A little while ago, I got to have lunch with Kwame Onwuachi, chef of the restaurant Kith and Kin in Washington, D.C. We were in his apartment, which he shares with his fiance and their dog. But you could definitely tell it’s a chef’s place. There was a whole room with no furniture, and you just know he doesn’t spend a whole lot of time hanging out at home. Outside his window you could see construction cranes everywhere, fancy condo building after fancy condo building, and it’s in a neighborhood of Washington, D.C. that honestly looks like it was all built yesterday. And it’s kind of a perfect metaphor for how the world thinks of Kwame.
He’s still in his 20s, and he’s everywhere right now. This spring, he was named a Best New Chef by Food and Wine. He's a finalist for the Rising Star Chef award from the James Beard Foundation. And he’s got a memoir that just came out, called Notes from a Young Black Chef, written with Joshua David Stein.
And that all sounds great, but it also means that he's got a lot of people pretty ready to throw water on his fire. He’s too young. He’s hasn’t paid his dues. They read the title of his book and go, "What's being black got to do with anything? You just came out of nowhere and excuse me, who are you?"
But did he just come out of nowhere?
PART 1: EXPLORING A WORLD OF FOOD FROM AN APARTMENT IN THE BRONX
Francis Lam: What are eating here?
Kwame Onwauchi: We’re eating curried goat. I marinated the goat in green seasoning, a Trinidadian marinade of celery, green onions, ginger, garlic, you do our fermented Scotch bonnets chilies, and a bunch of other ingredients. You marinate the goat in that for about 28 hours.
FL: 28. Not 29. Not 24. 28!
KO: You sear it, then braise it in chicken stock and let that reduce.
FL: Why are we eating this today?
KO: This curried goat represents one of my earliest food memories. My grandfather is from Trinidad and my grandmother had it in the fridge. I remember her opening the fridge, heating it up, heating up some roti in a paper towel, raveling the paper towel and steam billowing out from it. She would wrap the curried goat in the roti and put it in my mouth, and it was one of those ‘aha’ moments at a very young age. At first, it’s like, this is curry, and then things starts to build and you get the heat from the back that comes from the Scotch bonnet chilies.
Kwame’s food is about a lot more than what cool cheffy ideas he has. It’s about his grandparents in Trinidad. It’s about his grandparents in Nigeria. It’s about his mother's Louisiana Creole cooking. It’s about growing up running with gangbangers and selling drugs to pay for college. It’s about waking up one day, strung out, seeing that a black man had just been elected president of the United States, and realizing that he was meant for more than smoking weed and slinging pills. It’s about being a star on TV, opening an incredibly hyped restaurant, and having it all crash down before he was even 28. And it’s about making a comeback, cooking the food of black people from around the world, in a world where comebacks are not readily given to young black men.
FL: Let’s talk about this other dish.
KO: This is a variation of my mother’s shrimp. My mother is famous in our family for her peel-and-eat shrimp. She takes shrimp and sautées it in this house spice that she makes and a little bit of garlic and thyme and butter. I’ve taken that same idea and we use the same house spice she makes, we sear the shrimp in that and we put the shrimp off to the side. Now the sauce I feel like was the best part. We would dip bread into this butter and garlic house spice sauce. I was trying to think of how I could impart this much flavor into that while still keeping the tradition alive and not bastardizing her dish. So, I took Worchestershire, orange juice, white wine, Abita beer, shrimp/crustacean stock – at the restaurant we do King crab, lobsters, shrimp; we take all of that and caramelize those shells and make a crustacean stock from that – we add that all together with the holy trinity from Louisiana – onion, green pepper, celery – and reduce that down to a paste and then deglaze the pan with shrimp stock from when we seared the shrimp and add that paste back to it, let that reduce, and add more garlic, butter, house spice.
FL: I know you just told me what I’m eating, but all I can say is, “What am I eating?!” This is so good.
KO: The best part is we keep the heads on, so all that juice is in the head. You get to suck on the head like in Louisiana. This and the gumbo on our menu is what I eat all the time.
