At 27 years old, the name Kwame Onwuachi was whispered about with pity and not without a little pettiness. After a successful (but not winning) stint on Top Chef, he opened Shaw Bijou—one of the most talked about restaurants in the country—and closed it within a matter of three short, painfully reviewed months. Washington D.C.’s Shaw Bijou was ranked as the most expensive tasting menu restaurant in the city, which surprised and angered many people in the industry. After all, what right did a 20-something year old chef with limited experience have to come into a new city and charge the most exorbitant prices?
In some ways, the critics were right about age and naïveté. Onwuachi admittedly put too much faith and trust in the partners/investors of Shaw Bijou.
In many ways, the critics underestimated his talent and determination. When the restaurant folded, Onwuachi reunited with his love for cooking and a seismic shift occurred.
“After Shaw Bijou, I just wanted to get back into the kitchen without doing press interviews or talking to anyone.”
This time in the kitchen allowed him to recalibrate and consider his next move. Rather than admitting failure or moving away, Onwuachi has revved back into the limelight as one of the quickest and best comeback stories we might have ever seen.
2019 brought Onwuachi a James Beard Award win for Rising Star Chef of the Year; a bestowment from Food & Wine as Best New Chef; the title of Chef of the Year from Esquire; a memoir on the New York Times Bestseller list; a movie deal that includes Lakeith Stanfield (Onwuachi’s favorite actor); a ranking as one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People and being included in Forbes’ 30 under 30 list.
“Do you sleep?” I ask him.
“Not much. About five hours.”
When it comes to work-life balance, Onwuachi openly admits that he hasn’t quite found success in that realm yet.
“I think it comes with time. You can work towards it in this industry but I’m not successful at it yet. It’s hard.”
If you’ve read his book, “Notes from a Young Black Chef” (If not, Read it! Read it now!!!), you’ll know that Onwuachi isn’t one to shy away from life’s adversities. Expulsion from schools, using and selling drugs, struggling with poverty, and navigating complex familial issues were all realities of Onwuachi’s life by the time he was a teenager. His love for cooking gave him something to work towards while his immeasurable levels of determination proved the adage that with hard work and perseverance comes great success.
There are many poignant scenes in the book—his tumultuous relationship with his father, selling candy on the subway lines of New York City to raise money for his own catering business, working his way up through racist and difficult strictures of fine dining—but my heart broke most during the rare moments when he bares his vulnerability.
“It’s all about what happens and how you respond to it,” Onwuachi tells me. “There’s always going to be that thing that doesn’t go well. Push through that to get to the next opportunity. Find the bright side and focus on that and only that.”
Onwuachi credits a great deal of his determination to the men and women he wishes to honor with his life and career. From his grandparents and mother to those who built the history of Nigeria, Trinidad, Jamaica, and America’s South. He works to absorb the culture of his kin and honor it by way of food. Kith/Kin, his restaurant in Washington D.C., serves Afro-Caribbean food with pride and splendor. In addition to honoring where he comes from, Onwuachi is inspiring a new generation of chefs, especially minorities in kitchens.
“You gotta be the change you want to see,” he says earnestly. “If you start with that, things will transpire. If I can do it, you can do it. That’s the message I really want people to understand. These are the pivotal moments in life and you have to seize them. As uncomfortable as it is, it’s a short level of discomfort for a short period of time for a large gain. Look at things that way and there’s always opportunity.”
As for his own narrative, he’s writing it his way.
“I don’t really concern myself with what other people think about me anymore,” he says. “Whatever conception or misconception they have of me is something they have to ask themselves. Other people’s opinions of me have nothing to do with me.”