In honor of our 10th anniversary we’re re-releasing three of our all time favorite episodes, selected by listeners, each with a brand new update. This is the second part of our conversation with Kwame Onwuachi. Make sure you listen to part one first. On Saturday night, September 26 at 9pm Eastern / 6pm Pacific, join us for our 10th Anniversary Party on Instagram Live with special guests Carla Hall and Sohla El-Waylly. We're also raising money for Feeding America. Follow Dan on Instagram so you don’t miss the party.
After starting his own catering company and going to the Culinary Institute of America, Kwame Onwuachi hits the jackpot. He lands an externship at one of the most prestigious Michelin-starred restaurants in the country, goes far on the cooking show Top Chef, and has investors knocking at his door with opportunities to start his own restaurant.
But when he takes the offer that looks most promising, things go wrong — fast. His comeback involves a secret restaurant, the show Black Mirror, and a white guy named Mufasa.
This is the second part of a two-part series with Chef Kwame Onwuachi, recorded live on stage at the Miracle Theatre in Washington, DC. Now, seven months after COVID-19's arrival in the U.S. and four months after the killing of George Floyd, we're bringing you a special update on Kwame's advocacy for independent restaurants and some big decisions about his work.
This episode contains explicit language.
Interstitial music in this episode by Black Label Music:
- "Ya Gotta Instrumental" by Kenneth J. Brahmstedt
- "Kenny" by Hayley Briasco
- "So So Sunny" by Calvin Dashielle
- "Summertime Delight" by Cullen Fitzpatrick
- "Young and Free" by Cullen Fitzpatrick
- "Party Hop" by Jack Ventimiglia
Photos: Anthony Washington/The Sporkful.
Dan Pashman:This episode contains explicit language.
Dan Pashman: This is The Sporkful. It's not for foodies, it's for eaters. I'm Dan Pashman. Each week on our show, we obsess about food to learn more about people. And we are coming to you live from the Miracle Theatre in Washington, D.C.
Dan Pashman: Alright, here we go. This is the second half of my conversation with chef Kwame Onwuachi, of the D.C. restaurant Kith and Kin, which we’re repeating with an all new update this week in honor of our 10th Anniversary. That update is at the end of this episode. Now if you haven’t heard part 1 yet, please go back! You really should hear Kwame’s story in order.
Dan Pashman: When we left off, it was 11 years ago. He was cooking on a boat somewhere in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico. That’s where he got his first clue that he wanted to be a chef. From there, Kwame moved to New York to start a catering company. He was still just 20 years old and didn’t have a ton of experience. But as we learned in part one, Kwame can hustle.
Kwame Onwuachi: So, yeah, I was in a store in Soho and I started striking up a conversation with the cashier. She happened to be the owner of the store. And they opened last week. And she was like, "I'm really excited. I'm throwing this opening party. You seem cool. Do you want to come?" I was like, "Yeah, I'll come. So you're excited about it? Like, you got everything, you ready for this party?" She's like, "Yeah, I'm ready. If only I had a caterer. I'm just like, you know, I really wanna do these mini-cheesecakes...", and I was like, "You never asked me what I do." And she's like, "What do you mean?" I was like, "I'm a caterer." And she's like, "You're a caterer?" And I'm like, "Yeah, I'm a caterer." She's like, "How old are you?" I was like, "Ma’am, that is irrelevant. What catering services do you need? You clearly are in dire need of help. So I'll see what I can do." And she was like, "Well like I said, I want to make these mini-cheesecakes. Can you make cheesecakes?" And I was like, "Please don't disrespect — I just told you I was a chef and a caterer. I'll be here tomorrow with cheesecakes." And I went home and I've never made cheesecakes before in my life. So as many of you know, when you make a cheesecake, it's a process. Like you have to make the cheesecake. You have to let it set, let it cool. Then you have to cut into it to find out if it's good.
Dan Pashman: So you don't know for three hours whether or not it's good?
