Chef Kwame Onwuachi talks about his first cookbook and DC restaurants

Photo courtesy of Kwame Onwuachi.

Chef Kwame Onwuachi wears a lot of hats these days, more than your average celebrity chef hat. The 32-year-old, who began his restaurant career in DC with Shaw Bijou and Wharf’s short-lived hit Kith and Kin, now lives in Los Angeles. His praised memoir of 2019, Notes from a young black chef, is being made into a feature film starring LaKeith Stanfield. And Onwuachi also dabbles in comedy; his first movie, Sugar, releases on Amazon Prime later this year. He is an executive producer for Food & Wine. He even has his own nail polish line (yes, really).

Now Onwuachi can add a cookbook author to the list. Her first collection of recipes, My America: the recipes of a young black chefreleases Tuesday, May 17. Through its 125 recipes, the cookbook/memory/historical exploration interweaves black culinary traditions with Onwuachi’s own roots in the Bronx, Nigeria, Louisiana and beyond.

Onwuachi will celebrate the book launch in DC this week with a series of events, starting with a chat with Dine Diaspora’s Nina Oduro at Sixth&I on Tuesday, May 17 (tickets start at $18). Then on Wednesday, tickets ($90 per person) for a launch party at Maketto include book-inspired bites, drinks, and a signed copy.

We caught up with Onwuachi to talk about opening and closing his DC restaurants, how he got into the nail polish game, his Harry Potter obsession, and what fame does (and does not) for him.

My America: Recipes from a Young Black Chef by Kwame Onwuachi. Photograph by Clay Williams

Your tattoos feature prominently on the cover of the book, as well as inside, and tattoos always tell a story. Tell me about yours.

“I have a time stamp on my hand that says ‘now’. Now is the time to do whatever you want. I have a little reminder for me that says ‘dream’ in my own handwriting. I have the Roman numeral 19 because 2019 was the year my life really changed. Me and [Georgia pit master] Bryan Furman has matching tattoos. And I have a Deathly Hallows tattoo because I’m Harry Potter. Go Gryffindor!

I love the first lines of My America: “Show me an America made of apple pie and hot dogs, baseball and Chevrolets and I won’t recognize it. It’s a foreign land to me. It may be someone’s America, but it’s not mine. What about your America did you want to show the reader?

“When you think about eating as a kid, you don’t ask yourself ‘what nationality is that?’ You just eat food, thinking that’s how everyone eats – until you step out of the house and realize that everyone has their own personal journey with food. This book sums up everything I grew up eating.

In your introduction, you talk about your very first restaurant, Shaw Bijou, and say: “I went to great lengths to tell my own story, the story of my childhood and my travels, expressed in true decadence. The halal chicken and rice I ate growing up became rice crisps with lamb sweetbreads glazed in chicken jus… But it was an autobiography – of a man, me – and looking back on it , it was an autobiography written in a borrowed language.” Why do you think it was difficult to convey your real voice there?

“I think people had made up their minds before the restaurant even opened. Articles have been written about the restaurant talking about the price before people even dine there. I think maybe people weren’t ready for that experience. I think back to it often – I know I cooked amazing food, provided some of the best service, and had an incredible environment. If anyone else opened this restaurant now it would be critically acclaimed – the various rooms, dining room like theatre, telling a personal story. [One critic] said it was like a “cult”, Kwame telling his story. But every leader tells a story.

You write on Kith and Kin [at the Wharf] as a time of exploration and growth, and how opening an Afro-Caribbean fine dining restaurant connected you to your family and their recipes. What did the restaurant represent for you?

“It meant so much to me to put my culture on a plate in a setting like this. Afro-Caribbeans, and most non-European cultures, their food is banned from these mom and pop stores – which are great, I eat there three to four times a week. But being able to celebrate a special experience while celebrating your culture is something I hadn’t seen. I thought it was the most diverse dining room in DC and arguably the country at the time. You saw all walks of life – there were people who could celebrate by eating oxtails, and there were people who had never heard of oxtails, sitting side by side in a real community. I remember the first time I saw the fufu leaving the pass, I cried, because I had never seen our food like this.

Left, Chef Kwame Onwuachi in the Kith and Kin kitchen.  On the right, Onwuachi's smoked chicken wings with tamarind.
Chef Kwame Onwuachi in the Kith and Kin kitchen. On the right, Onwuachi’s smoked chicken wings with tamarind. Photograph by Rey Lopez

Do you have a favorite memory during the four years of running Kith and Kin?

