The Bronx-raised chef wants to be a voice for independent restaurants and the communities that are disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

By Kat Kinsman
Updated April 10, 2020
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Chefs and restaurant workers take great care of everyone else, but often they need a little help themselves. Each week, Food & Wine senior editor Kat Kinsman talks with hospitality pros about they manage their business, brain, and body for the long haul. Is there a topic you'd like to know more about or a guest you'd love to hear from? Tell us at fwpro@foodandwine.com or tweet to Kat @kittenwithawhip, and subscribe to the weekly Food & Wine Pro newsletter. Subscribe to the Communal Table YouTube page and never miss an episode. Catch up on previous episodes here.

Episode 66: Kwame Onwuachi Talks About Restaurant Recovery and Representing Inaudible People

On a recent press call with the Independent Restaurant Coalition, Bronx-raised chef Kwame Onwuachi pointed out the painful truth that a tiger at the Bronx Zoo was able to get a COVID-19 test, and yet the human beings in his home borough don't have access to that care and are getting sick and dying at a rate much higher than those in Manhattan. The 2019 Best New Chef spoke with Food & Wine about the work the IRC is doing to save restaurants, what he is doing to stay afloat, and why communities of color are being so disproportionately affected by this pandemic.

An edited transcript is below:

How are you doing right now? Real answer, if you don't mind.

I have a rollercoaster of emotions right now, and I try to stay positive throughout it all. I'm worried about my team, worried about the industry. Some days are better than others. Most of us in the food and beverage industry are task-oriented, so it's like, "All right, maybe I can get through something if I know when this thing will be over with—but I have no idea when." That hasn't given me a lot of hope.

My colleague, Margaret Eby, has a great tattoo that says, "If you can't find the mayor, you must be the mayor." And I think you became a mayor really quickly.

I appreciate that. That's a heavy crown. I have great people around me, great leaders to follow as well. So I'm just trying to do what I can with whatever platform I have. I just want restaurants to be representative and I want to do something useful with my time.

On a conference call this week with industry leaders who are also part of the Independent Restaurant Coalition, you said something that stood out to me, that it's your goal to "represent the inaudible." You're a proud son of the Bronx, which has been hit so hard by coronavirus. Can you talk about what you're seeing there?

It's the number of cases, and  the number of fatalities within those cases. For me, it equates to incarceration levels. There's a lower population of African Americans, but a higher population of them in prison. There's a lower population of African Americans or minorities, but there's a higher population of them dying. I think in Chicago, I think it's 70% of all the deaths have been African American, or minority. It is three times more likely for someone in the Bronx who's contracted coronavirus to perish than it is for someone just across the river in Manhattan—but you have tigers getting tests and we don't have enough tests for people.

I don't know if those numbers are because it's easier for people to social distance when they can work at home in these other areas, or there isn't healthcare provided for most of these people when they find out it's too late. I'm not a scientist, but I can look at numbers and see that there is some sort of misrepresentation.

I was reading a piece by Charles Blow in the New York Times where he was saying that fewer than one in five Black workers has a job that can be done from home.

Last time I was on this podcast, we talked about my childhood friend who passed away from gun violence. I've stemmed a relationship with his son and I recently talked to the son's mother. She has to go to work every single day. She's in healthcare and her job is to watch the children of the doctors so she cannot say no. She can't work from home. And then she has to then go home and be around her son, which is problematic for obvious reasons. Kudos to her, she's on the front lines making sure that these doctors can go out there and perform and do God's work. But she's a representation of a lot of people in the Bronx with jobs that cannot be remote. They're like the restaurant industry; we can't work from home. It's deeply personal to me. I'm not saying I have all the answers, but I will talk about it, and then hopefully I'll make people think.

It's zero secret that the restaurant industry and its access to health care are beyond screwed up. Are you seeing talk of money being allocated for current and future health care for workers? 

Right now we're just trying to focus on making sure the restaurants open up. There are definitely things within that we're trying to include for the longevity of restaurants and restructuring the business model and making it more livable. Part of that comes with changing the perspective of the restaurant industry and making it OK to charge a little more for something so that the workers get what they deserve. We are overtaxed and over-regulated by people who don't run our business. Part of the razor-thin margins comes from all the taxation that happens on our profits.

I don't think the Independent Restaurant Coalition is going to go anywhere. I like to think of this as The Avengers of the restaurant industry. I definitely feel like the Spider-Man in this, because I'm like the young guy trying to come in here and show that he can contribute in any way that he can, and he's just happy to be there. There will always be more battles to fight and things to advocate for. I think it will graduate into something bigger and more lasting within the industry that we can just all use our platforms and our connections to make change.

What counts as an "independent restaurant"?

It is a restaurant that utilizes small purveyors, helps with the local economy, something that isn't a large corporation. We're not talking about McDonald's, we're not talking about Wendy's, we're not talking about these chain restaurants. I'm not saying that they don't need their own help. I'm just talking about restaurants that feed our communities in a different way.

