Chef Kwame Onwuachi (Salon Talks)

Kwame Onwuachi: Inside the top chef’s culinary comeback story and the new film based on his life

“I always, always thought my life would be played in a movie . . . but I didn’t know how I was going to get there”


D. Watkins
August 18, 2019 7:30PM (UTC)

“Hello,” I said to the doorman at an office building on 36th Street in Manhattan, “I’m going to the 11th floor for a meeting.”

“Deliveries are around the back,” he responded

“I don’t know how many delivery men come in for meetings,” I said, “but I’m not dropping off boxes. I’m here to see my publisher.”

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The man apologized, called upstairs to make sure that they were expecting a D. Watkins and escorted me to the elevator. The nerve of that clown! I have nothing against delivery men, as it’s an honorable profession. However, I clearly said that I was there for a meeting.

I got off of the elevator and faced a huge glass door. On the other side of the door was a secretary sitting to the right. Directly on the other side of the room was a huge picture of my face next to the cover of my book.

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I walked through the glass door, with a huge smile on my face as I had already met this secretary on two different occasions. Before I could speak she blurted, “Deliveries get dropped off at our other entrance.”

“Didn’t the guy downstairs just tell you that I was coming up?” I said, in my coolest, calmest voice, pointing at the picture of myself and looking at her.

“Oh, I’m so sorry Mr. Watkins, I didn’t recognize you!” she said, her cheeks turning beet red.

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I didn’t get too upset, because I’m a black writer in the mighty world of white publishing, which you’d think would make me more visible. However, the opposite happens. I’m invisible, and like many black writers, I will probably remain that way unless I become an Uncle-Tom sellout or get sucked up in a scandal involving cockiness — two things that will never happen.

My experience isn’t exclusively owned by the publishing world. African-Americans have been universally slighted in visual arts, performing arts, Hollywood, and yes, fine dining.

I knew fine dining was racist, because it’s a luxury, and luxury and racism go hand and hand. But I had no idea how bad it actually was until I read Kwame Onwuachi’s break out memoir, "Notes From a Young Black Chef."

Since he tried on his first pair of chef whites, Onwuachi,  a “Top Chef” contestant  and the 2019 winner of the James Beard Foundation's Rising Star Chef of the Year Award, which is given annually to a chef age 30 or younger for exceptional talent and character, has been confronted with racism in the food industry.

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Growing up in the Bronx, Onwuachi was forced to face many of the hardships that many inner city kids face — poor housing, physical and mental abuse and a broken home. Through it all, Onwuachi’s mom, a talented chef in her own right, fought to keep him in good schools while teaching him a wealth of recipes that he still uses today in his professional kitchen.

Onwuachi made it to college, but was kicked out for selling and using drugs, which lead him down a long spiral of darkness. That brought him back  to square one. He moved in with his mom and worked odd jobs until few chance meetings and experiences cocktailed with the memories of the sweet aromas that danced in and out of his mother’s kitchen led him to culinary school and to a new world where he’d face new battles­­, among them perhaps the greatest of his young life: “Is American ready for fine dining from a young black chef?”

Onwuachi joined me on "Salon Talks" to discuss food, his new book, his amazing culinary comeback story and the production of the new film starring Lakeith Stanfield based on his memoir, “Notes From a Young Black Chef.”

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Watch our "Salon Talks" episode here, or read the Q&A transcript of our conversation below, edited lightly for clarity and length.

Salon: You are the executive chef of the Washington restaurant Kith and Kin. I’ve eaten there and it's amazing. You’re also a James Beard Award winner and a former “Top Chef” contestant. What made you want to write “Notes From a Young Black Chef” now?

