Grabbing international headlines and the attention of the world’s most prestigious culinary institution, Kwame Onwuachi is a well-accomplished chef, reaching numerous milestones in his career before the age of 30.
Chef Onwuachi recently headlined at Test Kitchen here in Hong Kong with a unique and memorable Afro-Caribbean menu that inspired.
The chef’s life’s work is a humble, head-spinning journey. His passion for food and cooking began at his family’s home in the Bronx and continued to grow during his time spent in Nigeria and Louisiana. Upon his return in New York, Kwame trained at the Culinary Institute of America, working at three-Michelin-starred restaurants Per Se and Eleven Madison Park before branching out on his own, beginning with his first venture, Shaw Bijou (which has now closed), followed by Michelin-recognised Kith/Kin in Washington, DC.
The former Top Chef contestant has opened five restaurants since beginning his career and remains a 30 Under 30 honoree by both Zagat and Forbes. For Chef Onwuachi, this is only the beginning, and the year continues to be fruitful, joining Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs 2019 and winning the James Beard Rising Star award.
We spoke to Chef Onwuachi about his career and his new memoir, Notes from a Young Black Chef, which is set to be adapted into a feature film.
Chef Kwame Onwuachi
In your memoir, you’ve highlighted in vivid detail some personal situations that occurred behind the scenes. What were some key lessons that helped you to advance professionally as a chef and grow as an individual that you didn’t include in the book?
I’ve included a lot in the book, but I think the key lesson which has helped me not just in the kitchen but in life is pushing through certain experiences despite the obstacles you may or may not overcome. Pushing and persevering through adversity no matter what life and in the kitchen may come at me is an experience, and I learned to keep moving in life.
From being raised in the Bronx and later moving to Nigeria, how do you express your personal experiences into the dishes at Kith/Kin?
My food is a direction reflection of my story and culture. If a dish tells a story, it has soul. In terms of opening a restaurant, I didn’t know I was ready – I just went for it. I think it’s important to go for what you want. At Kith/Kin and previously at Shaw Bijou, I want my guests to feel like they’re at home.
Your current restaurant Kith/Kin has gotten international attention and raves from critics. How did you elevate your concept from Shaw Bijou and how have you evolved as a restaurant owner?
It wasn’t elevated or dumbed down, but a different concept representing a different part of my journey. As a restaurant owner, I learned to surround myself with a team, making sure we all move forward together.
Winning the James Beard Rising Star award is a huge milestone in your career. Congratulations! What does this award mean to you and what positive changes would you like to see happen within the industry?
The award means everything to me, and I’ve waited for this moment my entire life. In the industry, I would like to see more diversity and inclusion at the higher level. In the restaurant industry, more diversity in the teams of editors, chefs, restaurant owners and investors to increase representation of different people and cultures.
You can’t review restaurants without having diverse food critics or contributors working under publications. This needs to be seen at the highest level, so it can trickle down and so the concept of diversity can be facilitated for others who are just starting in the industry or trying to break into it.
Your memoir, Notes from a Young Black Chef, has given us insight about working in the culinary world. What advice would you give to a young Chinese or expat chef who wants to open a restaurant in a foreign country?
To work in the country you want to go to and make sure you seek the best to learn under before being your own boss. Encapsulating yourself in the craft is key – and not being afraid to fail.
A handful of young chefs see culinary school as their only option for jumping into the industry. But for a lot of immigrant communities, food and cooking are the centrepieces of defining culture and showcasing heritage. Cooking and working with specific ingredients at home can give individuals a head start to developing a culinary skill set. Do you think increased support of different culinary forms beyond going to culinary school can empower young chefs in the future?
Taking in as much knowledge as you can equips you to be more versatile in the industry. The experiences you draw from help when you tap into your creativity. I think it is overall important to focus as a chef, and if more immigrant chefs can divert their focus on family culture and cuisine, there will be a lot more delicious food coming out into the dining scene.
Kith/Kin in Washington, DC
Food and environmental sustainability have become big discussion points around the world, and at our recent Food’s Future Summit, we came together to find innovative ways to spread awareness and find solutions. What have you incorporated at Kith/Kin to support environmental sustainability?
Food waste is a very important focus at Kith/Kin, and we try to utilise everything in an ingredient. We’ve also eliminated the purchasing of single-use plastics such as straws in our restaurant, incorporating paper straws instead.
You’re currently in Hong Kong hosting a pop-up at Test Kitchen. Is there a specific dish you’d like to try in Hong Kong?
One dish I can’t wait to eat again is the roasted goose at Kam’s!
Lily bud and piri-piri dish at Chef Onwuachi’s recent Test Kitchen pop-up
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