I've been trying to weigh the ethics of ordering food from restaurants right now because I want to support them, but I don't want to put anyone at risk.

There's no right or wrong answer. This is a national pandemic that everyone is figuring out on their own. We closed Kith/Kin because we have 60 employees. We have employees that are at risk, we have people that are elderly, and takeaway doesn't work for us. But I can't look down on that mom-and-pop shop or that immigrant-run restaurant where they're living out their American dream. Maybe they have been doing delivery this whole time anyway, or this is the only way that they can continue to survive. We're trying to make the best decisions for business, for our staff, for longevity. And whatever decision you're making, you just stand by that.

Where should people be putting their attention to make the most impact?

Obviously, I'm with the Independent Restaurant Coalition and that's a great flagpole speaking for all. But all of these coalitions or movements are all representing the same thing. It might be your local one—there's all different types—and they're trying to make sure that we are still here. Whatever one you feel comfortable with, go for it. And as long as it is evoking positivity and meeting solidarity so that we can have an industry when this is all said and done, I'm all for it.

When this money comes down and restaurants reopen or rebuild, what do we need to do to ensure that communities of color are given a fair slice of the pie? Historically, it's been really, really hard for immigrants, women, people of color to get money to open restaurants. Do you think there's going to be a shift of that existing paradigm and how can diners make sure that that is the case moving forward?

I don't think there'll be a shift, quite frankly, because the parameters that are put in place to even attain some of these grants or loans—they favor the people that have lots of support. If you have all of your taxes in line and you're current on pretty much everything, then you're eligible for all of this. I'm not saying that minorities and women and people of color aren't current on all of that. But I just feel that it's going to be harder for the smaller family-run places to provide all of that and be eligible for the whole package.

Moving forward, I don't have the answers, I also don't have the money. We need to start directing some of this to the powers that be, that have the access to capital or access to providing lots of platforms and backing to direct their efforts and to spread their efforts across the board so everyone is represented. We're going to have to really think about our business models and make sure that we do have funds kept away so we don't run into these situations where we are on the brink of a destroyed industry. I think we need to be more prepared as business owners for unfortunate situations.

In addition to your own restaurant, what are a few of the places near you that you want to see succeed?

El Rinconcito, a little El Salvadoran place in DC, Los Hermanos, a Dominican spot. I really, really like Chercher, this Ethiopian restaurant, Cane restaurant by Peter Prime, Carlie Steiner and Pom Pom, and Erik Bruner-Yang—all of his restaurants. I would like to see these restaurants succeed as well as countless other ones. The small immigrant-run places are near and dear to my heart, one, because those are the places I like to eat at. Those are the restaurants that feed America, the pulse of America.

What are you doing to take care of yourself?

I have a GoFundMe for my team so they can see a glimmer of hope and let them know that we're thinking about them. Working out is very meditative for me. I do have my days that I'm so stressed out. My fiance would hear me sigh, she's like, "What's going on?" I'd be like, "I just don't know when this is going to end, like when am I going to get back, I need to be around people." Those moments come and we need to let them pass and recognize them for what they are. So I try to use my workout as meditation right now.

I'm talking to a lot of chefs. Some of them for the first time in their entire working lives are having time to sleep and connect with people. But other people are saying, "What does it even matter any more? The world is ending, everything is over. Why don't I just engage in some really self-harmful behavior." Many of them have given up everything else in their lives to go and work in restaurants, and all of a sudden, they don't have their support systems around them because they didn't have time to foster them. They're sitting at home and worried about money and they don't have that usual routine. Do you have some words of hope for them?

Find someone you can talk to. I have a friend that's going through it. He's in Hong Kong and they've been dealt a really bad hand starting with the riots, then coronavirus went through and came back. Their food and beverage industry is hit really, really hard. I check in, and he checks in on me and make sure that I'm OK. Just having that one person that you can just talk to—just say hey to once a day and see what they're doing. Remind yourself that us as human beings, we are extremely resilient and we will get through anything. We talk on cell phones and go to the moon. We're going to get through this.

It's hard to see the future or even have just a moment of understanding that this will be OK, but just take it one day at a time, let emotions pass, take care of yourself. You don't have to come out of this with a new skill or newfound purpose—don't have that kind of pressure on yourself.

Be OK with not knowing what you're going to do next because it doesn't happen that often. In the restaurant industry we are very task-oriented and we know exactly what's happening next. When we quit a job, we already have started at another place.

There's a beauty in not knowing what you're doing next and letting the universe take control and know that you're not in control. You don't have to be religious because I am not, but man plans and God laughs. Just be OK with that and take a day at a time and know that we're all in this together—the whole world—and we'll get through this.

Links and Resources

The Independent Restaurant Association: saverestaurants.com

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