From a ‘soul crushing’ closure to culinary success, DC chef dishes on career in new memoir

To say Kwame Onwuachi is on top of his game is an understatement.

This year, the D.C.-based chef is a James Beard Award nominee, and one of 10 culinary professionals in the country to make Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs list.

The 29-year-old’s 3,500-square-foot restaurant at the city’s waterfront Wharf development is a favorite among critics. Plus, he just published his first book, “Notes From a Young Black Chef,” with journalist Joshua David Stein.

Two years ago, however, Onwuachi almost abandoned his career when his highly anticipated fine-dining concept closed just two and a half months after opening.

“It was soul crushing,” Onwuachi said about the shuttering of The Shaw Bijou — one of the city’s most expensive and exclusive fine-dining restaurants.

“I spent so long creating that experience for people, and yeah, it was depressing, you know? I definitely thought about giving up, but I had really amazing people around me who would not let me do that.”

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In 2015, the world was introduced to Onwuachi when he competed on Bravo’s popular television series, “Top Chef.” But his love of cooking began long before that. Growing up, Onwuachi’s mother ran a catering company out of their home in the Bronx.

“And I became her first employee, essentially, me and my sister,” Onwuachi said.

When he was 10, Onwuachi was sent to live with relatives in Nigeria — “Growing up in New York City, it makes you grow up really, really fast,” he said — and that experience provided him with a new perspective on food.

“We had to raise our own livestock; we had to go and obtain palm kernels from the palm tree and process it to make soups and things like that. So it taught me the ‘why’ behind cooking.”

Back in the U.S. at the age of 20, Onwuachi, whose childhood was anything but smooth, decided to start his own catering company. At the time, he was living in New York and “just trying to make ends meet.” So he got creative, and took to the subway to find his startup funds, which he raised in two months.

“I took a really big step back and started selling candy on the train in order to save up for a catering company,” Onwuachi said.

Next, he went on to culinary school, and then into the kitchens of some of New York’s best restaurants. Now, Onwuachi is running his own kitchen at Kith and Kin inside D.C.’s InterContinental hotel, where he serves Afro-Caribbean-inspired dishes, such as goat roti, jollof rice with rouget, and jerk chicken. He also operates a fast-casual cheesesteak concept, called Philly Wing Fry, out of D.C.’s Union Market and the New Jersey Avenue Whole Foods Market.

Onwuachi has seen his ups and downs throughout his time in the food industry, but one thing he hasn’t seen much of is diversity — especially when it comes to positions of power.

Research shows that about 80% of management and other high-level positions within restaurants are occupied by white workers, and that’s something Onwuachi wants to see change for future generations.

“You know, it’s not inclusive for people of color,” he said. “There’s not a lot of people like us in the kitchens, in fine-dining kitchens, and that’s a little tough, you know, being in a place where you are the minority once again.”

Onwuachi’s new memoir details his experiences as a black chef, but he said the story he shares in the book’s pages transcend race — even food.

“This book is not just for young black chefs; it’s not just for chefs; it’s not just for people in the hospitality industry. This book is for everyone. It’s a book about continuing to keep going when you know you’re faced with some sort of failure or downfall, or just people in your way. It’s about keeping that momentum no matter what and believing in yourself,” he said.

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