Book Review: Notes from a Young Black Chef

Sometimes when you read a book, it teaches you in ways you did not expect. Notes from a Young Black Chef by Kwame Onwuachi was one such book. I expected to read about a chef and his culinary journey; instead, I began to think about the experience of students in my school.

The first few chapters of growing up and going to school really hit me hard. Kwame Onwuachi discussed how he began to realize that unconscious/conscious bias impacted how he was disciplined. His white best friend would be told not to do ____, while he was sent to the principal’s office for the same offense. He also realized that the language that his dad used when he beat him came out at school. As he was describing his experience at school in the primary grades, I pondered how many students at my school have the same experience. If I ask some teachers about this they might say, “Not at our school, ” or ” I don’t see color, ” or “It’s not my fault that all of the students on a Tier 3 plan for behavior in my class happen to be African American.” These possible responses make me nervous. How do I push back and invite teachers to look deeper into their behaviors?

Another line that hit me hard is was this one, “Eventually, I just sat there, seen by the entire school as a nuisance.” This line came at the end of a paragraph discussing how visits to the office progressed from rehabilitative to punitive. As I read this line, I thought, “How can I prevent this from happening at my school?” As I worked with students today, I came with the stance that we were there to problem solve together. (It was easy today because it was the first day back from break. I have confidence I will struggle as time passes.)

Here’s another powerful quote: “Many of the teachers, however, were middle-aged or older white women, and they approached us –ten year olds– like we were dangerous. They wielded their power like prison wardens. And in their fear, I saw reflected back an image of myself I hadn’t seen before.”  I have a ten year old at home, and I can guarantee that his teachers do not fear him, but I wonder if some students in his class are seen differently because of the color of their skin, and I wonder if he recognizes it.  I am encouraged to reflect on my use of power with students and how I shape the images of my students.

In addition to being a school book for me, I love the structure of this book. I am excited to try Hot Chicken and Waffles. I remember how he used frozen waffles on Top Chef and am looking forward to trying his yeasted waffles. I am also looking forward to using his technique for making roux in the oven.

Feel free to check out his interview on The Daily Show. I loved his line about just doing a little bit better each day.


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