Kwame Onwuachi ’13, James Beard Foundation Rising Star Chef of the Year
“Just keep going. Don’t stop, no matter what obstacles get in your way. If you have your mind set and you have goals in place, stick with those goals, figure out how to adapt, how to pivot, and continue moving.”
CIA Alumni Bio
James Beard Foundation 2019 Rising Star Chef of the Year Chef winner Kwame Onwuachi ’13 grew up surrounded by tantalizing aromas. His mother ran a catering company from their small apartment in the South Bronx, specializing in foods from her own heritage in Louisiana and Trinidad and Kwame’s father’s heritage in Jamaica and Nigeria. Their building’s community was a global representation of food from around the world and he and his mother would track incredible smells to different floors. They’d knock on doors to ask, “What are you cooking?”
A Lesson of Respect
In his youth, Kwame faced challenges. “I was definitely on the wrong path as a kid and my mom couldn’t handle me,” he says. Her solution was to send him to Nigeria to live with his grandfather and learn respect. “Everything changed. I went from a focus on PlayStation to doing homework by the light of a kerosene lamp. There was no electricity or running water,” Kwame recalls. “I learned where food comes from and how to value it, because if we wanted chicken, we had to raise our own.”
Education Was The Next Step
Returning to the U.S., Kwame attended Cardinal Spellman High School. After graduation, he moved to Baton Rouge, LA, where he got some early kitchen experience cooking for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill cleanup crews. Returning to New York City, Kwame sold candy in the subway and raised $20,000 to start his own catering company, Coterie Catering. “My food was good but I felt I was falling short,” he says. “I knew education was the next step for me, so I applied to The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY.”
Keep Moving After Top Chef
With diploma in hand, Kwame honed his skills at Per Se and Eleven Madison Park in New York City. In 2016, he came in sixth on season 13 of Food Network’s Top Chef. Two investors from Washington, DC, collaborated with Kwame to open The Shaw Bijou, which quickly went from being one of the most anticipated openings in the country to a deep disappointment, closing after just 11 weeks. “The lesson that I learned (from Shaw Bijou) is to keep going,” he says. “Just keep going. Don’t stop, no matter what obstacles get in your way. If you have your mind set and you have goals in place, stick with those goals, figure out how to adapt, how to pivot, and continue moving.”
In 2017, Kwame accepted an offer to be the executive chef at Kith and Kin at the InterContinental Hotel at the Wharf along the Potomac River. “At Kith and Kin our style is Afro-Caribbean—Nigerian, Creole, Trinidadian, Jamaican—the diaspora meets the American South,” he says. “The food is a reflection of the African slave trade. I’m a mix of many different cultures, and I wanted to cook my people’s food. You don’t see African and Caribbean food in major hotels, and I wanted people to have an upscale venue for oxtails and other Afro-Caribbean cuisine.”
“When you have young voices like Kwame coming on the scene, people are listening,” says 2018 James Beard winner for Best Chef South Nina Compton ’01. “It’s the beginning of something really special. Twenty-five years ago, you’d talk about Afro-Caribbean food, and no one would listen.”
The accolades for Kith and Kin and Kwame have started to come in. He was named one of America’s 2019 Best New Chefs by Food & Wine magazine ad made the list of Forbes magazine’s and the Zagat Survey’s30 Under 30. “Just like every other occupation, being recognized for your hard work gives you a sense of purpose in what you are doing,” he says.
Notes from a Young Black Chef
In April 2019, Knopf released Kwame’s memoir, Notes from a Young Black Chef, a book about his rise from poverty to executive chef. The rights to the book were recently acquired for a movie adaptation.
In addition to Kith and Kin, he recently launched Philly Wing Fry, a fast-casual restaurant that serves cheesesteak, chicken wings, and waffle fries. He has two locations in Washington, DC, with a national expansion planned. Kwame has come a long way from the South Bronx and now he is tempting patrons with his own tantalizing aromas.
Chef Kwame Onwuachi majored in culinary arts at The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY. He is the creator and executive chef of Kith and Kin at the InterContinental Hotel at the Wharf in Washington D.C.