Chef Kwame Onwuachi: A Star on the Rise

A Tantalizing Culinary Story of Persistence and Rising Above Failure

In keeping with his cultural heritage and traditional roots, he is today the Executive Chef and Co-Creator of Kith and Kin restaurant, an Afro-Caribbean cuisine hot-spot in Washington D.C – his name is Kwame Onwuachi. Born by a Nigerian father and an African-American mother, Chef Kwame was raised in the Bronx of New York with heritage in Trinidad, Nigeria and Jamaica. He described his love for food as a natural result of his intimate interactions with his mother in the kitchen. This relationship blossomed into his first job as an assistant to his mum while she ran her catering business from their home kitchen.

Experiences dealing with his absentee father and his food-loving mother helped shape his childhood. For misbehaving in school though he was sent to Nigeria at the age of 10 to learn about his cultural background. This cultural exploration ended 2 years after at the age of 12 and in that time he lived with his paternal grandfather. However, his time in Nigeria did not change things as he quickly began selling drugs, joined a gang and soon got expelled from college. When narrating his experiences during his two years in Nigeria, Chef Kwame elucidates that he was particularly sent home “to learn respect”. While learning respect, he also learned a host of other things like the source of some of the dishes which his mother made in the Bronx. In his own words he “also learned about where food came from and how to value it,” such that “if we wanted chicken, we had to raise our own. If we wanted to make banga stew, we’d have to pick the fruits from the palm tree.”

On his return to the United States he found himself in the kitchens of Louisiana whipping up dishes like a pro all the while preparing himself for his current role as Executive Chef of Kith and Kin. His stunts did not end in Louisiana Kitchens, add an offshore oil rig to that list before his return to New York. In two months during his early twenties, Kwame made about 20K dollars from selling candy on the New York subway. It was with this money that he began his own catering business, taking after his mother. Kwame’s catering business will then open up the opportunity for him to attend the Culinary Institute of America before taking jobs at Per Se and Eleven Madison Park. Soon enough, Kwame found himself on TV in 2015, on the popular cooking show and competition – Top Chef. Today, Kwame’s philosophy on cooking can best be defined as telling a story through food.

So far this year, Chef Kwame Onwuachi has released two memoirs, a hard copy book with the title Notes from a Young Black Chef, and a second dialectical memoir, an opus of the perfect combination of Caribbean curry and goat head, which is engraved at Kith and Kin restaurant – the site of his current and most prominent culinary venture.

Chef Kwame asserts that he and his partners actually “broke the bank” to bring Kith and Kin to life, but it signifies his biggest and most satisfying culinary break so far. With Kith and Kin, Kwame is not looking to just make dishes, in fact his goal far surpasses the confines of the kitchen. Kith and Kin meals served fresh, hot, savory and spicy are a full expedition into the cultural expressions of regions around the world like Africa, Caribbean and South America. Chef Kwame seamlessly combines foods from all of these regions to provide customers something of a transient experience. Moving from West Africa’s suya and jollof rice, Kwame’s cuisine quite easily moves into larger areas of cultural interest like the braised jerk chicken of Jamaica, and cucumber and avocado salad garnished with goose berry juice and the Trinidadian green seasoning. For Kwame, everything is really in the details as he threads a fine cultural line that touches even on the subliminal existence of many – especially the African diaspora.

What Happened Before Kith and Kin?

A lot had happened for Chef Kwame before Kith and Kin, which is not his first full-scale restaurant. By the age of 25, he got his longtime desire to launch his first tasting menu restuarant in Washington D.C called Shaw Bijou. At the time Shaw Bijou was one of the most anticipated restaurant openings in Washington D.C but will shut down just eleven months after its launch. Indeed, dreams do come true, but maybe it was not the right time. For Chef Kwame, Shaw Bijou was the break he needed to make a name for himself, but that dream ended almost as soon as it started. Today however, he manages Kith and Kin and the fast-casual place called Philly Wing Fry.

Chef Kwame Onwuachi in front of Shaw Bijou.

