Best Practices: How Kwame Onwuachi Is Redefining the Role of Chef and Food Personality
The new executive producer at Food & Wine on moving from New York City to Los Angeles, saying goodbye to his grandfather, and why he will demand ownership in his next restaurant deal.
Editor's note: The news can weigh heavily on all of us during these strange days, including small business owners and employees whose jobs have been altered by the pandemic. We could all use a little inspiration and light. Enter Best Practices, a F&W Pro interview series where we share how leaders are facing unprecedented challenges head on during the pandemic while still growing personally and professionally.
Kwame Onwuachi first cooked out of the pages of Food & Wine as a precocious 9-year-old when he intentionally made a chicken and shrimp curry more saucy than what the recipe called for and swapped macaroni for rice. The recipe riff was an aha moment.
"At that moment I was like, 'Oh, maybe I can cook,' Onwuachi told me. "And my mom [Jewel Robinson, who owned a catering company] was like, 'This is not normal. I would have just made this recipe out of Food & Wine perfectly, but you took it upon yourself to switch it up a little bit and put your gourmet touch on it.'"
Onwuachi's rise has been anything but normal. The past five years have been a blur of career accomplishments and accolades for the 31-year-old with the "gourmet touch." After closing Shaw Bijou he created Kith/Kin, an Afro-Caribbean restaurant in Washington D.C. that earned him an F&W 2019 Best New Chef accolade, a James Beard Foundation award, and loyal customers. He penned Notes From a Young Black Chef with his co-author and collaborator Joshua David Stein, a memoir that will become a movie produced by and starring LaKeith Stanfield. Onwuachi appeared as a Top Chef contestant in Season 13 and will appear as a recurring judge on the upcoming Season 18 in Portland. And for the past year he has also written three columns and hosted longform videos for our travel series Tasting Home, taking our readers along for a journey to Trinidad, Louisiana, and Jamaica to explore his family and culinary roots.
For his next act, Onwuachi is joining our team as an executive producer. Together, we'll collaborate on big brand moments and events, including the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, where he'll host cooking demonstrations and events and also serve in a new role as F&W Pro ambassador to the hospitality industry. He'll also help us expand our Best New Chef Mentorship program, sharing invaluable insight about what tools up-and-coming chefs need to navigate their careers personally and professionally. And this August in Middleburg, Virginia, he will host The Family Reunion presented by Kwame Onwuachi, a multi-day event scheduled to take place in Middleburg, Virginia. Created in collaboration with Salamander Hotels & Resorts and Food & Wine, the event will celebrate diversity in the hospitality community.
"The Family Reunion is so important, even down to the name," he said. "That's when people of color usually get together and show out and have cookouts and block parties and stuff like that. And we're going to mirror that and show how amazing and how vibrant and how beautiful this culture is."
My conversation with Onwuachi this week ranged from the New York City native's recent move to Los Angeles and the 2020 closing of Kith/Kin to why he'll demand more than a sweat equity stake in his next restaurant and what his grandfather's life meant to him. Maybe it's selfish, but one of my favorite parts about my job is interviewing other leaders because I learn something new from every conversation. I've learned a lot from Onwuachi since the day I met him at the Philly Chef Conference in 2019. When he says today is going to be a good day, he means it. And when he says he's going to do something big, there's a high probability he will make it happen. He's the kind of person who practices what Simon Sinek and Brené Brown call an "infinite mindset" because he wills his dreams into action.
Please join me in officially welcoming Onwuachi to the Food & Wine team. I'm excited about what we'll accomplish together.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Back when you were nine years old, you first created something from Food & Wine that made you think you might cook for a living. Do you remember what recipe it was?
Kwame Onwuachi: It was a shrimp and chicken dish. I think it had hoisin, curry powder, garlic, ginger. And I remember saying the recipe didn't make sense to start with macaroni. I wanted it saucy with steamed rice, so I made the dish a little bit more saucy and put it over rice. At that moment I was like, "Oh, maybe I can cook." And my mom was like, "This is not normal. I would have just made this recipe out of Food & Wine perfectly, but you took it upon yourself to switch it up a little bit and put your gourmet touch on it."