Chef Kwame Onwuachi prepared dishes of Curried Goat and Grandma Cassie's Shrimp Étoufée for Francis Lam before their interview. Photo: Sally Swift
FL: I feel like I just took a trip to Louisiana. I want to ask you about your mother. When I read the book, you grew up largely in your mother’s home and moved around a lot, but in one of the homes you grew up with her I remember this really amazing scene: you in The Bronx, she did a lot of cooking at home, she did all of her catering gig cooking out of this apartment kitchen. I was reading that and thinking that your neighbors must’ve just felt some kind of way about the smells coming out of your home. But, there’s a great moment where you talk about how your mother and you would walk around your building in the hallways and smell what all your neighbors cooked. You would knock on their door and ask them to show you what they were making. Who were those neighbors and what were they making?
KO: One of them was an Indian household. It was like four floors down and we could smell it all the way up on the sixth floor. We’re sitting in our kitchen and we’re both hit with this smell; it creeps up like the cartoons into the window and into our nostrils like a Tom and Jerry episode. Me and my mother are like, “Woah! What is that? It smells so good.” Meanwhile, it’s been a couple of times a month that we’re taking the elevator up and we’re smelling this strong scent and we were like, “We’re going to go find this apartment.”
We race out of the room and go to the elevator because we know it’s not on our floor. We get in and press all the buttons; they all light up. [laughs] Fifth floor. We get out and let our noses lead us. It’s not the fifth floor. We get back in the elevator. Fourth floor, nope, it’s not the fourth floor. Third floor, no. Second floor, ding, the elevator opens and here it is, this aroma of curry. We can follow our nose to this one door at the end of the hallway and we knock on the door. This lady opens up, a small and short elderly Indian woman, and she says, “Can I help you?” I think she thought she was going to get yelled at or we were complaining about the smell. My mom introduced herself and me and said that we’d smelled her curry from the sixth floor, we didn’t know how to say this, but could we try a bowl of her curry. And the lady says, “Yes, come in.” She sits us down. She has paratha stacked up, she has this bowl of simmering curry and she ladles a couple of bowls for us with some roti and we go to town on it.
Those are the moments I lived for when I was kid, exploring and being in the moment, not worrying that this person might think I’m crazy. Like, I just want to try your curry; it’s a yes or no type of situation. If it’s no, I’ll leave. If it’s yes, let’s go! That woman ended up becoming my babysitter, and I was able to eat that all the time. That was the great part about that.
FL: You had other neighbors, too.
KO: We had Puerto Rican neighbors, Dominican neighbors, Albanian, we had the whole gamut, but that was the one with the strongest smell coming from behind the doors.
FL: I love that story because I feel like when they hear about Kwame Onwuachi, who grow up in The Bronx with tough upbringing, that’s not the first thing they are thinking, like that’s not what growing up in The Bronx is like. One of the things I love about your story and I love about your book and the way you’ve always told your story is that it’s about showing the reality of your life but also exploding the stereotypes of what people will think and apply to you. That said, there is a lot from your upbringing that is less charming and sweet and friendly. I think about the fact that you went to a school where the teachers were afraid of the students. And you went to work on a boat, which is obviously a hard thing. You were a cook, the only black person on this boat full of tough white laborers. When you were younger you ran with a gang. All of these situations of your story are full of you being surrounded by people who felt like they had to be hard to respected. You had to have a killer mentality. Is that you?
KO: It’s a great question. It’s not something I often think of. Growing up in New York City toughens you as a kid; everything’s a journey. Even as an adult in New York City, everything’s a journey; there’s no straight Point A to Point B. As a kid, it’s even more difficult growing up in that environment and having to navigate if you’re going to get beat up if you walk on this side of the street, are you wearing the right colors, should you go through this street, make sure you don’t look anybody in the eye, look down, have this façade or face up that shows I’m not to be messed with, so no one messes with you. I think that changes you growing up in New York or any major city.
