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‘The Kitchen at Per Se Was a Clean Place but Hard and Heartless Too’

Kwame Onwuachi’s memoir, “Notes From a Young Black Chef,” reveals kitchen abuse at Thomas Keller’s NYC restaurant

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The Shaw Bijou
Kwame Onwuachi at The Shaw Bijou.
R. Lopez/Eater DC

With Notes From a Young Black Chef, Kwame Onwuachi proves that 29 isn’t too young to write a memoir. With his first book, the chef of D.C. restaurant Kith and Kin takes readers through his childhood in the Bronx, where he learned to cook from his mother who ran her own catering company, to an adolescent stint in Nigeria, to selling drugs to his college classmates in Connecticut. All of this happens before the memoir arrives at the Kwame Onwuachi story many of his fans already know: a star turn on Top Chef followed by an intensely hyped D.C. restaurant opening and that restaurant’s precipitous demise.

In between his wayward adolescence and culinary-world fame, Onwuachi worked as an anonymous chef in New York City kitchens. In retelling these experiences in particular, Onwuachi is candid, unafraid to name names and call out racism for what it was. In this excerpt from Notes From a Young Black Chef, Onwuachi describes his time as an apprentice in one of New York City’s most notorious fine dining kitchens, that of Thomas Keller’s Per Se. Here, Onwuachi pays dues, suffers verbal abuse, and learns about the kind of kitchen he doesn’t want to lead. —Monica Burton

Notes From a Young Black Chef hits shelves April 9 and can be preordered on Amazon and at Powell’s Books.

One of Per Se’s signature dishes is a white- truffle- oil- infused custard served with a ragout of black winter truffles. It’s presented about midway through the chef’s tasting menu, arriving on a silver platter, a small amount of silken custard in a hollowed- out hen’s egg. The custard is made from egg, Keller’s thinking goes, so why not serve it in an eggshell? At Per Se, the egg is held in a silver coil, with its top neatly cut off. A translucent tuile — a play on a potato chip — juts up from the opening like a jaunty geometric feather. It’s no wonder that Keller never takes it off the menu: it’s his masterpiece. But someone has to hollow out and clean the eggs, and for a month that job fell to me.

Unless you’ve ever needed to clean the inside of an egg — and there’s no reason in the world you would, because it’s an insane thing to do — you might not know that it isn’t only eggshell, white, and yolk. Between the shell and the liquid inside, there are two thin membranes. In order to prepare the eggs, both membranes need to be removed. It’s a tricky operation. The first step is to score a circle with a tourné knife (the smallest in a knife roll) a third of the way down the eggshell. Then score it again, to cut the top off cleanly. Then you carefully empty out the yolk and the white, separating them into bowls to be used later. To loosen the membrane, you use a mixture of vinegar and hot water that must be poured carefully into the now empty egg. It takes one minute and nine seconds. Any less and the membrane will stick. Any longer and the shell becomes fatally fragile. After pouring out the water, you have to use your finger to scrape the membrane from the shell until it peels off like a snake’s skin. This is where my troubles began.

Even in the best-case scenario, you lose about 30 percent of your eggs. Sometimes they crack funny, chipping at the point of incision. Some eggs are just not pretty enough to make the cut. Often, digging in to remove the membrane, you’d catch the edge of the shell and the thing would chip. And, since this was Per Se, one chip was one chip too many. Into the trash it went. The vinegar, meanwhile, is great at softening the bonds that bind the membrane to the inside of the shell but also at softening skin. The repetitive action of scraping the membrane off with the softening effects of the vinegar meant that halfway through the stack, my fingertips were pinkish and cracking. Three-quarters done, droplets of blood had begun to form. This I noticed with some alarm and, admittedly, some pride. Looking down at my perfectly clean eggshells, I saw each one speckled with blood.

Because I was on egg duty for a month, my fingerprints vanished. Basic training was working. Who I was before I walked into the kitchen at Per Se was gone. Even the knowledge I thought I knew, I didn’t. There was the way everyone else does a task and the way it was done at Per Se.

The rhetoric of a restaurant is vastly different than what actually happens in the kitchen. When I first arrived, I took at face value the stated philosophy of only accepting the best. The anger I had witnessed from Per Se’s chefs, I thought, wasn’t justified but could be understood in part as a sort of intensely discriminating standard of excellence. Passion for the best, perhaps, overflows into uncontrollable passion. But one morning while I was in the prep kitchen, I became painfully cognizant of how what happens in a kitchen differs from what is said about what happens in a kitchen. We had just received a shipment of mandarin oranges. We used them to make demi-sec rounds that we served as an accoutrement to a fish main. It was my job not only to take off the membranes but to peel the segments, scrape off all of the pith, and dehydrate them. Even though they’d eventually be dried, it was important to use only the ripest, most flavorful mandarins since the dehydration doesn’t take away flavor, it intensifies it.

The batch I was working with that day was clearly off. The oranges were already desiccated, their flavor paler than what I was used to. Part of my responsibility wasn’t just to prepare the oranges but to taste them too. I knew that if a diner sent back a dish, or if it made it to the pass and chef de cuisine Eli Kaimeh kicked it back, it was my ass that was on the line. So when I saw these oranges and tasted them, I knew I had to say something. When the sous chef supervising the commis kitchen at the time passed by, I told him I didn’t think we should use the oranges.

He grabbed a mandarin and looked at it. “We can still appreciate its beauty,” he said, which was a very Per Se way to say STFU.

“I just don’t think it tastes good, Chef,” I replied.

“What the fuck did you say?” the sous growled, his cheeks flushing with anger. “Nobody asks your fucking opinion.”

