By Priya Krishna | April 16, 2019 (as appears in The New York Times)
Kwame Onwuachi vaulted from troubled youth to overnight success to failure with a fancy restaurant in Washington, D.C. Now he’s drawing attention with a new book and approach.
By the age of 26, Kwame Onwuachi had already experienced the kind of head-spinning rise and fall that most chefs will never know in a lifetime.
Growing up in a financially struggling family in the Bronx, Mr. Onwuachi was sent to Nigeria at age 10 to live with relatives because he kept misbehaving in school. Returning to New York two years later, he resumed his downward trajectory, eventually joining a gang, selling drugs and being expelled from college.
Then Mr. Onwuachi turned things around. In his early 20s, he peddled candy on the subway, then used the money to finance a catering business. He graduated from the Culinary Institute of America, worked at the celebrated Manhattan restaurants Per Se and Eleven Madison Park, and competed on “Top Chef.”
At 25, he was handed a carte-blanche offer to build the tasting-menu restaurant of his dreams in Washington, D.C. — the Shaw Bijou, which quickly went from being one of the most anticipated openings in the country to a much-heralded flop, closing after just 11 weeks. It seemed the chef’s career was over before it even started.
This is the story Mr. Onwuachi, now 29, tells in his new memoir, “Notes From a Young Black Chef,” written with Joshua David Stein and published by Knopf. But what may be most intriguing about Mr. Onwuachi’s life is not in the book. It’s what has happened since.
The chef who once believed that the high-concept, high-priced Shaw Bijou, with its Icelandic sheepskin chairs and handblown glass light fixtures, would catapult him to culinary renown is instead running a hotel restaurant, Kith and Kin, and two fast-casual places called Philly Wing Fry.
At Kith and Kin, in Washington, he is making homey Afro-Caribbean food, and exploring the legacy of the African diaspora rather than justhis own personal history. And he is finally reaping the accolades he sought so strenuously at the Shaw Bijou.
“It’s a lot more rustic than any cooking I did in the last couple of years,” Mr. Onwuachi said over coffee and a bagel. “But this felt a lot more like me. It was like a coming-of-age.”
When Mr. Onwuachi opened the Shaw Bijou in 2016, backed by two investors who had approached him, he centered the menu on his life story, which he had carefully honed years earlier while he was trying to win the sympathy of his subway customers, or to become a fan favorite on “Top Chef.”
The tasting courses were so tightly focused on that story that they included a Butterfinger mignardise, a small pastry inspired by the best-selling item from his days hawking candy, and a fisherman’s pie, the dish his mother used to make for him on his birthday, gussied up with charcoal-roasted madai and lobster foam.
Mr. Onwuachi charged $185 for the experience, and in interviews proclaimed that the 32-seat restaurant, one of the city’s most expensive, would also be its best. The food press zealously covered the run-up to the opening, even though the highest-level restaurant job Mr. Onwuachi had held before this was as line cook.
He had begun writing his memoir. “I thought it was going to end with me opening the Shaw Bijou and getting three Michelin stars — like, this is it!” he said.
But after all the hype, his fortunes tumbled: The restaurant ran out of money, Mr. Onwuachi clashed with his investors and The Washington Post published a negative review that drew nearly 500 comments. “Honestly, though, a real Butterfinger is better than the chocolate-robed salt lick served here,” the review said.
Mr. Onwuachi says he had become too caught up in his own vision. “I think about what if I had asked more questions, if I were more experienced in business, if I had asked about the budget in the beginning,” he said. “We were on our way to making strides. But instead of asking the right questions, I was excited in the moment.”
The investors closed the restaurant, and Mr. Onwuachi considered leaving the city. “I was 26 and experiencing this very public shaming,” he said, an ordeal that he still recalls with some anguish.
His book ends there. But soon, he accepted an offer to run a restaurant in the InterContinental Washington D.C., a hotel under development at the Wharf, a huge commercial and real estate project along the Potomac River.
Mr. Onwuachi’s kitchen would have to provide breakfast, lunch, dinner and 24-hour room service, but he could cook whatever he wanted. “I didn’t want to allow myself to be washed up,” he said.
“My initial thought was, ‘Let’s do the same thing I did before,’ and show that no one understood what I was doing, that whole ‘cry me a river’ story,” he said.
Yet as he researched the history of the waterfront, he became fascinated by a history other than his own: Here, in 1838, Georgetown University infamously shipped off 272 enslaved African-Americansthat it had sold to pay off its debts. After the Civil War, many former slaves moved to the area to work.
“I could either do an elaborate tasting menu, or I could do something to honor my ancestors,” Mr. Onwuachi said. “I hadn’t seen anything representing them in that vein — a place to celebrate our food while celebrating a special occasion.”
At Kith and Kin, which opened in 2017 and can seat more than 100 people, the menu does gesture to his family’s roots in Jamaica, Trinidad, Nigeria and Louisiana. There’s the goat roti he grew up eating at his Trinidadian grandparents’ house on Long Island — chunks of meat and potatoes seasoned effusively with warm spices — and jollof rice, a staple in Nigeria, enlivened with homemade curry powder and a Maggi seasoning cube.
Reaching beyond his own background, Mr. Onwuachi also serves sambusas, savory pastries inspired by ones widely eaten in Ethiopia, and calamari Veracruz, with olives and fermented Scotch bonnet peppers — a nod to the Afro-Caribbean influence on that Mexican city’s cuisine.