At that point, I grew an affinity for cooking. My mom had this catering company, but that was the first time I was like, "Let me cook outside of this chore, let me do this on my own." And also let me put my spin on it, let me make it a little more spicy. Let me add the house Creole spice that she uses to make this dish. It just started growing from there.
We're two decades removed from that moment, but welcome officially to the Food & Wine team.
Thank you. It feels good. It feels right.
You're a New York guy. You were in D.C. for a few years. You just moved to Los Angeles during the middle of a pandemic. How are you feeling about the move?
I moved to New York for a couple months to open a restaurant. It was right before the pandemic. I was moving on from Kith/Kin, wanting to open up my own spot and then the pandemic hit. I was still looking at spaces, but it didn't feel quite right. To open a large space but operate at 25% occupancy? And do takeout? I had really great opportunities in Soho and all around the Meatpacking District; Rockefeller Center; Chefs Club. I had places that I had dreamed of or where I had done pop-ups in before, but it just didn't feel right.
I've lived in New York my whole life, outside of living in DC and Nigeria and Louisiana for a little bit. I just wanted to change the scenery and have some access to the outdoors year round. I think COVID helped me realize that I need to be in tune with the outdoors more than I have been. It's okay if I can't hang out with a bunch of people, but we at least need to be able to go outside. And then my brand was starting to expand in different ways. I started a media company. I started doing more brand partnerships. I started to create my own content, I was creating my own events, and I just wanted a change of scenery. I think it's always great to shift gears in different parts of your life. I just needed to gain more inspiration and to have a space to spread my wings a little bit.
You were getting offers. Looking at new spots. Thinking about the next move after Kith/Kin, and then COVID hits. Do you look at your timing as a blessing, in that maybe this wasn't the right move?
I didn't want to open a restaurant where I couldn't hug my guests. I'm a very personal person. I love to connect with people. I love to connect with customers, and I'm not opening a restaurant until I can do that again. At first, I'm like, 'is that a selfish thing to say?' But, no, I got into this industry because of hospitality. My good friend, [chef] Karen Akunowicz said it really well: "It's really hard to put hospitality in a box." And doing the takeout aspect, is it for everyone? It's okay if you don't want it to do that anymore.
Opening a restaurant, there's no other feeling I can compare it to. It's one of the most difficult things you can possibly do. But when you have a place that is operating on all cylinders, full blast, you walk into your kitchen, prep list is done, the line is singing. Then you go into the dining room and all your staff knows you really, really well. And they have their own personal regulars that they're able to connect with. There's nothing like it. That can't be recreated right now. Especially for me because I wanted to own my own concept and start my own concept. I didn't want to open in the middle of the pandemic, where I couldn't build that relationship with my customers personally face-to-face.
Talk about those moments when you really feel like things were humming at Kith/Kin in DC?
Kith/Kin was a special place because you were able to see people inherently celebrate their own culture while celebrating a special experience. When I closed it, I was sad. It took me a long time to step away from it because I knew how much it meant for the community. It was bigger than me. People were finally able to go out and get dressed up, but still eat oxtails and curry goat and jerk chicken, and propose in the dining room. And there were so many people that were so sad from the closing of Kith/Kin, but I feel the public generally understood that it's just what I needed to do at the time. And there will be another restaurant at a certain point in time, but now it isn't the right time.
There's a certain amount of masochism with operating restaurants. The days are tough and long. The only thing that would bring me back to really understanding my purpose was walking through the dining room and seeing the joy in people's faces, hearing the roar of the dining room. See people lined up before the restaurant even opened. And it wasn't even about me, people didn't even know who I was. They were just like, "Oh, I heard you serve Caribbean and African food here. I heard we can get jollof rice and a craft cocktail." So that to me was the most important thing of operating Kith/Kin.
