Chef Kwame Onwuachi of Kith/Kin: "I don't see much diversity and that needs to change"
16 Oct 2019
With a relatively short but accomplished career, it’s hard to believe that success didn’t happen overnight for Kwame Onwuachi. From a young kid helping out his mother in the kitchen of their one-bedroom apartment in the Bronx to being named 2019 Rising Chef of the Year by the James Beard Foundation, the 29-year-old is living proof that anyone can make it through hard work and perseverance.
Onwuachi is a champion for diversity in the white-dominated world of fine dining.
Growing up between New York, Nigeria and Louisiana, it’s fair to say that Onwuachi had an unconventional childhood. Born in the Bronx, young Kwame was first exposed to cooking in the comfort of his own home where he helped his mother with her small catering business, the first sparks of a passion that would later turn into a career.
At age 10, Kwame was having issues with discipline - but rather than being grounded, he was sent to his father’s hometown in Nigeria. After spending two years living without electricity or modern affordances, Onwuachi moved back to New York to finish high school, where things didn’t exactly improve: he got involved with drug gangs, which led him to start using and dealing, an all too common fate that befalls many young people living in poverty-stricken neighbourhoods in the land of the free.
A turning point for Onwuachi was the historic 2008 presidential election victory of Barack Obama. “I didn’t think I’d see a black president in my lifetime,” Onwuachi told Noah during an appearance on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah. Recognising that he had it within him to do better, Onwuachi moved to Louisiana with his mother where he waited tables and washed dishes. Realising that his passion lay on the other side of the pass, in 2010 the 19-year-old Onwuachi was hired as a cook for crews that helped clean the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Having gained confidence in the kitchen, Onwuachi returned to New York the same year to start a catering business. To fund his new venture, Onwuachi hustled by selling candy on the subway, and eventually had enough saved to enrol himself at the Culinary Institute of America. Here, he received his formal education and also completed an externship at Thomas Keller’s celebrated modern American restaurant Per Se. Following his graduation, Onwuachi scored a gig as a line cook at Eleven Madison Park, and catapulted to national fame as the breakout star of reality cooking competition Top Chef in 2015. In late 2017, Onwuachi opened the critically acclaimed Kith/Kin in Washington, DC, which specialises in Afro-Carribean cuisine inspired by flavours from his childhood.
Onwuachi released his memoirs in April 2019.
2019 has been a big year for the 29-year-old chef. April saw the publication of his memoirs, Notes from a Young Black Chef, which shone a spotlight on diversity in the kitchen - or lack of it - from an emerging and important voice. In May, Onwuachi was named Rising Star Chef of the Year by the James Beard Foundation, joining the ranks of previous winners such as David Chang, Christina Tosi, Grant Achatz, among others.
Onwuachi’s octopus with Veracruz compote, scallop masa and puffed amaranth.
When Onwuachi isn’t too busy captaining his DC restaurant, he’s travelling the world showcasing his cuisine at pop-ups and four-hands dinners. Following the success of his Test Kitchen event in February 2018, the celebrated chef returns to Hong Kong this week for a four-night pop-up (16 to 19 October) to plate up an eight-course menu (HK$1480 per person, plus $480 for wine pairing) with flavours inspired by the African diaspora, and incorporating the diverse flavours of Nigeria, New York and Louisiana. Dishes to look forward to include the octopus with Veracruz compote, scallop masa and puffed amaranth and the Moi Moi Chawanmushi, a black-eyed pea custard with uni and confit chicken.
Ahead of the anticipated event, we chat with the chef the San Francisco Chronicle recently dubbed ‘the most important chef in America’ about his Test Kitchen menu, the inspiration behind his food, and the change he wants to see when it comes to diversity in the culinary world.
I wanted to visit Hong Kong… “for my brother, Vincent [Test Kitchen owner, Vincent Hui] for one! He is one of my best friends and is doing amazing things over here. I also love Hong Kong and the culture.”
My Test Kitchen pop-up menu was inspired by... “the African diaspora and the beauty of it. This one goes a little more in-depth and is a bit more refined than menus I have created in the past.”
My upbringing... “is a direct reflection of my food today. It inspires the way I eat, think, and create.”
My Top Chef experience helped my career... “because I was able to cook for a lot of chefs that I had looked up to my entire career. Getting feedback from them at an early age was integral to my growth.”
I published my memoirs… “after I gave a speech about my life story. There was a literary agent in the crowd, and she really encouraged me to write it all down. I think it’s very important to share stories.”
I find it important to tell my story… “because as humans, sharing stories was our earliest form of education. Being able to learn from each other in so many ways is important for our growth.”
I don't see much diversity across the board... “and that needs to change. I think it’s going to take constant conversations to provoke thought, but most importantly action, to produce change.”
One thing I’ve learned is... “to have patience. Make sure you’ve taken the necessary steps to soak in everything that you possibly can.”
My advice to aspiring chefs is... “to not stop learning and try and be a little better every day.”
Kwame Onwuachi will be cooking at Test Kitchen from 16-19 October. Book a table here.
Test Kitchen, 158A Connaught Road West, Sai Ying Pun, +852 9032 7628; www.testkitchen.com.hk.