Dining Out 3 minutes 21 August 2019

Eating Off Duty with Kwame Onwuachi

We explore where and what celebrated chefs eat outside their kitchens.

Eating Off Duty

An author and award-winning chef, Kwame Onwuachi was born in Long Island, New York, and grew up in the Bronx. His mother was a caterer and private chef, and he started cooking with her at five years old. "I really enjoyed cooking and saw my mom do it everyday and ended up falling in love with it too," Onwuachi says.

At age 10, he was sent to live with his grandfather in Nigeria for two years from 2001 to 2003. "I was sent to live in Nigeria because I was heading down a slippery slope to ruining my life. It's pretty easy to do that where I'm from and my mother wanted to change that."

His time in Nigeria with his grandfather profoundly impacted his future cooking style: "Nigeria definitely shaped the way I view food now for a multitude of reasons. Mainly seeing where and how my food was produced; raising my own livestock and cultivating my own produce gave me a serious appreciation for ingredients," Onwuachi says.

After returning stateside, Onwuachi graduated from high school in the Bronx, briefly studied business administration in college without completing his degree, and then moved to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where he ended up becoming the head chef on a boat serving crews cleaning up the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

"I moved to Baton Rouge to turn my life around and find myself. I had gotten kicked out of college and needed a reset button," explains Onwuachi. "I fell into cooking because of my mother. She was a caterer that operated from the house, so I grew up in the kitchen. When I moved back home from college, it was the only thing I was good at and could get a job quickly."

He returned to New York City in 2010, waiting tables at Tom Colicchio's Craft before opening his own catering business, Onwuachi's Coterie Catering. In 2012, Onwuachi enrolled at The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. During culinary school, Onwuachi worked an externship at Per Se, and after graduation he worked as a line cook at Eleven Madison Park.

His much buzzed about first restaurant, Shaw Bijou in Washington, D.C.'s Shaw neighborhood, came to a close after less than three months at the beginning of 2017. On lessons learned from the abruptly shuttered Shaw Bijou: "I learned that picking the right partners is a crucial aspect of a successful team. Running a business is a marriage and you can't quit when the going gets tough. Take your time and find someone to build something with that is in it for the long haul."

But the tides turned for the better—in late 2017, Onwuachi was hired to open a restaurant in the new InterContinental Hotel on D.C.'s Wharf waterfront complex. He named it Kith and Kin, serving Afro-Caribbean cuisine influenced by his family ties to Louisiana, Jamaica, Trinidad and Nigeria. It is here that he has honed his cooking philosophy: "A dish should tell a story. If it does then it has a soul." He has also started a fast-casual chain called Philly Wing Fry that serves cheesesteaks, wings and fries.

Of importance most recently, Onwuachi published his memoir, Notes from a Young Black Chef, which tells the story of his life through the opening of the Shaw Bijou. His life story will even be turned into a feature film based on the book, with Onwuachi played by Lakeith Stanfield.

As for the future, the young, celebrated chef is "just putting my head down and focusing on the restaurants at hand."

Uni escovitch at Kith and Kin. (Photo courtesy of InterContinental Washington, D.C.)
Uni escovitch at Kith and Kin. (Photo courtesy of InterContinental Washington, D.C.)

What was the last thing you ate?
The last thing I ate was linguine with clams while attending the FOOD & WINE Classic in Aspen.

It's your day off. What do you have for breakfast and where?
I only eat breakfast when I'm traveling! Breakfast will always be either a bagel with lox or a bacon, egg and cheese. It reminds me of home—growing up in New York City that's all I ate.

Controversial question: Do you believe in brunch?
Love brunch when I can go! Convivial or Le Diplomat for brunch in Washington, D.C. I always order smoked salmon or quiche.

What is your 2:00 a.m. go-to food?
Chinese food. More specifically, Asian American II in Washington, D.C. It's always the same thing and will never change: pork fried rice and chicken wings.

What is your local coffee shop and what do you order?
I only drink coffee for fuel, I don't like the taste. I just get whatever's close.

Where do you go when you travel to your favorite city?
Trisha in Mumbai. I always get the butter garlic crab, black dhal and romali roti. So goooood! It is just so flavorful. They bring out these giant crabs to the table and cook them in like equal parts butter and garlic. They serve it with a couple chutneys and the thinnest flat bread you've ever seen. Side note: around the corner is Badameya. They serve Bheja Fry, which is lamb brains in a super spicy sauce rolled up in that same thin flatbread. Probably my second favorite meal in the world.

What is the "laziest" meal you put together for yourself this past week?
My laziest meal is popcorn from Costco, and it's also my favorite snack food. It's just the best. I also love the truffled Marcona almonds from Trader Joe's.

What is your guilty pleasure?
My guilty pleasure is the jerk chicken at Kith and Kin. I eat it everyday.

Headshot by Scott Suchman.

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