You're going back on Top Chef, and this time you're shifting gears from being a contestant to a judge. What was your experience like stepping into those shoes?
It's easier being on that judge's side of the table, I'll tell you that much. I didn't have to run around the kitchen anymore and nervously defend my dish. I was able to receive and make judgment. There's a responsibility with that. I had more empathy because I have been in their shoes and I was able to actually relate to them. So I wasn't coming from a place of supreme judgement, scoffing at their every move, because there's no way in hell I would do what they did. No, I've been there before, I know exactly what it feels like at every single level. And I think I was able to judge with compassion and fairness with a parental aspect. Parents should want the person to do better than you. So I'm speaking to them from a level of compassion and not me just judging every single thing that you're doing.
Top Chef contestants and winners have shown that they don't have to come off the show and immediately open up a new restaurant in order to be successful, or even to be deemed successful. You can make money in this business in many different ways and you can build a brand in different ways that might not necessarily mean you have to have brick and mortar. How important is this to you to eventually have a restaurant again?
I don't think it's that important to me to have a brick and mortar again. Chefs now can diversify their portfolio so much more than you could before. So a brick and mortar doesn't have to be your calling card. There are so many chefs in different lanes, whether it's writing, whether it's media, whether it's within the restaurant space or not. You're doing pop-ups, you're a personal chef, you're doing catering. There's so many lanes that you can go in these days but you don't have to have a restaurant.
Now with that being said, I love operating restaurants. I know when the time is right that will come back, but I don't think it's necessary for any chef. The most necessary thing for any professional is to be happy. And what will produce greatness is one's happiness. You don't need to check any boxes of the standards of what people may think you should be doing in your life. You should live your life in the way that you feel best because it's your life, and you're the only one that's going to live it. Times are changing. You can be in control of your own narrative in so many different ways other than having a restaurant.
So you'll have ownership of your next restaurant no matter what?
There has to to be. I think that's what we should be teaching chefs to strive for once they cut their teeth and begin operating another restaurant for knowledge. At a certain point, there has to be ownership because there will always be that push and pull between whatever ownership team or group or person or investors are there in comparison to the chef.
The chef will be putting their blood, sweat, and literal tears into this project. It shouldn't just be called sweat equity, it should be called blood equity and sacrifice equity. There should be more of a percentage of ownership that is granted off the top from everything that we put into this. Yes, we may not have put up the dollars, but our name is on the marquee. So if something goes wrong in the restaurant, the chef is responsible. Moving forward chefs should be striving for ownership in some capacity. We shouldn't be taking a higher salary anymore. We're not taking a profit share anymore. Take ownership, so when you walk in and say, "This is my kitchen," you'll actually feel that within your soul.
Do you think that true equity in these types of partnerships could create better workplaces, especially in the back of the house?
I think it will because the chef will actually be able to control exactly what's happening. There's a lot of puppeteering that happens in the food industry or in any business where there's a sole person that is perceived as the owner. They have to answer to someone who is actually in charge but then present themselves in front of the team as if their words are coming across as final. "I can't give you a raise because of the books.'" You could give them a raise, but you can't because it isn't actually your business.
There could be a little bit more transparency than there is now. I've felt it in restaurants that I've operated when I wanted to make decisions and I just couldn't, regardless of the press things that say it's mine, the staffing is mine… I have to have ownership in what I'm saying. And how I'm being perceived, because all we have is our word and our reputation. And that can be jeopardized if we don't have full control over that.
Talk to me about the Family Reunion and the first time that you and Sheila Johnson met?
I met Sheila at an event in the Bahamas. I was talking about my story and my book. She was talking about her story and her journey and how she built this incredible business and brand. We just connected. She invited me to Salamander Resorts in Virginia. As soon as I made it to the little town of Middleburg with rows of restaurants and little shops, it reminded me of Aspen. It reminded me of Napa Valley outside of Yountville. And then you get the vineyards and the resort. I was just like, "Holy shit, this could quite frankly be the Black Aspen." We have a Black-owned resort here that's very, very beautiful, stunning views, 300 acres, equestrian center. We have a really, really great town.
