Setting a course on a journey that leads you to become the James Beard Rising Star Chef of the Year in 2019 is likely to take you through some rough waters. As a chef age 30 or younger, Kwame Onwuachi received the award because he displays “exceptional talent, character, and leadership ability,” and he is “likely to make a significant impact in years to come.”
The Bronx native already has reached destinations in the culinary and literary worlds that much older chefs and authors might envy. Now, Onwuachi is about to embark on a new adventure as an executive producer on the film adaptation of his best-selling memoir, “Notes from a Young Black Chef.” It is unchartered waters that excite Onwuachi. “I’ve never done this before, so I’m looking forward to every aspect of it. I think it will bring out another avenue that I didn’t know could happen by really loving and caring about food.”
The New York-based film company A24 obtained the rights to the memoir that will star actor Lakeith Stanfield of “Get Out” fame. The book tells the true story of a young chef who rose from selling drugs in college to working in some of America’s most acclaimed restaurants. Onwuachi, who gained national recognition as a contestant on Bravo TV’s “Top Chef,” cowrote the book with journalist Joshua David Stein. “This book started as an idea, and then it touched paper and was printed. Now, to see it being transformed into a movie is really, really cool,” says the executive chef of Kith/Kin in Washington, D.C.
Memoir Wins Praise
“Notes from a Young Black Chef” captures the exhilarating ride Onwuachi has been on for most of his life. He fell in love with food and cooking at a young age while helping his mother with her catering business in the Bronx. It includes the life-changing lessons he received living with his grandfather in Nigeria, where his mother sent him to learn respect. It tells the story of how he raised $20,000 selling candy in New York City’s subway to start a catering company. The memoir also covers his years of surviving low pay, verbal abuse and racism while perfecting his craft after enrolling at the Culinary Institute of America. “It is a very intense industry. There’s a lot that goes into it, and a lot of yourself that you have to sacrifice in order to be successful,” Onwuachi says.
It is not surprising that film companies wanted the rights to the chef’s memoir when you consider the praise heaped on the book. One of the world’s most respected chefs, José Andrés, said, “This is an astonishing and open-hearted story from one of the next generation’s stars of the culinary world. I am so excited to see what the future holds for Chef Kwame—he is a phoenix, rising into better and better things and showing us all what it means to be humble, hungry, and daring.”
Chef Edouardo Jordan, the first black chef to win two James Beard Awards in the same year also praised the book. He said, “Chef Kwame Onwuachi is a living example of bouncing back when hit with challenges and obstacles.”
The New York Times Book Review called Onwuachi’s memoir “stunning.” The chef believes “Notes from a Young Black Chef” resonates with people who appreciate the different perspectives presented through the obstacles the chef overcomes. “It’s someone’s life story. You may really relate to a certain part,” says Onwuachi. “I think because there are so many different journeys and adventures in the book it lends [itself] to that. And it lends to many people understanding it and aligning with its values.”
Keeping Kith/Kin Close to Home
The Washington Post suggests the memoir should be required reading for anyone who wants to know what it is like to be “young, black and ambitious in America.” Chef Onwuachi sets an example of what it takes to rise from adversity to be named one of Food & Wine magazine’s Best New Chefs of 2019. He spearheaded the opening of Kith/Kin in the Intercontinental Hotel at The Wharf in Washington, D.C. The restaurant is listed in Washingtonian magazine’s “100 Very Best Restaurants” and in Eater’s “America’s 38 Essential Restaurants.” As executive chef, Onwuachi created a place that reflects his heritage and his desire to make every diner feel welcomed, comfortable and delighted. “It’s important to me because it’s my culture. My family is Trinidadian, Nigerian, Jamaican and Creole,” says Onwuachi.
The food on the menu at Kith/Kin may appear to be fusion to some patrons. It is more a celebration of the different cuisines the chef’s family put on the Thanksgiving Day table. Some of the restaurant’s dishes on the Kin section of the menu, such as goat roti and braised oxtails, represent family and tradition. The Kith selections, such as uni escovitch and cod almondine are the chef’s new creations. All of them represent Onwuachi’s connections to New York, New Orleans, Nigeria, Jamaica, West Africa and the Caribbean. “For me, it’s really good to be able to serve that kind of food. On the other side, it’s great to have a group of people finally able to celebrate their culture and celebrate a special experience.”
Onwuachi followed up the opening of Kith/Kin with a fast-casual concept at Union Market in D.C. His Philly Wing Fry eatery gives diners a place they can order his three favorite foods. “I really like cheesesteaks, chicken wings and waffle fries. I wanted a place where I could have them all at once.”
Appreciating Black Chefs Who Lead the Way
Those accomplishments gain significance when you consider that Onwuachi opened his first restaurant in D.C. at age 27. Shaw Bijou generated a lot of buzz before it closed within three months. The original 13-course menu was one of the priciest in the city, but the chef still supports the inspiration behind the idea. “It was an amazing concept. Businesses close because of lack of capital. There wasn’t enough working capital to continue the concept,” Onwuachi says.
His experience with the investors for the failed restaurant taught Onwuachi about revenue challenges other black chefs have also had to overcome. He appreciates the sacrifices made and doors opened by the great chefs who succeeded before him, including Patrick Clark, Leah Chase, Marcus Samuelsson and Edouardo Jordan. “These are prominent chefs who have done amazing things. They happen to look like me, so it is important to honor that.”
Chef Onwuachi recognizes that Black chefs such as Jordan, the owner of three Seattle restaurants, are making waves in the culinary world. Yet, he also sees a need for chefs who look like him to keep pushing at closed doors. “Things don’t change overnight, and they don’t change over five years. It takes constant, consistent pressure to really change some things. Staying awake. That’s what actually makes us great and resilient.”
More Challenges to Face, Dreams to Chase
Even with all the high praise Onwuachi, his restaurant and his memoir have received in recent months, the chef does not call himself a celebrity. He stays grounded by focusing on the ups and downs that come with life and his demanding career, and by keeping good people around him. “I think people like to overglamorize the culinary industry. But there are so many things that are happening now. Whether it’s having to process payroll or equipment malfunctioning. There are always things that are happening that are difficult that people aren’t seeing.”
So, how does Onwuachi plan to keep Kith/Kin operating at peak performance while he is working on the film about his life? The chef is counting on the people he has hired and trained to maintain the standards of quality he adopted working in the grueling environments of New York’s multi-Michelin star Per Se and Eleven Madison Park. He has a diverse team that can carry on when he is away. “You can’t do it all yourself even when you are there. It needs to have a team that you can trust that can carry your vision.”
The chef had to master leadership skills to bring together a staff he could inspire to greatness. He first conquered the fundamentals of cooking by starting at the bottom, keeping his head down and observing knowledge from his mother’s kitchen all the way to fine-dining establishments. “There is no straight line to becoming a great chef or great anything,” says Onwuachi. “Everyone has their own path. Everyone has their own idea of what they want to become. Everyone has their own definition of success. It’s up to them to find that inspiration.”
Kith/Kin’s executive chef has already inspired other young culinary students. He has also impressed his family of talented cooks who are proud of and excited about his achievements. Onwuachi himself now dreams of opening more restaurants and writing other books. But first, he wants to get more of the one thing he enjoys most. “Sleeping,” the chef says with a laugh. “That brings me supreme joy.”