How Kwame Onwuachi became America’s unlikely top chef

Eight years ago, Kwame Onwuachi was selling candy on the New York subways with dreams of opening a catering business. Today, he is the winner of the James Beard Foundation’s 2019 Rising Star Chef Award, executive chef of the Washington D.C. restaurant Kith and Kin, owner of Philly Wing Fry, and a former “Top Chef” contestant. Onwuachi discusses his memoir, “Notes From a Young Black Chef” (which will soon be a film starring Lakeith Stanfield), the extreme highs and lows in his career, and racism within the world of food with Salon’s D. Watkins.

Onwuachi’s family has been a part of the culinary industry for generations, so it’s no surprise to him why most of his first memories involve 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. That instilled a lot of things in me at an early age. Entrepreneurialism, creativity, and a passion for food. That really formed my career path.”

And beyond family, food is history and heritage for Onwuachi. “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,” he said. “We had the juke joints, we had the fish fry spots. We had 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.”

At Kith and Kin, Onwuachi has developed the menu around four pillars of his background and their respective cuisines—Jamaican, Nigerian, Creole and Trinidadian. “That's why it's called Kith and Kin. Kith and kin means friends and family.” Watch the full episode above to learn more about Onwuachi’s exploration of Afro-Carribean cuisine and how he rebounded after shutting down his first restaurant.

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