Kwame Onwuachi: No, I didn't know that leading up to this. So I get home and I call my sister because she always used to make the baked goods for my mom's catering company. I'm like, "Okay, how do I make a cheesecake?" She's like, you just take the eggs, the cream cheese, you know, a little vanilla, lemon juice, sugar, and you whip that together, maybe some milk and, you pour it in your crust and you bake it off. I’m like, easy. How hard can this be? So I add it together. It's a little lumpy because I didn't let it warm or let the cream cheese cool down. But I'm like, it's going to heat up and come together anyway. Right? So do that, three hours later, cut into it. It's just like, you know, big globs of like cream cheese in there. I'm like, fuck. All right. I got time. All right. Second one is gonna... how do I — you need to walk this through me step by step, come on.
Dan Pashman: You’re back on the phone with your sister?
Kwame Onwuachi: Yeah. She's like, you heat the cream…. Did you heat the cream cheese? I'm like, no, because you didn't tell me to heat the cream cheese. She's like, "Alright, heat the cream cheese, whip the eggs in, add your vanilla, add your sugar, a little bit of milk. Put it in the crust, bake it off, set it, cut into it. It'll be perfect." So I heat the cream cheese, I add the eggs to it. And like as soon as it hits turns into scrambled eggs a little bit. But I'm like, once it heats it’ll come together. I'm trying to convince myself that this is like science. You know what happens. I cut into it three hours later. It's fucking scrambled eggs in cheesecake. I'm like, "Tatiana, if you do not give me these explicit...it is 3 a.m. I gotta be at this thing at 9 a.m.! So, yeah. She tells me, you know, don't heat it up too much. It's an emulsification. You gotta emulsify the eggs into the cream cheese. Add the vanilla. Little bit of sugar. A little bit of milk. Do it. Boom. Three hours later, it's beautiful cheesecake. And it is 6 a.m. And I just realized at that time, like, man, I didn't do... like I was so focused on making this cheesecake perfect. I wasn't on my phone. I wasn't really listening to music. I wasn't watching anything. I just was like really trying to focus on making this cheesecake. I must really love this. And I need to really put everything into this because I've never done anything like this to my entire life and sat still for anything. And then that's the moment I found out I should be cooking for the rest of my life.
Dan Pashman: So you decide you're gonna go to the CIA, the Culinary Institute of America.
Kwame Onwuachi: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: But you need money for that. That's expensive.
Kwame Onuwachi: Mm-hmm.
Dan Pashman: So you sell some candy on the subway. You made $20,000 selling candy on the subway?!
Kwame Onwuachi: Yeah. Sold a lot of candy.
Dan Pashman: People ought to hitch their wagon to you wherever you’re going, Kwame. But you also asked each of your respective parents to help pay for tuition.
Kwame Onuwachi: Mm-hmm.
Dan Pashman: And what happened?
Kwame Onwuachi: My mom gave me her last money. She had like $2,000 saved up. And she was like, this is for your future. You know, this is for your future children, your future family and you have an opportunity to have a life that I didn't have. And, you know, that meant the world to me that she did that, because I knew her money had a real sum. They're real hours for her money. You know, like every 20 dollars was an hour at work. And that money saved up was everything that she had. My father, on the other hand…
Dan Pashman: And I should say that your father was kind of in your life but split up from your mom.
Kwame Onwuachi: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: Not nearly as much in your life as your mom was, but he was around.
Kwame Onwuachi: He was there. He wasn't an absentee father or anything. He was just... we didn't really get along. So we didn't hang out, you know. And that was that. That was it.
Dan Pashman: But you asked him.
Kwame Onwuachi: I asked him for money and he suggested that I go back to dealing drugs to get through school. It wasn't a horrible idea. I was making good money, but it's not the path that I wanted to go back into. You know? It was a strange thing coming from my father, too, to be honest.
Dan Pashman: So…
Kwame Onwuachi: He told me he could get me drugs, too. So I'm like, who do you know?
Dan Pashman: But that was what I gather from the book that was kind of breaking point with your father.
Kwame Onwuachi: Yeah. That's when I knew I needed to separate myself from that situation. There's no blueprint for being a parent. I don't know if he was trying to be cool. But it just was something that I didn't need. I didn't need that negativity or someone trying to steer me off the path that I was going on.
Dan Pashman: Coming up, Kwame goes to culinary school. Then later, he opens his first restaurant and things go very very wrong. Stick around.