So I quickly made a presentation before Sheila and I met at Salamander. It surprised her. And she said, "Let's do it. This sounds amazing." It's important to celebrate Black culture, but also in terms of ownership, celebrating it with Sheila Johnson at her five-star diamond resort that's also Black-owned. So we're celebrating excellence in every single way that sometimes goes unnoticed, even within the food media. There are not many articles on her spot. At most culinary events there is maybe one token Black person. And now we're bringing everybody together where we can really celebrate the culture and contributions of Black and brown people to this industry, which are endless. We know the food industry was even built upon slavery, not paying your staff. That's why people are having such a hard time with these razor thin margins, because it was like, wait a minute, we got to pay these people?
The Family Reunion is so important, even down to the name. That's when people of color usually get together and show out and have cookouts and block parties and stuff like that. And we're going to mirror that and show how amazing and how vibrant and how beautiful this culture is.
In the Tasting Home series you wrote for the magazine and appeared in videos for, you went back to different places that were physical or spiritual homes. You went back to your roots. Pandemic aside, where are you dying to go and explore next?
I really want to go to Nigeria next. I went back two years ago. I just want to go back to really enjoy it and sink my teeth and reconnect with family that I've lost connections with. It's such an important place for me, for a multitude of reasons. That's where a lot of African-Americans came from—Nigeria and West Africa. And I don't know much about that transition, that period of slavery in terms of the Nigerian side, and how they felt about it. And I look to go back and discover those roots, learn even more about the cuisine. I have a really good friend out there and I want to spend time with him. I think it was necessary to my growth as a human by reconnecting with my roots.
You've been on the road a lot during the pandemic. There was the Top Chef bubble while filming in Portland. And some other gigs. You've seen more of the country this year than a lot of people. What are your travel rituals right now?
Mask on, baby. Triple mask with a blanket over my head. Maybe this isn't going to be popular, but I'm also not going to let this debilitate me. I'm going to still experience life in a certain aspect and I'm going to be safe about it. I get tested every week. Sometimes even twice a week. Knowing my status is extremely important.
I had a grandfather who recently passed from leukemia. We did a video with him. He was like, can you please come see me? He said, "Kwame, if I would die, I want to know that at least I saw you before I die. So can you just come and see me?" I went to Virginia, we had all our masks on and he was just like, "Please give me a hug. If this is the thing that kills me, then so be it."
It's important not to lose sight of human connectivity. It's important to know your COVID status, to be extremely careful and diligent. And that's what I've been throughout this whole pandemic. But I've also not let it keep me at bay. I've got people to take care of and I will sacrifice my health to take care of my family before anything else. And also, when you're being responsible, at that point in time of sacrifice, I think you're being a leader in a sense. Don't have parties and go out with people that you don't know. But if you're going to go out, follow CDC guidelines, stay six feet apart, wear a mask, double mask. I was double masking in the airport before Fauci said to double mask. And I have my grandparents to see, I have my mother to see, I have to go to work. In the beginning, it was incredibly scary. But then I got just used to following the protocols.
Where was your grandfather when he passed?
He passed in Virginia in the hospital. He was fighting for some time. The last time I went to see him, he said, "I don't want to do this anymore, Kwame. I'm hurting." And one night at home he fell out of the bed and went to the hospital. The next day he passed. I feel at peace with it because he was so much in pain and so not the person I knew. Literally, right after we did the video for Food & Wine, he got diagnosed with leukemia. And then several months later he's dead. He was half the weight he was in that video, super skinny, he couldn't stand up. I had to carry him around because he was so stubborn. I would carry him upstairs to his man-cave and we would talk about life. He would say, "As long as you're not hurting anybody, keep doing what you're doing because this life is short."