PART 2: LEARNING RESPECT IN NIGERIA AND FINDING HIS CALLING IN THE MIDDLE OF THE GULF OF MEXICO
There's a story in Notes From a Young Black Chef about the first time he punched someone. It was a fight he didn’t want to have, but he clocked that boy square in the face, and then he just went in. He felt a rush and knew that violence was a part of him now. It was a moment his mother probably feared would happen. Because a few years before that, she tried to get him out of his neighborhood and sent him to live with his grandfather, in Nigeria. Which is where we pick up the story, and I asked Kwame what that was like.
Kwame Onwauchi: It was shocking for one. Don’t get me wrong, I was excited to go to Nigeria. It was cool to go there for the summer. I hadn't been there in so long, some of my cousins were out there, my grandfather lived there. He and I went out there together, we left from D.C. My grandfather used to teach at Howard University. A lot of my aunts live here in D.C. When he comes from Nigeria, tradition is you stay with your eldest child, so he stays on my aunt here. We all used to come down from Jersey, New York, wherever we were to stay with my grandfather here in D.C. every summer.
This time when I came down we got on a plane back to Nigeria together. [laughs] I’m like, “Union Station is that way!” So, we get to Nigeria. It's cool, you know, small little village. I'm down for a couple weeks in Nigeria. And then we go to a call center because cell phones weren't really big then. We have to go to a call center or internet cafe to make a phone call. We drive in my grandfather's old rinky-dink Mercedes; my legs are sticking to the leather, burning. Finally, we get there, I talk to my mom, and she tells me you're staying until you learn respect. And I was like how long, what does that mean? School starts like in a couple weeks. It's almost September. She's like I'll let you know when you can come back.
Francis Lam: How old were you?
KO: I was 10 years old. So, from 10 to 12 I was in Nigeria learning respect. Everything changed. I went from playing PlayStation to doing my homework under kerosene lamp. There wasn't electricity, there was no running water. School was completely different. You were still physically disciplined in school. If you didn't do your homework it was seven lashes from a cane. If you acted up in class you had to carry a cinder block back and forth on the soccer field. If you got into a fight or stole something there wasn't suspension – suspension is a luxury. You would dig your height. No one would ever complete that.
FL: It took me a second to even understand what you were saying. Dig your height. Like literally dig a hole.
KO: Stand in a hole that was taller than you. The kids would be crying when it got halfway like, no more, no more. Think about that next time you want to fight someone over a pencil or you want to curse at a teacher or skip school. Think about these things. It was real tangible lessons. Pound for pound.
FL: But you ate well?
KO: Not at first. I didn't eat; I was on a hunger strike essentially. I ate these things called Cheesies – like Nigerian Cheetos – and ground nuts, which were like peanuts but like a lot nuttier. I ate those for two months straight; it's all I ate.
I remember two months later it was okra stew with pounded yam. Pounded yam is like cassava, like large tubers of cassava, they take and put in a giant mortar and pestle with a little bit of water. It’s between their legs, and they pound and pound and pound until it’s almost glutinous, where you can grab it and dip it into a stew similar to this and eat it.
That was one of the first meals when I got there. My grandmother plopped it down on the plate, lifted the spoon up, and there was a string from the plate three feet up. It was the slime from okra. I was like, there's no way I'm going to eat that. Two months later she made that and I was tired of eating Cheesies and peanuts, so I ate it and it was one of the most delicious things I ever put in my mouth. Then I started eating all the stews. I would eat onion stew. I was already keen to egusi stew because it was one of like my earliest food memories. My mother loved the stew, my father loved the stew, she would always cook it.
FL: Egusi stew is made with a ground pumpkin seed, right?
KO: Exactly, ground melon seed. Crayfish. Iru, which is like a fermented locust bean.
FL: Almost in the way we use a miso.
