Chef Kwame Onwuachi cooks an eggplant dish during a keynote presentation as part of the Everett Public Library’s “One Everett One Book” program Friday at the Everett Performing Arts Center. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Chef Kwame Onwuachi cooks an eggplant dish during a keynote presentation as part of the Everett Public Library’s “One Everett One Book” program Friday at the Everett Performing Arts Center. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

In Everett visit, acclaimed chef Kwame Onwuachi offers food for thought

The award-winning chef came to the Everett Performing Arts Center for a spicy cooking demo while fielding audience questions.

EVERETT — Kwame Onwuachi is many things: author, TV writer, occasional stand-up comedian, McDonald’s connoisseur. But above all else, he is a chef.

So if you forgot to eat dinner before attending his talk at the Everett Performing Arts Center on Friday, chances are you instantly regretted it.

About 200 people filled the center’s auditorium Friday evening to hear the James Beard Award-winning chef answer questions about his life, work and his recent acclaimed memoir, “Notes From a Young Black Chef.”

The memoir and Onwuachi’s earlier cookbook, “My America,” were both included in the Everett Public Library’s One Everett One Book program, serving as discussion starters along the theme of “Food for Thought.” The library, along with other sponsors, brought Onwuachi to Everett for the talk to wrap up the program.

True to form, he kicked off the event with a cooking demonstration, then took questions at random from the audience for about a half-hour.

Onwuachi spoke of his family’s deep influence on his cooking as he rapidly sliced eggplant for baigan choka, an Indian-influenced, creole-spiced dish from his grandfather’s native Trinidad. Tossing charred tomatoes and lime juice into the sizzling skillet, he said dishes like these always remind him of family holidays, when a mix of their Nigerian, Creole and Caribbean roots would meld into a truly flavorful spread for the table.

“Food was always the great connector for us,” Onwuachi told the crowd. “It was a great way for everyone to spend quality time together. And plus, it was the only time everyone’s mouth is too full to argue.”

He tossed a scotch bonnet pepper, one of the world’s hottest, into the pan, and the spicy, fragrant steam quickly filled the space. A few attendees coughed, others covered their mouths and noses with their shirts.

Onwuachi asked if spicy food was common among Everett foodies.

“Only if you make it at home,” an audience member called out.

Onwuachi, 33, is a fast-rising star in the food world. He was a contestant on Top Chef in 2015, and he has since returned to judge the competition. He’s opened a handful of highly acclaimed restaurants around the country, dealing in such disparate cuisines as French-influenced traditional fine dining to upscale Philly cheesesteaks.

His most recent venture in New York City’s Lincoln Center, Tatiana, serves food inspired by the surrounding city where Onwuachi grew up. His mother was a chef, too, running a catering business from home where Onwuachi, age 5, was her first employee.

When she was busy, his sister Tatiana — the new restaurant’s namesake — took care of Onwuachi, and he constantly begged her for delicacies from the corner bodega. His new venture levels up that corner-store fare into a culinary experience, turning childhood nostalgia into a rich homemade take on the Cosmic Brownie with powdered donut ice cream served alongside.

With his hands so full juggling his many creative endeavors, he still often returns to the simple, quick and cheap comforts of microwave popcorn and cup noodles, Onwuachi said. His memoir is being adapted into a feature film by the production house A24, and he’s spending a lot of time these days reviewing scripts and adding input.

Asked who he’d like to see play him in the movie, Onwuachi joked that Michael B. Jordan was his first choice, despite the actor not being quite handsome enough to fit the bill. Maybe he’d cast all white actors to play his family, just to really throw people off, he said.

But seriously, he said, he wants to see a fellow rising star, British actor Damson Idris, take the role. And casting his family would be a tall order, since he wants to get the sensibilities and humor that shaped him just right.

“In everything I do, I want to keep it real to my experience,” Onwuachi said. “With cooking and with everything else, I think influences are good to keep on your sleeves as long as they’re authentic. That’s all that matters to me.”

Riley Haun: 425-339-3192;; Twitter: @RHaunID.

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