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Photos: Scott Suchman

Kwame Onwuachi Continues to Cook Life Story

Just a few weeks after national media outlets broke the news that Kwame Onwuachi’s memoir Notes from a Young Black Chef would become the basis for an A24-produced film adaptation starring Lakeith Stanfield, I sat down with the chef at Kith/Kin.

We chatted in a private dining room tucked away in a back corner of his award-winning restaurant, located inside The Wharf’s InterContinental Hotel, on an afternoon in late July. He looked completely at ease as one of DC’s most notable photographers, Scott Suchman, snapped pictures of him sitting in an Eames-esque green leather chair. It was one of the few times I’d seen the chef without his prominent Malcom X hat. But the iconic X was still present, freshly tattooed in black on his left wrist, the same color as his painted nails.

If you haven’t heard of Onwuachi yet, perhaps the most accurate one-line description is: the hottest chef in DC. The 29-year-old is a phoenix, rising from the proverbial ashes after his first restaurant Shaw Bijou quickly shuttered in 2016, to become a New York Times best-selling author, Forbes 30-under-30 honoree, and a RAMMY and James Beard Award winner all in the span of about six months.

“It’s kind of like exploring a new facet of what this restaurant industry has to offer,” Onwuachi elaborated, leaning slightly forward. “When you talk about your story, you never think of yourself as interesting. I mean, there are certain people who view themselves as extremely interesting, but for the average person, you don’t know how someone is going to react to your story. To see how [mine] has been embraced by the world, I couldn’t have imagined it.”

Onwuachi’s story has always held the intrigue of diners and viewers alike, from Shaw Bijou menu items reminiscent of dishes from his childhood like fish pies and Butterfingers to his well-received appearances on Top Chef. It made sense to turn his background into a book: the tale of a young man who was in a gang and sold drugs before graduating from the Culinary Institute of America and opening a restaurant in the nation’s capital – all before the age of 30.

The published memoir ends before the story of his successes at Kith/Kin and fast-casual spot Philly Wing Fry reach the pages, but the ongoing narrative has played out in the various 2019 press coverage singing his praises. These accolades have led him to travel the globe – from Mexico to Chicago to Africa – to cook and appear at events and conferences, take calls with Issa Rae, and DM Ava DuVernay. And yet, he’s still perpetually in the kitchen.

“I definitely have days where I feel as if nothing is going right,” Onwuachi said. “Despite all these things happening, I’m still doing something I love. I’m still doing something I believe in. I’m still just cooking. I have this other side of my life now, which is very open, raw [and] vivid, that other people feel very connected to and are inspired by, which is a really cool feeling.”

An Open Book

Onwuachi’s memoir, released this spring, is described as “an intersection of race, fame and food.” The book begins and ends with the chef’s thoughts on his-then most recent project Shaw Bijou: the excitement, jubilation and exhaustion he felt before its opening and the utter disappointment that followed its closing – and the accompanying negative murmurs from the public. However, the chapters in between reveal more than his thoughts on culinary life.

“I don’t think it’s ever easy doing a new thing you’re not familiar with – a new medium. I have been exploring this for awhile, telling my story. But there are certain parts that aren’t glorious, ones you don’t share with people. You tuck it somewhere where you don’t have to talk about it ever again. This book is not for just young chefs. This book is not just for young black chefs. It’s not just for black people. It’s not just for people in the culinary industry. It’s for everyone.”

The writing process forced Onwuachi to divulge details he’d previously hidden. He talked to his family and friends to recreate scenes. He penned detailed accounts of his times as a 10-year-old in Nigeria fetching water and raising livestock, and the days he sold candy to passengers on the subways. Readers connected to these stories. He tells me he gets about five letters per day, often thanking him for being vulnerable. His mother, who ran a catering company while raising him in the Bronx, cried upon first read – and so did he.

“It brought back moments she was trying to forget. My grandmother was finding out things she never knew about me and crying for other reasons. Close family friends that didn’t really know my life story, how I got to where I am – it was eye-opening for them. It was different based on the person. I was crying when I first held the book in my hands. It felt really powerful. There was a weight to it. I didn’t know what the rest of the world would think [of] my story. I’m living it.”

