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Get to Know: Chef Kwame Onwuachi

Culinary groundbreaker Chef Kwame Onwuachi talks about celebrating heritage through cuisine, and what he’s learned about himself through building a career in the food industry.

SUCESS IS NOT A STRAIGHT LINE

After a troubled youth, Kwame Onwuachi turned his life around in his 20s. He graduated from the Culinary Institute of America, worked at top New York City restaurants like Per Se and Eleven Madison Park, and became a contestant on Top Chef. In the fall of 2016, he achieved his dream of opening his own restaurant, Shaw Bijou, in Washington, D.C. From the start, however, there were problems. Reviewers took issue with the menu, the portions, the high prices. There was a falling out with his investors. Shaw Bijou closed just weeks after opening.

“I was very depressed,” Onwuachi says. “I was smeared on every culinary news outlet.” What helped him get through that rough period was thinking of his mother, a personal chef in the Cayman Islands who taught him how to cook when he was 5. Determined to prove himself, Onwuachi opened Kith/Kin, an Afro-Caribbean restaurant in D.C. in 2017, to critical acclaim, and in 2019, he won the James Beard Rising Star Chef of the Year award. After stepping down from his post as executive chef at the high-end eatery last year, Onwuachi is now eyeing new opportunities and joined FOOD & Wine as a contributing Executive Producer in February. He’s also working toward a lofty goal: to earn enough so his mother doesn’t have to work anymore. “Once that happens, I’ll feel like I’ve done something,” he says.

BEST LESSON LEARNED

“Probably the biggest obstacle or difficulty for any entrepreneur is to keep going,” the chef says. “Keep going when the critics are telling you that you shouldn’t be doing this. Keep going when the people who don’t know you are constantly judging you. But that’s part of the reward as well when you get to the other side.”

TEACHING OTHERS

These days, Onwuachi spends much of his limited spare time training aspiring chefs. “When I see a cook doing way better than I ever thought he would do, it definitely reminds me of myself,” he says.

“Those are the most inspiring moments.” In his new post with FOOD & WINE, he’s developing cross-platform content and signature events that celebrate diversity in the hospitality industry. This August, he’s heading up The Family Reunion presented by Kwame Onwuachi–a multiday event at the Salamander Hotel in Middleburg, Virginia. He’ll also have a hand in reshaping the FOOD & WINE Classic in Aspen, this September.

“Probably the biggest obstacle or difficulty for any entrepreneur is to keep going. Keep going when the critics are telling you that you shouldn’t be doing this. Keep going when the people who don’t know you ae constantly judging you.””

As seen in the pages of Sweet July Magazine. 

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