KO: Exactly, yeah. Then whatever stock you want to use – fish stock or chicken stock. Then some bitter leaf or people use spinach here. It's delicious. There's nothing like egusi stew. I started eating all the different stews. Banga stew from the palm kernels that we'd go and harvest from the palm trees. Soak these palm kernels and beat them in the mortar and pestle, and squeeze out all of the pulp. Then we'd separate palm oil, so we'll have that to cook with. Then you’ve got the bulk of the palm kernel puree, and we make Banga soup from that. I got into all these different you know Nigerian dishes.
FL: That also sounds like respect for the land. Real farm-to-table stuff.
KO: Yeah. We raised our own chickens. There was no Super Bowl wing party. If you wanted 40-piece bucket of wings you had to kill 20 chickens. That was the real tangible. That was a thing that Africa taught me: there's like real consequences for pretty much everything. Or if you want something, you're going to have to work for it.
FL: After this you went back to the Bronx. And you went to Louisiana. You were coming out of a rough personal moment and you got a job as a cook on a boat. Tell us about that.
KO: The experience of the boat was life-changing. I remember being in Louisiana working with my mom in New Orleans with a catering company. There were a lot of temporary people that came in and out. There was one kid that came in was like, “I'm only here for a week and I'm going right back on the boat.” I was like, what does he mean go back on the boat? He said, “The Deepwater Horizon oil spill. They're paying crazy amounts of money to go out there and cook for like two weeks. Two weeks on and you get one week off. So, I'm here making money on my week off, and I'm going to go back there.” I was, “Can you hook me up with this?” And he said, “Yeah. Just sign up. They're looking for anyone to go out there. There's like 30 boats out there.”
The way it works is there are boats all along the East Coast and West Coast that clean up oil spills, whether they're small or large, from Maine to Florida. So, they have all these responders that came together. This was the largest oil spill that happened in American history, or one of the largest. You had your Maine responder, you had your Texas responder, you know all down here in the Gulf of Mexico. They needed cooks to go on these boats to cook for all the oil spill workers, just to feed all these thousands of people that were in the Gulf of Mexico cleaning up.
All the people that worked on the boats were from those little stringy pieces of Louisiana. When you look at the map of Louisiana, you see all those hairs coming off the end of it. You have to zoom in and keep zooming in and it’s literally like a road and water on both sides. Those are where those people really came from, it's Houma, Louisiana. I called and got the job immediately. They were like, “Can you start in three days?” I was like, “Yeah.” They said they would have a car waiting for you or you can drive down. My mom said, “If I'm going to send you out there to the Gulf of Mexico I'm going to drive you down to see where you're going. We get on the road, we drive down there on the small little strip of road. It is freaky. We're driving and to the left and right is just water. We get to the end and there's a small little boat waiting for me there. We say good bye and I get on the boat.
It’s three hours into the Gulf of Mexico until we hit the actual responder that I'm supposed to be on, the main responder. I had to swing on a rope from one boat to the next. It was like some Peter Pan shit; it was crazy. I swing on the rope, jump off, I have to throw my luggage to the guys. I'm waiting there and all of these guys honestly look like the most country white people I've ever seen in my life. Ripped shorts and oil smeared on their faces. It was a scene. And I immediately regretted this choice. I was like, I made the wrong turn in life. This is my fault. I've got two weeks until I can get the hell out of here.
I get there and meet this chef for the first time. He's says, “I got two questions for you. Do you know how to cook and do you know how to read?” I was like, “I'm not talking to you” and I walk out. And he's like, “Whoa, I don't mean to be racist or anything. I'm just saying people that come on this boat don't know how to hold a knife and they can't read a recipe. It's not about you. It's about you all in general. I can clearly tell you're educated now that I've talked to you.” And I thought to myself, “Alright, man. We're going to do this. I'm here. All of the things that I thought were coming true. I got two weeks. I'm going to get through this.”
