F&W Best New Chefs 2019: Kwame Onwuachi of Kith/Kin in Washington, D.C.
Chef Kwame Onwuachi made two memoirs this year. One in paper and ink—a book called Notes from a Young Black Chef, which hit shelves in April. The other, an opus of goat shoulder and Caribbean curry at his restaurant Kith/Kin. As to the latter, it’s as much a remembrance of his grandfather, a connoisseur of Trinidadian curry goat, as it is an edible account of the skills Onwuachi honed working in high-end restaurant kitchens. It’s a gorgeous braise, brightened with herbs and arranged under wispy ribbons of celery, a dish that seems to reach back, and inward, and into the future all at once. This, just a glimpse.
Onwuachi grew up in the Bronx, with heritage in Nigeria, Trinidad, and Jamaica. His first job was working as an assistant to his mom, who ran a catering outfit out of her home kitchen. At the age of 10 she sent him to Nigeria, Onwuachi remembers, “to learn respect”—a lesson that took two years. “I also learned about where food came from and how to value it,” he says. “If we wanted chicken, we had to raise our own. If we wanted to make banga stew, we’d have to pick the fruits from the palm tree.” He returned to the U.S. at 12 and spent his early adulthood working in Louisiana kitchens—and aboard one offshore oil rig—before making his way back north. With big dreams and a low-paying restaurant job, Onwuachi sold candy on the New York City subway to earn money—$20,000 in two months—which he used to start his own catering business. From there, eventually, it was culinary school, and Per Se and Eleven Madison Park and then a star turn, in 2016, on Top Chef.
But Kith/Kin is his truest homecoming, an exploration of regions touched by the slave trade: Africa, the Caribbean, the American South, even as far as Veracruz, Mexico. Onwuachi skips confidently from West African jollof rice, groundnut stew, and suya—beef skewers rendered in luxurious Wagyu—to Creole gumbo and Moroccan m’smen. No detail escapes his consideration: cucumber and avocado salad sings with gooseberry juice and Trinidadian green seasoning; king crab curry pops with the tiniest pips of juicy finger lime; jerk chicken is cooked over imported Jamaican wood and served with cabbage braised into melting, translucent leaves.
At Kith/Kin Onwuachi emerges as a chef settling into himself, tugging at each intimate thread, braiding them into a modern celebration of the flavors of the African diaspora.