Afro-Caribbean + Cheesesteaks

When Shaw Bijou closed after two short months, Onwuachi took the brunt of the blows. Criticism ranged from the price of the food to his lack of experience. Despite the headlines and hot takes, he said the restaurant worked. If it had more capital to survive the opening stages, he said it would have survived and thrived in DC’s market.

“It was money. That’s why restaurants close. We had plenty of people come to the restaurant. It was just that the investors didn’t have the capital they said they had. They didn’t have enough to get through the tough times, which is the beginning. I didn’t ask the right questions. I was young and excited. I was coming from a line cook position. I was excited to have a new life.”

Ten months later in October 2018, Onwuachi opened Kith/Kin as its executive chef. At first, he attempted to once more use his story as a foundation for his menu. Shortly after, however, he shifted the spotlight. He began to focus on emphasizing a vision built on Afro-Caribbean roots, inspired by his family’s history and an extensive amount of research.

Another impetus for change was his need to grow. When the restaurant was in its infancy, he labored long hours – from 6 a.m. to 1 a.m. – overextending himself and his creativity. He suffered a car accident because of exhaustion. Frankly, it wasn’t working.

“I looked in the mirror. There was too much money being spent on labor costs or things the guests didn’t realize. I had to make it less about me and more about the environment and my team. I was so hands-on, and it wasn’t working for anyone. I wasn’t the best version of myself and my food wasn’t the best version of itself. I needed to change so we could grow and become the restaurant I knew we were capable of becoming. I think trying to take from other models just didn’t work. It was tough, because I had to peel back the layers of my own cooking so that it would make sense.”

The restaurant’s high quality has helped land the chef both James Beard and RAMMY Awards this year, as well as other culinary accolades. And Kith/Kin isn’t the only thriving restaurant under his purview either, as Union Market’s Philly Wing Fry quickly became a favorite for locals. The little eatery specializes in the three words forming its title – cheesesteaks, chicken wings and waffle fries – plus other treats like fried Brussels sprouts. As of this summer, it’s even serving up egg-and-cheese sandwiches for breakfast on the weekends.

“I just thought, ‘Why isn’t there a place where I can get a cheesesteak, chicken and waffle fries in one spot?’ so I was like, ‘I’m going to make it.’  We had aged beef from Shaw Bijou, and we needed to [use it]. I think [these are staples] every American knows, and I thought it was a really good idea.”

Taking A Lap

From creative menus to a movie in the making, most of Onwuachi’s recent ideas have proven to be excellent. But if his book and the Shaw Bijou experiment are any indication, life ebbs and flows. When you’re flying highest is when you’re suddenly grounded. Onwuachi acknowledged some pressure in juggling his numerous projects, but he handles it all with a calmness.

“It keeps me going. I think I have a responsibility because I’m out there now. I have to. I felt it when I did Shaw Bijou. That’s why I didn’t want to close so bad. Being some of the first to do things, it’s tough. It’s a double-edged sword. But at the end of the day, I have to make sure I’m setting a great example for the rest of the people that want to do it so when they see me and they look like me, they know they can attain it.”

That’s how he felt when he saw President Obama walk across the stage during his election win in 2008. Though he’s not planning to walk across that stage anytime soon, you can often see Onwuachi taking a walk of his own at Kith/Kin – clad in his chef coat, bouncing from table to table, checking on his guests.

“People are finally able to celebrate their culture while celebrating a special experience. It’s why I do it. When it gets tough, I can take a lap around the dining room and see a rainbow of faces with food in their hands.”

Catch Onwuachi’s interview with Questlove at the Food & Grooves Festival at Union Market’s Dock5 on October 26 or at Miracle Theatre on November 1 with “The Sporkful Podcast.” Follow him on Twitter @chefkwame and on Instagram @chefkwameonwuachi.

Kith/Kin: 801 Wharf St. SW, DC; www.kithandkindc.com

Philly Wing Fry: 1309 5th St. NE, DC; www.phillywingfry.com