Essentially the way the ship worked was there's a sous chef and lead chef. He assumed the lead chef position, he's been there for a while. He told me, you're my sea chef, you do things my way. And I obliged. I'm here for two weeks and this job is pretty much over so. The guy’s name was Tex. The other guys that I was initially scared of were some of the nicest people I've met in my life. We bonded. There's an entertainment room with Nintendo Wii and cassettes and DVDs. Wii Tennis brings people together like nobody's business. But, we also bonded over movies like Colors. I remember watching that vividly with them. And a lot of South Park. It was a good time when I was out of the kitchen, but when I was with Tex I could barely call what he was doing cooking. Until one point, because I had gotten so close to them, I was like I want to cook for you guys. I told Tex, “I'll cook my food, you cook your food, and we'll rotate. I'll do breakfast/lunch and you'll do you know dinner/breakfast. We'll just stay out each other's way.
I remember the first dish I cooked was similar to this; it was shrimp etouffee. I was so excited. I made my own house spice, made my own shrimp stock, I spent all day cutting the trinity perfectly and sweating those down. By the time I put it up the word got out that I was making shrimp etouffee, and they were like, “This better be delicious or we're going to end you.” I've been eating shrimp etouffee my entire life and I just followed my mother's recipe; everything I've seen her do I did the same exact thing.
These guys loved it. It was finally like a little bit a piece of home for them. I wouldn't say that was my aha moment but that was one of the times it clicked for me that cooking really isn't about you as a person that's cooking, it's about the people you're sharing it with. But how impactful it can be. A meal can make someone's day or can ruin someone's day. It's the one of the times a lot of people have to themselves where no one's talking. They can be talking, but if everyone's eating, you’re focused on your plate. You're like, “This is really good,” and you're in your own zone. It was a beautiful moment for me.
Tex didn't take it too well. He started to try to sabotage me after that. I remember I used to make cakes and he would throw them away. It was messy. But, they didn't invite Tex back to the boat after he had his one week off and when I came back they made me the lead chef and then I got a sous chef. It was a great experience.”
Recipe: Grandma Cassie's Shrimp Étoufée provided by Kwame Onwuachi Photo: Sally Swift
PART 3: RACE AND RESTAURANTS
After Kwame found his calling as a cook, he hustled hard. He started his own catering company back in New York, went to culinary school, cooked in some of the best restaurants in the city, started doing pop-ups, moved to D.C., had a star turn on Top Chef, and then opened the Shaw Bijou. His debut restaurant, tasting menu only, incredibly ambitious, and D.C. was humming with excitement for it. Until they saw that right out of the gate it would be one of the most expensive restaurants in the city. Then people started asking, “Wait, who do you think you are?” It closed after just three months. I remember following the story from afar and it was striking to see how much glee there was out there that it had failed. And I asked Kwame why he thought that was.
Kwame Onwauchi: I don't know everyone's motive for everything. But for me and how it felt, it was about my age and it was about my race. The hatred that I saw for people wanting to see this thing crash and burn, I didn't really get it. Those are the only things that I can think of based off of my life history. I started a business. I was young. Yeah, that's true. But I started a business at the same time and I created jobs for people. I didn't understand the backlash. So, my mind only goes to the two places that it can for that. It comes from something deeper than me putting a price point on a menu. Because you can either come and eat or you don’t have to. I didn't change the price of the HIV pill or for something that is necessary for people.
Francis Lam: There's a moment where you meet a TV producer before you were on Top Chef. I think the situation was you had a tryout, you cooked a meal for her. At that point you had graduated from culinary school, you had worked at two of the top restaurants in New York City, literally two of top restaurants in the world. You cooked this refined chef-y food. She puts down her fork and says, “Kwame, that meal is amazing. Here's a problem with casting you: America's not ready to see a black chef cook this kind of food. America want to see black chefs cooking fried chicken and collard greens.”
FL: When you say you think the backlash to your opening a tasting-menu restaurant could possibly be about race. It's that idea. It's like, how dare you?
KO: People don’t want to see this.
FL: You're not doing the thing you're supposed to be doing.
KO: You're not staying in your lane, essentially. I didn't feel like she was say, “You stay in your lane.” She's like, “Listen, I'm a TV producer. This is what I've been told; this is what the field is telling me. It’s very unfortunate, and this this is going to come off as harsh, but this is what show business wants.”