“A young Ethiopian cook came to the restaurant between two services. He told me, ‘I’m not looking for a job. I just want to talk to you. I’ve never had anyone to look up to as a beacon in this industry, which is so shameless himself. Thank you for writing your book, because I covered racism in Michelin star kitchens in DC, and you said it was wrong. All I want to say is thank you. And we sat there and cried together. I was like, ‘I don’t know how to help you, but keep standing up for what you believe in and you’ll be fine in whatever industry you choose.’ But he left the culinary industry, and I don’t blame him.

In My Americain your chapter on vegetables, you write: “Long before kale became a middle-class obsession, it was one of the crucifers that sustained generations of black Americans.” Do you see this book as a recovery or a refocusing of stories around certain ingredients and recipes?

“Definitely. I don’t think you can talk about American cuisine without talking about West African cuisine. So many people were brought here and robbed, and with them came their pain, their culture, their practices and their eating habits. We were the ones running the kitchens, so yeah, I would say it’s about reclaiming, and also re-educating – that’s always been ours.

If you had to pick one recipe for a home cook to really get the flavor out of your book, which one would you recommend?

“I would say jerk chicken. It’s similar to the recipe I served at Kith and Kin. We start by brining the chicken, we make the jerk paste from scratch. When you take the first bite, it’s like people are tasting jerk chicken for the first time, not pot sauce or something thrown on the grill. There are so many shades, and it’s beautiful.

Your final chapter of the book details your departure from New York, and the tone is bittersweet. What would this current, unwritten chapter of Los Angeles look like?

“It’s about getting back to what makes me happy. It’s the LA chapter if I were to write: doing things that make me happy and walking towards my goal. I started acting, building different brands, giving creative direction to different businesses, and really flexing my creative muscle.

What is the impact of all these different activities on you as a chef, and has fame changed you at all?

“No, I think that’s life. Just try things. Tomorrow is not promised today. So it’s always better to do what you want to do. Now is the time to do anything. And I don’t think fame dictates anything I do. I don’t consider myself famous or anything. I’m the same kid who would walk up to the playground and ask someone if they wanted to play. And I will never change. »

Tell me about your nail polish line and where it came from.

“It was four or five years ago in DC, actually. My nieces came to visit and they asked me if I wanted to go with them to get my nails done. I went all black and I was like ‘oh, that fly shit.’ I have worn [nail polish] since then Orly contacted a collaboration and we worked on it for most of the year. I wanted to align myself with things that I really love, things that I really wear, things that really represent who I am. So it’s just another form of self-expression. I think more men should get into it. It’s breathable, so it’s good for the kitchen.

Do you see yourself eventually returning to restaurant kitchens?

“Finally, that’s for sure. When the time is right.

If you could open the restaurant of your dreams, where and what would it be?

“It would be back to DC. I would serve food from my childhood in any capacity. So that means a bunch of different cultures.

What is the next step ?

“The main thing that happens is the family reunion [a four day food festival at the Salamander Resort in Middleburg, Virginia]. When I came on board with Food & Wine, I really wanted to do something different that had never been done before, the Kwame way. And I wanted to do an event that celebrated the contributions of blacks and browns to the food industry. I have been to many food events and we are usually just one of us. We have over 45 chefs and writers and artists, and we have panel discussions, breakout sessions, musical guest performances, comedians. We start with the barbecue. I don’t think you can have a Black event without a barbecue, but instead of your uncle behind the grill, it’s Rodney Scott, Bryan Furman and Virginia Ali throwing half-smokes. We are hosting a Jamaican dance hall night with a lineup of great Caribbean chefs. I think people, for the first time, leave a gastronomic event with full hearts and minds, not just stomachs and livers.

My America has already garnered much praise. What are your hopes for the book and its impact on home cooks and the restaurant world in general?

I think this book should be in every home cook or chef or culinary student or library. Like everyone has The French laundry cookbook, The food laboratoryor The bible of flavors. I think it’s up there because it tells the story of people who are in America and have made it their home. They are also people who help build America, so I think their stories need to be told.

food editor

Anna Spiegel covers the restaurant and bar scene in her native DC. Before joining Washingtonian in 2010, she completed the MFA program at the French Culinary Institute and Columbia University in New York, and held various cooking and writing positions in New York and St. John, in the US Virgin Islands.

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