Onwuachi: I’ve always been into telling my story in different ways. I did it through food for a long period of time. Then I started doing these speeches to inner city kids — like in New York — just telling them my story. You know, because I looked like them. I also was very young, so I was relatable. I got invited to do this talk at Bitten. It's a food conference here in the city, and it was the biggest one I've done. It was like for 600 people, and there was a literary agent in the crowd. And she pulled me aside afterwards and said, this story is incredible. Let's do this book. I'm like — wait a minute, how much is it going to cost me? Because I had no idea about any of this. She's like — I don't get paid until you get paid.

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It's interesting that you said you've been telling your story through food, because food has a history — especially fine dining — of being segregated. When you would talk to inner-city kids were they receptive?

Absolutely. They were like — you know, sometimes you see it. You can believe it, and that's what I wanted to do in talking to these young adults. Just so they can see a different outlet, something that they can aspire to that isn't the norm or the status quo. Something that's just completely different.

I've eaten at your restaurant a number of times. I'm going list some of the things that I really enjoyed: the coco bread, the goat roti and the whole snapper that comes out on a huge plate. It's intimidating. I think it's made for two people, but a very ambitious person can finish it. Also, the braised cabbage and coconut rice. I washed it down with probably too many Caribbean mules and pear punches. Can you talk about how some of these different things that I ate at your place connects to your journey?

Kith and Kin has four pillars of cuisine: Jamaican, Nigerian, Creole and Trinidadian — and that's just my background. On my father's side, his mother was Jamaican; his father's Nigerian. On my mother's side, her father is Trinidadian; and her mother is Creole. It's interesting enough that that really follows the slave trade, the triangular trade, you know?

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It starts at West Africa, goes to the Caribbean and goes to the American South. I wanted to honor that with this restaurant, and that's why it's called Kith and Kin. Kith and Kin means friends and family.

I like how you brought your parents, Take us back to some of your earlier memories in your mom's kitchen.

Some of my first memories have to do with food. My mother was a chef. She was an accountant turned caterer, and she operated the catering company from our one bedroom apartment in the Bronx. So my sister and I had to become her first two employees. That instilled a lot of things in me in an early age: entrepreneurialism, creativity and a passion for food. That really formed my career path.

If you go even further back, my grandmother had restaurants in the South. She grew up in Beaumont, Texas. My great-grandmother had restaurants, too. And if you trace our roots back to the South, most of us had a restaurant. A bar, because we had to have that in the back of our houses because we couldn't go out and eat. We had the juke joints. We had the fish fry spots. We had the barbecue spots in the back in a little shack in most of our homes, so we could enjoy ourselves without being harassed from Jim Crow.

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So while you were growing up, you picked up these lessons, but you didn’t even know it was happening?

I think it's in my DNA a little bit.

One of the stories in the book is about going to a friend's house and having London broil for the first time.

You don't really know what else the world is eating until you go out there. My first time was having a sleepover, and eating in someone else's house and then realizing that — oh, not everybody makes their own seasoning mix from scratch and not everybody cooks from scratch. Not everyone has these elaborate meals every single day. People just eat for sustenance, as well.

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My friends were Irish, so they eat London broil and boiled potatoes. That's a thing that they eat. And you know, maybe it wasn't cooked perfectly then. But it also gave me a lens into another culture — another lifestyle.

You write about some tough things you went through with your family as a child. Was that difficult for you to go there?

Yes. Because, yes, you have your life. You know your life story and everything, but there are stories that you omit when you're talking about [yourself]. Oh man, I remember from back in the day — the dark times more than none. You smash them up into a little ball and tuck them somewhere where you don't really have to talk about it. When you're writing about your life, you have to then pull that ball of paper out, and unravel it and read through it again. And it's an emotional process.

You've had a lot of success, and with that success has come loads of rejection. Could you talk about that? A lot of people today, they look at Instagram. And they just see you win, win, win, win, win. And they don't really see what it took for you to actually become the person who you are.

There’s been a lot of no's before you get that yes. It's a process. You have to keep going. You know, it's funny. A Facebook post popped up on my feed today. It was like, 10 years ago, you wrote this. And it was like, “I have a Plan B. The Plan B is to stick to Plan A — and no matter how hard it gets.”