He always reiterated to me how proud he was that on his last trip outside of this country, he was able to take it with me and go back to his home and show me where he played, where he ate, show me his family. He said, "I could die happy after doing that because I'm able to pass on this legacy." It was sad because death is never fucking happy, but he was ready. He lived a long life and he was able to accomplish a lot and inspire a lot of people, including myself. And he was ready to move on to whatever life there is after this.
Thank you. I'm grateful that we have this captured in time so that whenever I do have children, I can show them this. And I can say that this is where you're from. This is where your grandfather grew up. This is the food we ate. Do you want to try any of this? Do you want to go back there? We will always have this. It was who he was as a person, the true essence of Papa was captured in that video for eternity.
What can you tell us about the cookbook process with your book due out next year?
I'm able to document the food of my people, and that's what this cookbook is about. The memoir [Notes From a Young Black Chef] was a very cathartic experience, really like going through my life and rehashing it and understanding my journey. And the cookbook is kind of the flip side of that with my culture, understanding that journey, connecting the dots between jollof rice and jambalaya, connecting the dots in okra stew and gumbo, connecting the dots between barbecue and suya, and telling that story. And also for me, it's hard to find a book that has a solid recipe for jerk chicken and oxtails and curry goat all in one book. It's a cookbook I wanted when I was growing up. That's the thing that I'm pretty much making.
Where are you guys at with the movie version of the memoir with LaKeith Stanfield playing you?
The movie we are filming in the summer, which is pretty amazing.
Well, now that you're out there in LA do you get a cameo?
I already put that in the deal. Even if it's me saying awkwardly, "Did you all order the filet mignon?"
There's a lot of people coming up who are looking at you for inspiration. Who inspires you the most right now?
I'm inspired by Eduardo Jordan and the way that he is pushing forward, no matter what. Jedi mindset, patriarch of his community, and just really, really showing up. I'm also inspired by Michael Elegbede in Lagos, Nigeria, and how he is uplifting the voices of so many that are inaudible within that region. Virginia Ali, the owner of Ben's Chili Bowl that's been around for over 50 years. She's had the tenacity to push through the civil rights era, riots, and the changing of whole neighborhoods and a whole city because DC was very different 60 years ago as it is today. And to do it with grace, I think it's inspiring for everyone. You could compare her to Leah Chase and her legacy.
I look at Virginia Ali in the same way I look at my mother. Whenever I think I have it tough, I think of my mom. My mom raised two kids in the '90s alone. So when I think I have it tough, I think about Virginia Ali and how she came from Trinidad and opened this restaurant with her husband. A hot dog restaurant. Who in Trinidad would open up a hot dog restaurant? And then they crushed it to the point where Barack Obama eats there all the time and not even just Barack Obama, but she helped feed a whole civil rights era when a lot of restaurants were closed due to police brutality and people couldn't be out late at night. They would stay open no matter what. And Alexander Smalls, opening a restaurant in the '90s, pretty much the first Kith/Kin, an upscale soul food restaurant, and then his writing books. These are the people that inspire me. People that came before me that had to deal with so much more than I have to deal with. And they are still thriving and are still here today.
What are you doing these days to fill up your well?
I'm trying to get just more in tune with myself right now, just get more connected with who I am. I have a really busy schedule. I meditate to keep myself grounded. And I'm about to start an intense, 60 day-workout with a trainer. We're going to be working together. We're going to be eating really healthy. I'm going to document it all on social media. I'm going to be showing every single day of what we're eating, what exact workouts that we hit these days, following my weight and everything like that. I think it's important right now to be conscious of your health and your body, your mind, your soul, everything. So that's what I'm looking forward to this year myself in many different aspects.
Looking up a year from now, two years from now, what do you want to get most out of this role and your relationship with Food & Wine?
I want to create dope experiences. I want to shake things up. Food & Wine is a publication that has been such a constant in my life for a very long time. As someone who's a culinarian in the food industry, it's incredibly humbling to have a hand in its portrayal to the world for the next two years.