According to Chef Kwame, the mode of cooking at Kith and Kin is a lot more different than anything he has done before. He says “it is a lot more rustic than any cooking I did in the last couple of years, but this felt a lot more like me. It was like a coming-of-age.”

So is Kith and Kin a better venture than Shaw Bijou? Well maybe. At least he is now reaping the fruits of all his years of hard work. But why did Shaw Bijou fail? Chef Kwame had done everything right, or so he thought.

I thought it was going to end with me opening the Shaw Bijou and getting three Michelin stars — like, this is it!

Chef Kwame Onwuachi

As a fan favorite in the Top Chef competition in 2015, Shaw Bijou’s tasting menu covered a host of delicacies that told a story about Chef Kwame’s life experiences. At Shaw Bijou, Onwuachi charged about 67K naira for the experience of eating through his specialized courses at his 32-seat restaurant. After its launch, Shaw Bijou looked ready to become the best and most expensive restaurant in the area, but maybe being the best and most expensive restaurant can’t really go together.

Chef Onwuachi met his misfortunes when his restaurant ran out of money, which soured his relationship with his investors. As if this was not enough, one bad review on the Washington Post further wrecked the Shaw Bijou enterprise before it even started. The publisher released a negative review that read:

Honestly, though, a real Butterfinger is better than the chocolate-robed salt lick served here.

The Washington Post

To further explain the cause for this failure? Chef Kwame Onwuachi recounts that the main reason for Shaw Bijou’s short life was his lack of business experience and objectivity.

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. We were on our way to making strides.

But instead of asking the right questions, I was excited in the moment.

Chef Kwame Onwuachi

This experience dealt Kwame a huge blow, but his fighting spirit did not give way. It was not long before he got another deal to run a kitchen at the InterContinental hotel at the newly constructed Wharf along the Potomac River of Washington D.C. This was good a deal because Chef Kwame can cook whatever he wanted, although he would have to open for breakfast, lunch, dinner and provide room services during after hours.

I didn’t want to allow myself to be washed up.

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.

Chef Kwame’s New Approach:

I could either do an elaborate tasting menu, or I could do something to honor my ancestors.

I hadn’t seen anything representing them in that vein — a place to celebrate our food while celebrating a special occasion.

Even more interesting about the location of his new current venture is the historical fact that it was here that Georgetown University had shipped off about 272 enslaved African-Americans to pay off its debts.

With this new working background and inspiration, Kith and Kin opened in 2017 with a wholesome homey menu that drew its specification from Chef Onwuachi’s cultural roots in Nigerian, Trinidad and Jamaica and Louisana. Compared to his previous 32-seater Shaw Bijou, Kith and Kin can hold over 100 customers, which is quite a step-up in management.

Apart from managing Kith and Kin, Onwuachi is also trying to establish an inexpensive fast-casual outfit called Philly Wing Fry. At Philly Wing Fry, only waffles, cheese steaks and chicken wings will be sold. There are currently two Philly Wing Fry locations in Washington and with time Chef Kwame plans to launch more locations across the United States.

Talking about the reason for opening Philly Wing Fry, Onwuachi made it clear “there’s no crazy narrative, these are three things that I really like. What could be more personal than that?”

Looking really close at Chef Kwame’s story and journey, he is really no longer just a young talented chef with huge ambitions. Although still a star on the rise, he is now better equipped with the business stamina and experience to reach the heights that he has always dreamed of.

Talk about setting goals and achieving them – in 2016 Kwame had set goals to be listed in Forbes 30 under 30, and the Washingtonian’s 100 Very Best Restaurants. Recently, he was named one of America’s best new chefs by Food and Wine magazine and clinched a Rising Star Chef nomination from the James Beard Foundation.

From the looks of things, Chef Kwame Onwuachi still wants to achieve a lot of things in the Culinary world: like write an Afro-Carribean cookbook, and do a “bajillion other things”.

More importantly, I believe there is a lot to learn from Chef Kwame’s life even as his story continues to unfold before out very eyes.