2000s Archive

Traveling Man

Originally Published October 2002
François Kwaku-Dongo hails from the Ivory Coast, but his food, says Robert Sietsema, speaks of Japan, Italy, and beyond.

I'm here to stay."

In the Ivory Coast village of Botro, the words translate as "kwaku dongo." And though François Kwaku-Dongo's paternal grandfather was tribal chief there, his grandson did not stay-not in his native Botro or in Abidjan, where he was raised. He didn't stay in New York, either, although that was where he learned to cook. He honed his craft in Los Angeles, but that city also failed to hold him. Few chefs stay put these days, but even by modern standards François Kwaku-Dongo's has been a long and nuanced journey.

It began in the verdant village where his grandfather was not only chief but also owner of a large cocoa, pineapple, and coffee plantation. His only son, Kwaku-Dongo's father, was slated to inherit both the plantation and the chiefdom, but Kwaku-Dongo's grandmother had other plans. It was the late 1950s, and she sensed that the tribal system wasn't going to last. Accordingly, she put her son and his young wife on a train and sent them off to the coastal capital.

Kwaku-Dongo, who was born two years later, grew up in bustling, skyscrapered Abidjan but made frequent visits to Botro. At 18 he enrolled at the Lycée Classique, where he planned to study literature and languages with a view to becoming a translator. Midway through his schooling, however, Kwaku-Dongo's path took an abrupt turn. His older brother invited him to spend a few months in New York, where he had immigrated a few years earlier. Kwaku-Dongo arrived on a blustery day in 1983 with a single suitcase in his hand. He was 24. Though he'd never ridden a bicycle, he started delivering pizzas for Famous Ray's. "I was thrown into that job," he says with a laugh. "I'd never seen snow before, and I had to learn to deliver pizza, to say 'Good evening,' and to speak to the customers in English."

Having mastered those tasks, Kwaku-Dongo moved on to a job washing dishes at Alo Alo, an Italian restaurant on the city's Upper East Side. There, he proved such a dependable employee that when the chef, Venetian-born Francesco Antonucci, opened the more glamorous Remi two years later, he took François with him.

Kwaku-Dongo worked the salad station, but he began staying late and going in on holidays, secretly begging the five chefs Antonucci had imported from Italy to teach him some of their secrets. When a cook failed to show up one night, François haltingly admitted to his boss that he'd been learning to make pasta. "Well," said Antonucci, "why don't you give it a try?"

It wasn't long before Kwaku-Dongo was rotating through the other stations in the kitchen, and by 1989 he had risen to sous-chef. Around the same time, he became friendly with Klaus Puck, Wolfgang's younger brother, who was in New York pursuing his own education. That fall, Klaus invited his friend to accompany him on a trip to California. "I fell in love with Los Angeles," says Kwaku-Dongo. "There were palm trees everywhere, and just like in Africa, it was sunny every day."

It probably didn't hurt this burgeoning love affair that he arrived on the evening of Wolfgang's annual Academy Awards party, where he had a front-row view of Hollywood at its most glamorous. "On that night, I was one of the trainees on the line," says Kwaku-Dongo, "and I thought, 'This is a place where you have to get everything right because everybody is so picky.'"

Get everything right he did. So right, in fact, that Wolfgang offered him a job on the spot. California was a revelation. Remi had purchased many of its materials already prepared, but in Puck's restaurant everything was made from scratch. François learned to arrive at the fish market at 4 A.M. in order to get the best salmon; he learned to smoke the fish and to make a delicate pizza crust. And he learned to transmute those elements into the restaurant's signature salmon and golden caviar pie. Once again, he began showing up on his days off, eager to absorb everything there was to know about being a chef. "I found an apartment a block from the restaurant," he says, "and I told Wolfgang the only time I wanted to leave was when I had to do my laundry." In the evenings, he'd curl up with his Larousse Gastronomique.

Within three years, Kwaku-Dongo had become sous-chef to Makoto Tanaka. He'd also become so close to the chef that when Tanaka went home to visit Japan, he took François with him. Together they ate their way from Tokyo to Kyoto, the sous-chef causing a sensation with his dark skin and good looks. Impressed with the combination of stunning flavors and textures that he refers to as "mountain meets sea," Kwaku-Dongo underwent a crash course in Japanese cooking.

There was a surprise waiting for him on his return. Tanaka, he learned, was moving on to Puck's other Los Angeles establishment, Chinois on Main ... and François Kwaku-Dongo was to become head chef at what was then the most famous restaurant in America.

"I was very scared," he says about the promotion. "I would have nightmares of people sending back the food because there was this African guy making it."

It was in his new position at Spago, says Kwaku-Dongo, that he really learned how to think about food. At one point, Puck had his new chef prepare him a pasta tasting menu. "I brought everything to him, and he said, 'What is common to every dish you've made?' He pointed out that everything had tomato in it, and then he asked, 'If I took the tomato away, would you still be a good cook?'" From that point, Kwaku-Dongo says, he began incorporating chicken sauce, brown butter sauce, and white sauce into his cooking, and making use of the techniques he'd picked up in Japan and the spices he remembered from his mother's cooking back in Abidjan. But he didn't leave the tomatoes behind altogether, and under his stewardship Spago earned a reputation for its pizzas and pastas. "When people asked who made the pasta, Wolf would point at me and say, 'He's the guy that made it, and he's from Sicily.'"

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