I think that's what every entrepreneur has to remind themselves. It's just a tough period. Somebody's going to say, ‘Yes.’ I'm going to get a client. I'm going to get business. I'm going to start making money off of this. But we have to get through those hard times and push through in order to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

One of the things that we spoke about  before we sat down today on the set is the idea of how racist the culinary world can be. Do you think if you weren't a black kid from the Bronx — if you were a black kid from Park Avenue, your story would be accepted the same?

I'm not sure. I think, in telling a story, tenacity has something to do with it. I don't know if my upbringing formulated who I am, but if I had those same instinctual characteristics and personality traits, maybe it wouldn't matter where I was born. I would still be doing the same thing that I'm doing now. My experiences have really shaped me into who I am today.

I think a lot of times — in different industries, they see young black people, especially from rough situations. And they try to exploit it. Sometimes you can spin it into a way where you can create something positive, or you can get lost in the vacuum of what they want you to be.

Exactly.

You opened a restaurant called The Shaw Bijou before you made it on “Top Chef.” Can you walk us through that whole experience? It seemed like it turned out to be a difficult time.

It was. It was. It was also an amazing time. I learned so much. It was a restaurant that I opened in Washington as my first restaurant. It was 30 seats — tasting menu only. We took this old Italianate row house and turned it into this beautiful restaurant with this amazing experience. You started in one room, ended up in the kitchen at one point, back in the dining room, back in the kitchen and it was a sensory experience. But it only lasted three months.

I think I was young and not asking the right questions in the beginning of — you know, what is the actual budget? What are we allocating towards furniture? What are we allocating towards kitchen build out? It was just this blank check that was essentially written that couldn't be backed up monetarily.

It was the investors, honestly, not having money. It's easy to run through money in a restaurant, but you should have at least enough capital to get through the year.

Would you go back and try to redo something like that?

Absolutely. I definitely want to do a fine dining restaurant again, but something that's a little more approachable, affordable and can reach a lot more people.

You're a chef, but also a businessman in your own right. How do you balance art and business? Because a lot of artists don't really get it. We sign horrible deals all of the time.

All the time. I mean, it's tough. You have to be very thorough in everything that you're doing, and then you have to learn when to let go a little bit. Let go of that artistry and put on your business cap. At the end of the day, you have to provide for yourself and for your family.

It's difficult when you have to compromise your vision for money.

Absolutely. For example, Kith and Kin. I never even worked in a restaurant that big, but I was like, man, I have to start from the bottom again. And I have to figure this whole cooking thing out. I remember my first menu was so intricate, and it just wasn't working. I was spending too much money on labor, too much money on products, not enough attention on the things that mattered. And I had to scale back my vision of what the restaurant was in order for it to fit into this mold of what the restaurant is.

I had to let go a little bit in order for it to be successful. I don't know if it's always compromising, because once I started letting go a little bit and focusing on other things, the restaurant started to become successful. It's not about compromising who you are — it's really adapting to the situation. Or else, if you don't compromise who you are, there won't be a situation.

There are plans to make a Hollywood movie about your life. Actor Lakeith Stanfield is attached to play you. How did that come about?

It came from the book. We sent the galley around. Then production companies started hitting us up. The agencies in Los Angeles were like, ‘Who's representing this guy? Who has the rights, to the life rights to this book?’ I went out there and met with all of them.

Is it a scary thing for you?

I would trust the process in these things. I always, always thought my life would be played in a movie. I always thought it, but I didn't know how I was going to get there. So I'm trusting the process.

MORE: Watch Chef Kwame's Salon 5 with D. Watkins for five ingredients that can improve your home cooking.


D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a professor at the University of Baltimore and founder of the BMORE Writers Project. Watkins is the author of the New York Times best-sellers “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America” and "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir."

MORE FROM D. WatkinsFOLLOW @dwatkinsworld




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