’s really your inner being—not just confidence, but being okay with the unknown—that will allow you to get through a moment like this.
It’s okay to not know what you’re going to do or what you’re doing next and take that as a part of life. That’s kind of cool. For once, maybe you’re just living—and maybe that’ll help you get through the day.
And then, it’s about letting emotions pass. The last two days, I was not feeling great. I was like: Man, when is this shit gonna end? Walking around, it’s like the apocalypse. But then, I said to myself: I’m gonna let this feeling pass. And then when I’m happy again, I’ll be happy.
Part of being a human being is having emotions—so don’t get caught up on any one emotion and obsess over it.
What Organizations He Hopes You Support
Editor’s Note: Kwame is also raising money for his staff at Kith / Kin. You can support them here.
Homecooking Hacks from Chef Justice Breyer
The Wall Street Journal broke a BIG story: Justice Breyer, by far the most likable member of the Supreme Court with a Y chromosome, is a slow cooker bro. Specifically, he’s been slow-cooking up a storm of pot roasts. Thanks to Jess Bravin for including, like, the entire recipe in her article. Here it is:
You need about a 4-pound roast, about a dozen peppercorns, some olive oil, a big yellow onion chopped up, three or four cloves of garlic, minced, two or three stalks of celery, three or four carrots, a cup of good wine—not drinking wine, any kind of wine—and a 28-ounce can of Italian tomatoes or crushed tomatoes, salt and pepper. Chop up some parsley for the garnish.
So what you do is you combine the spices, the cinnamon cloves, allspice and peppercorns. You have to put them in the coffee grinder or something to chop them up, which means your coffee will taste of spice for a while, or your roast will taste of coffee, who knows? But you grind them up to a powder. Then you get a big pan and over medium heat you heat the oil
Brown the roast on all sides, for about 10 minutes. Then put it in the slow cooker, but if you don’t have a slow cooker I’m sure you could use a big casserole thing or any kind of a big pot. Next, take a saute pan and add the chopped onion, stir it for a while until it softens and is slightly brown. And you add to that the garlic, the celery, the carrots and you do some more sauteing until they are softened and then you put in the spice mixture and cook for another couple of minutes.
And then you add the red wine and cook it for about 10 minutes or so until the red wine is reduced by about a third and then you stir in the tomatoes and salt and pepper—well, you have pepper already in there but you could add some salt. And you pour the sauce over the meat, you cook it for eight hours, and there we are. That’s the secret.
Hey, Justice Breyer, if you’re reading this: I love you, but if you don’t stay 6 feet away from Justice Ginsberg, we’re gonna have a problem.
“It’s Not The Money; It’s The Recipes”
Seth Shapiro got his law degree /
He moved to Brooklyn from Schenectady, ‘93 /
Got some clients in the food industry /
He says it’s not the money, it’s the recipes.
That’s a verse from one of my favorite Fountains of Wayne songs, “Someone To Love.” As I’m sure many of you know, one of the driving forces behind Fountains of Wayne, Adam Schlesinger, lost his life to the novel coronavirus last week. I hope all of you celebrate his life by listening to his music. I suggest starting with “Hackensack.”
If I’ve learned anything talking to chefs over the past few weeks, it’s that, like Seth Shaprio, they don’t do what they do for the money, though they need it now more than ever. They, too, do it for the recipes. I didn’t know Adam, but I think he felt the same way about music: He didn’t become a rock star for the glory; he did it to bring joy to the world. And while I’m heartbroken that he’s gone, I take some comfort in knowing the words he wrote, and the chords he played, will be with us forever.
Until next time...