Mr. Onwuachi says he got the idea for Philly Wing Fry — inexpensive shops that serve only cheese steaks, chicken wings and waffle fries — while he was smoking pot after a shift at Eleven Madison Park in 2013. Now there are two locations in Washington, with a national expansion planned.
“There’s no crazy narrative” with the chain, he said, but it still has a special meaning for him. “These are three things that I really like. What could be more personal than that?”
On a recent morning, Mr. Onwuachi started his day unpacking boxes at Philly Wing Fry’s outpost in a Whole Foods Market, dressed in a leather jacket, thick-rimmed glasses and black loafers that looked like fancy Birkenstocks. (“They’re French,” he clarified.) After picking up his freshly dry-cleaned chef coat at his apartment in the Navy Yard neighborhood, he headed to Kith and Kin.
The restaurant’s kitchen is a playground of Mr. Onwuachi’s favorite ingredients: tubs filled with Maggi cubes and large batches of xawaash, an aromatic spice blend from Somalia. The dining room features a large abstract mural by the artist Meg Biram, lined with quotations from Mr. Onwuachi’s favorite cooks, including Leah Chase, Fernand Point and his mother, Jewel Robinson, who is a personal chef in the Cayman Islands.
Otherwise, the décor offers no hints about Mr. Onwuachi. This could be any other sanitized hotel dining room, with its cove lighting and wine wall. There are televisions above the bars, and a breakfast buffet in the morning. In the kitchen, waiters stream by with room-service carts.
“If you asked Kwame before we opened up the Shaw Bijou if he would have been interested in opening a restaurant inside a hotel, I don’t think that’s something he would have been gung-ho about,” said Greg Vakiner, 29, the former general manager of the Shaw Bijou.
But at Kith and Kin, Mr. Onwuachi’s cooking commands the kind of attention that overshadows everything around it.
“The food speaks for itself,” said Jessica Sidman, the food editor of Washingtonian magazine. “It doesn’t need so much explanation tableside.”
Mr. Onwuachi is no longer the starry-eyed 26-year-old with boundless confidence, describing his restaurant only in superlatives. While he is certainly self-assured, people who know him say he seems more thoughtful. There’s no more “cult of Kwame,” as Ms. Sidman described the experience of the Shaw Bijou.
Yet Mr. Onwuachi is drawing plaudits. In recent months he has won a Rising Star Chef nomination from the James Beard Foundation, and a flattering review from the same Washington Post critic who panned the Shaw Bijou. Last week, he was named one of America’s best new chefs by Food & Wine magazine.
Back in 2016, Mr. Onwuachi drew up a list of honors he wanted to earn — Forbes magazine’s 30 Under 30, Washingtonian’s 100 Very Best Restaurants, and so on. He has achieved those two, and most of the others as well.
He is well aware that few black chefs have been granted such recognition. For years, he said, it irritated him that only white men were hailed as the culinary greats whose restaurants young cooks would have to pass through in order to succeed.
“There is a ceiling for chefs of color that I want to change,” Mr. Onwuachi said. “I can give people opportunities to move up.”
In his book, he writes that he encountered systemic racism while working at Per Se and Eleven Madison Park. In 2014, he says, he tried to explain to Chris Flint, then the chef de cuisine of Eleven Madison Park, that when servers referred tableside to the cylindrical grater they used — a Mouli — black customers might take offense because the word is similar to a racial slur. He says Mr. Flint was dismissive, responding, “No black people eat here anyway.”
In an interview, Mr. Flint denied saying that. Eleven Madison Park issued a statement saying that it was investigating the incident.
At his own restaurants, Mr. Onwuachi says, he does not recruit employees with certain groups in mind. Nor does he spend much time in the kinds of low-income neighborhoods where he grew up, but “I do see that a lot of cooks of color gravitate toward this kitchen,” he said.
He believes he can make a difference just by being present: “It’s showing them that this could be you.”
The diversity of his kitchen staff is noticeable. Though many employees are older than Mr. Onwuachi, some see him as a mentor. Martel Stone, 30, Kith and Kin’s executive sous-chef, used to commute to the restaurant from Philadelphia every day simply because the kitchen was “full of people who have shared experiences,” he said. “It’s a different level of comfort.”
Mr. Onwuachi, for his part, says he is inspired by accomplished black chefs like Edouardo Jordan of JuneBaby and Salare in Seattle, Nina Compton of Compère Lapin and Bywater American Bistro in New Orleans, and JJ Johnson of Henry at Life Hotel in New York. As more African-Americans rise in the business, he hopes, “there can be a new pantheon of chefs, and people come through our kitchens.”
All three of those chefs said they saw great promise in Mr. Onwuachi and his cooking.
“When you have young voices like Kwame coming on the scene, people are listening,” said Ms. Compton, 40. “It’s the beginning of something really special. Twenty-five years ago you’d talk about Afro-Caribbean food, no one would listen.”
If Mr. Onwuachi’s current restaurants are more modest than the Shaw Bijou, his ambitions are still huge: He wants to write an Afro-Caribbean cookbook, produce and host a television show set in Africa, create his own line of rum and run “a bajillion restaurants,” he said matter-of-factly.
He is still trying to shape and spin his own story. During interviews, he suggested angles for this article, and repeated certain key anecdotes, slowing his voice to make sure they were noted.
He needn’t have. He already has people’s attention.
“I would want to give it some time before we declare him one of the top chefs in D.C.,” said Ms. Sidman, the Washingtonian editor. “But by all accounts, it is a pretty good comeback story.”