FL: Don't shoot the messenger! You're racist!
KO: Exactly. I mean that's the honest truth of it. It's real, and people don't want to talk about it. It's uncomfortable. It’s an uncomfortable topic. But I've been through it, so I have nothing else to do but talk about it at this point. Talk about my experiences. And hopefully the next young chef of color, or LGBT chef, or anything that's a little bit different than the norm tries to do something that is also a little bit different than the norm, they won't receive the same backlash that I did.
FL: At least that backlash can't exist now without precedent of people talking about, “Hey, remember last time.” But let me ask you this. That restaurant Shaw Bijou closed. You put years of your life into it and it closed in three months, which is, even from an outside observer's standpoint, a shockingly short amount of time. I can only imagine what it felt like for you. But also it was not that long ago, and now here you are and you have three new restaurants. Your flagship one, if I can call that, is Kith and Kin; it has been fabulously received and gotten great reviews. How is it that you were able to make a comeback and so quickly?
KO: Let me be clear about it. There are a lot of people that wanted to see me fail, but here were a lot of people that wanted to see me succeed as well. I think opening the doors at Kith and Kin, for one, it's a more accessible price point, for sure. There are more seats. I had like 29 seats at the Shaw Bijou; I have like 29 seats in my bar at Kith and Kin. There are more people to come in and experience it, which is a great thing. I think the amount of people that we're feeding every day – on a busy day would do 1,000 covers, on a slow day we'll do 300 covers. I'm talking all day dining because we have three services: breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We have an opportunity to reach a lot of people. A lot of people have a chance to try my food.
When I opened up Kith and Kin seven or eight months after the Shaw Bijou closed, people wanted to say I wasn't ready for the Shaw Bijou, but now I'm ready for Kith and Kin. I've been getting these questions a lot: What did you do differently this time around that you didn’t at the Shaw Bijou. At the Shaw Bijou, I created station manuals for all of my cooks. I did the same thing at Kith and Kin. I researched all my purveyors. I went to the farms. All these things were the same thing for Kith and Kin and for Shaw Bijou. I had extensive training sessions for both, I vetted people, I did tastings with people to create the perfect team. I did the same thing for the last restaurant. I spent a little bit more time researching people that were backing the restaurant; that's what I did differently. But this whole idea that “Now, you're ready.” It was seven months after.
Notes From a Young Black Chef
by Kwame Onwuachi
FL: You’re the same guy.
KO: I gained experience in management from the Shaw Bijou. But, I think the most important thing was the team I put together to do Kith and Kin was different from the Shaw Bijou. I'm one man, you know. It's more than me when it comes to the success and failure of something. Of course, my name is on the marquee, so my head is on the chopping block – I get it. But the team that you surround yourself with is extremely important when doing any venture.
FL: It's funny because when we talk about chefs and we talk about what the chefs do, it's always in this frame of, this person's the hero. And for you to talk about your team like that, how does this team compare to the teams who were at the restaurants you came up in and you worked in?
KO: That's a loaded question. [both laugh] I think, for one, my team is very diverse. Black people, brown people, people from Hispanic descent. I haven't seen a restaurant that has had this much diversity in its staff, and it's refreshing.
FL: At all layers?
KO: At all layers. You have it in the dining room. You have it in our management staff. You have it in the kitchen. It’s an inherent guard let down with me at the helm. It’s not like they have to put on this facade. It's not like they have to think about doing the right thing or being too much of themselves or they'll be fired. They can be themselves. I'm not using the words “you people” or anything like that. It's like, guys, let's focus – that’s it. I'm not thinking about the topic of their conversation or ostracizing them because they're talking about a certain genre of music that I don't vibe with. It's the same for me for all. I try to keep it very professional.
I think what’s missing in this industry is more chefs of color at the helm of restaurants. More people in food writing that come from diverse backgrounds. It doesn't need to be everyone, but you need to have some people in your deck that can relate to certain aspects of culture that you may not be able to. All of these things need to diversify and then the kitchen will start to diversify. But it's going to take some time.