“Are you going to question my taste buds?” he went on bellowing. “Nobody wants you to be here!”

By this point I had recovered enough to realize I’d just driven into crazytown.

“Why the fuck would you tell me that? I’m not your fucking friend. We don’t have fucking conversations,” he continued.

There were other moments too, when I felt like I was being called the N-word with no one actually saying it. No one had to and maybe they were too smart to. So it was left to me to decide whether it was because I was black or because I was just me that I was the only one greeted with a growling “Get the fuck back in the prep kitchen!” when I ran food out to chefs on the line. From that point on, I took those words to heart. I didn’t have conversations. I came in and did my job, getting better and better each service, but I didn’t look for friends or colleagues. I had my mask on and shield up. It was that old familiar feeling of being confused, scared, unsafe. And as I did as a boy, I did now as a man, cutting off the wires of my emotions. When the other chefs yelled at me I was no longer there.

When service began in earnest, around five o’clock, the afternoon apprentices either continued prep in the commis kitchen or, if you had proven yourself, you were allowed to assist the garde manger in the main kitchen. There are seven to nine official courses at Per Se, but Chef Keller padded these out with amuse-bouches.

Since he opened the French Laundry, Keller has been making these salmon cornets. They’re often the first bite of food a guest has, and so set the tone for the rest of the evening. The cornets are small sesame tuiles wrapped, while still warm and pliant, into tiny cones. These cones are then filled with similarly dainty scoops of salmon tartare with tiny bits of chive, to resemble ice cream cones with sprinkles. Thomas Keller, Dad Joke king of the kitchen. Having proved myself, my job during service was to man the cornet station, which was tucked right by the door to the kitchen, next to the garde manger.

For an apprentice to be on the line during service at Per Se was an honor. And to have even a small role in the flow of dinner service was a big deal. Though the hierarchy of the kitchen can be cruel, there’s still a sense of togetherness on the line during service. As soon as a waiter puts in an order and a ticket is generated, we became one body. We’d brace for whoever was expediting that night to call out a number, and as soon as he did the assembly line would spring into action. Me with my cornets, while at other stations other chefs began the beautiful and intricate dance of world-class cooking.

From my station on the line, I grew to understand what Keller meant by “sense of urgency” and understood why the overbearing chefs bore down so hard on all of us. If the intricate rhythms of the kitchen are interrupted by even one beat, the whole thing topples dangerously into cacophony. The sloppy mise of a morning commis, uneven knife cuts for instance, translates into vegetables of varying doneness at dinner. Even a moment of laziness in a line cook during service exposes the entire kitchen to disaster. Food dies under the heat lamps. Foams collapse. Meat grows cold. Yet none of this justifies the abuse.

By the time four months were up and I was approaching the end of my apprenticeship, I was ready to leave. My skin was bulletproof by this point but I hated that it had to be that way. At the end of service one evening, we were all sitting around the pass discussing the menu — well, I was standing, because as an apprentice I wasn’t allowed to sit. Every single night we had to create a menu for the next day. It didn’t matter what time it was or how long it took. We’d gotten to the main course and everyone was dog-tired. It was 2:00 a.m. and we had started work at 11 that morning.

Eli looked at our exhausted eyes and asked, “What are we going to do for tomorrow? No one knows? What is the fucking main course?” I took a chance: “Why don’t we do wagyu, Chef?”

Everyone looked around to see who had spoken up. I stood there with a blank face, no emotion, but at the same time not backing down. I had my Per Se game face on, a face I now donned automatically every day when leaving the locker room to approach the kitchen. And as the rest of the kitchen turned toward me, I noticed maybe for the first time that they were all hiding behind similar masks.

“What did you say?” Eli demanded, his voice cutting into me.

Keeping my tone as steady as I could, I responded, “Why don’t we do wagyu, roasted. With hakurei turnips, hen of the woods, and a Marsala veal jus. Maybe we can put a quail egg on it and make it like a riff on ‘steak & eggs.’ ”

The chefs de partie looked at each other, shook their heads, and rolled their eyes. Everyone, including me, braced themselves for an epic verbal assault. Which approach will he take this time? I wondered. Maybe it would be Eli’s usual riff when he got mad: “You fucking scum, you don’t even get to sit down and you think you can put a dish on this menu!” Perhaps he would go with, “Do you know how hard and long I’ve worked to be in my position? To put my blood, sweat, and tears onto this menu? Do you really think you can spew some off-the-cuff ‘dish’ and think you can make it onto the menu of the best restaurant in North America?”

To my surprise, Eli stared down at his notes, scribbled something, and looked back up at me. “Sounds fucking good. We will run it tomorrow.” My dish, on the menu at Per Se. I should have been overjoyed. I suppose that somewhere inside of me, I was. But by this time nothing could get through the game face. I was too afraid to smile, too exhausted to rejoice, and too beat to celebrate. I left Per Se a few days later. There was no teary goodbye, nor was I expecting one. The kitchen at Per Se was a clean place but hard and heartless too. The hierarchy was a necessary one but the weight of it was crushing to those on the bottom. The brigade system ensures that food gets to the plate looking pretty; it also gives free range to rage-inclined pricks to indulge their worst impulses. The anger was like black mold in the air ducts, infecting everything. As I’ve opened my own kitchens, at times I’ve certainly been guilty of regurgitating the habits I learned at Per Se. But when I grow enraged, I also try to remember how it made me feel to be yelled at on the line. From Per Se, I try to extract the sense of urgency without the poison of anger.

Excerpted from Notes From a Young Black Chef: A Memoir. Kwame Onwuachi with Joshua David Stein, Knopf, 2019.

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