Chef’s lecture about failure empowers and uplifts students


Allison Campbell

Diveristy Lecture Series speaker Kwame Onwuachi preches messages of self-confidence in the face of adversity to WSU students. Onwuachi, a Top Chef contestant, retold the lessons he learned from being a young, Black innovator in the culinary world.

As a broke, Black kid from the Bronx, Kwame Onwuachi was never expected to amount to much. However, after spending two years in Nigeria, serving as an oil rig cook and competing in national cooking competitions, Onwuachi would grow to become one of the most innovative young chefs in the culinary world.

James Beard Award Winning Chef Kwame Onwuachi spoke about his relationship with failure and his experiences in relation to race to Wichita State University students and guests in the CAC Theater on Thursday, Sept. 8. The lecture was hosted by The Office of Diversity and Inclusions as part of their ongoing Lecture Series. Onwuachi’s memoir “Notes from a Young Black Chef” was assigned to freshman WSU students as part of the university’s 2022-2023 Common Read and describes Onwuachi’s trials and triumphs in and out of the kitchen.

Onwuachi started cooking as a young child for his mother’s catering company, learning and experimenting with recipes from Iron Chef and Bobby Flay while his peers watched Spongebob and Rugrats. While he knew from an early age that cooking was his passion, it took years for Onwuachi to begin investing himself in his craft. After concerns that he would pursue a dangerous lifestyle, Onwuachi was sent to live with his grandfather in a village in Nigeria for two years to teach him respect. It was there that his love of food was further cultivated. He learned to prepare rich, cultural dishes with local livestock, fresh fruits, vegetables and grains grown by his friends and neighbors. He learned the values of community, education and savory food before returning to the states with a renewed passion.

“When I came back to America, I had a newfound appreciation for life,” Onwuachi said. “Not gonna lie, that lasted probably like three months and I got back into the things that got me sent out (to Nigeria) in the first place.”

When Kwame began university, he found himself selling alcohol and narcotics to pay his tuition, a path he knew was dangerous and unsustainable. It was the inauguration of President Barack Obama that redirected Onwuachi and encouraged him to reconnect with his life’s passion: cooking.

“Here’s a black man now holding the highest office in the world,” Onwuachi said. “What is my excuse not to do anything that I put my mind to?”

Onwuachi found work in Louisiana first as a server and then as an oil rig cook; both experiences were littered with racial stereotypes and prejudice. It was from these harsh realities and experiences that Onwuachi was inspired to “take a step back to leap forward” and enroll in culinary school. From there, he received incredible ratings on Dinner Lab and Top Chef before experimenting with opening his own restaurants. After much trial and error, Onwuachi found his place in the world as a chef, an author and an aspiring actor.

For the predominantly Black audience, the tackling topics regarding the relationships between race, success and failure spoke close to home. For WSU students like engineering technology management major and business entrepreneur Alayna Boykin, Owuachi’s speech was more than just motivational, it taught the importance of self respect and validation.

“(The lecture) verifies everything I’m going through right now,” Boykin said. “It puts your mind at ease that you’re not tripping, that (racism and prejudice) is a real thing. It kind of just validated me to believe in myself.”

Owuachi’s message to students is to not just accept, but to realize the significance and insignificance of failure. It was through this method of finding comfort in discomfort that Owuachi was able to turn a chore into a hobby, a hobby into a passion and a passion into a career.

“Failure is quantifiable, and it’s not something that you should ever refer to when speaking about yourself,” Owuachi said. “Every single day, our ability to fail is a success in itself. A successful person is just someone who goes into every single failure with the same amount of enthusiasm.”