Dan Pashman: Welcome back to The Sporkful, I’m Dan Pashman. If you’re new to our show and want to check out some of our coverage of race and food, I have two episodes to recommend to you. One is about the use of the word plantation in food branding. You’ll see a recipe for plantation chicken, or a tea called plantation mint. That word doesn’t tell you anything specific about the ingredients or preparation. So what are white people in food trying to say when they use it? We explore, and things get uncomfortable.
CLIP (WOMAN): You know, I really don't enjoy this conversation. I didn't come into it thinking that this was going to be turning me into an apologist or slavery.
Dan Pashman: That episode is called "When White People Say Plantation". We’ve also done two episodes that delve into issues of systemic racism at Bon Appetit, including one with former test kitchen star Sohla El-Waylly.
CLIP (SOHLA EL-WAYLLY): I always grew up believing that I would always experience casual racism and that's just a fact of life and that there's no way around it. But I finally think that maybe we don't have to anymore.
Dan Pashman: Those episode all came out back in June, July and August, so scroll through our feed to find them. And please subscribe to or follow our podcast while you’re doing that. Thanks.
Dan Pashman: Now back to my conversation with Kwame Onwuachi. So, he graduates from the Culinary Institute of America at age 24 and starts working at some of the top restaurants in New York: 11 Madison Park, Per Se. These are Michelin-star places, super fancy. But for the chefs at the bottom of the kitchen hierarchy, it could be brutal.
Kwame Onwuachi: Just the work in general was really, really tough. It wasn't something that I was prepared for. I didn't know it was going to be that intense. Because I've been cooking since such a young age when I did go and work in kitchens, I was usually the fastest person and my stuff just tasted better. I don't know. I just cared about what I was doing. In most kitchens, there's that one person that really, really cares about every single detail. But in these kitchens, every single person cares about every single detail.
Dan Pashman: Right. It's like getting into Harvard, when you were like first in your class in high school, but now everyone's first in their class.
Kwame Onwuachi: Everyone's first in their class.
Dan Pashman: Right.
Kwame: Like you're not shit. You have to start at the bottom and you have to work your way up. So it was really difficult. The thing that I wasn't prepared for, it was like the racism that comes with — that can be hidden behind the veil of this bravado of being a chef and yelling at everyone. But you can mask a lot of stuff. You can mask sexism. You can mask racism. You can mask xenophobia. You can mask a lot of things behind that hazing mentality.
Dan Pashman: Is there a specific moment that you can think of that illustrates that?
Kwame Onwuachi: The first one, yeah. I remember there was just one guy that was just such a fucking asshole to me. And it was like... I was a commis. So I was like the bottom of the bottom. Like we weren't even allowed to sit at our menu meetings. We had to stand around and just take notes on what everyone was saying. And I was fine with that, like everyone was doing it. But at nighttime, they would use us for a lot of stuff on the fly. Meaning like, get them things right away. If they ran out of, I don't know, peeled walnuts, which is a horrible thing to do.
Dan Pashman: That sounds impossible.... Is it physically possible to peel a walnut?
Kwame Onwuachi: When they first tell you to do it, it feels like it's impossible. But, you know, after your tenth one in six hours, you realize that it is possible, just takes a long fucking time.
Dan Pashman: That seems like something invented specifically to torture young chefs.
Kwame Onwuachi: Yeah, I think so. So after they ran out of them, they're like, hey, you know, most of the time they’re like, "Hey, man, come here. Can you peel these for me?" But this one guy was like, really such an... very pointed and sharp to me. And I noticed there was a difference between the other commis and when he would say it and, you know, with that I just wanted to prove him wrong. So I would do it faster and do it better and bring it to him. And whenever I brought it to him, he’d snatch it from me or be like, "Get the fuck out of here," after he got it from me and things like that. And I remember being in the locker room, and I was talking to one of the other commis, I was like, "Man, what's wrong with this guy? Like, you seem to be cool with him." He was like, "Yeah, he'll never be cool with you, man." And I was like, "What do you mean?" And he's like, "When you got here, he said some things, I don't really want to repeat it." And I'm like, what do you mean? What did he say? I'm still like, I'm not thinking it has to do with race. I'm just like, what do you mean? Like, what did he say? I can take it. I have a big nose. I understand. I thought it was something about my appearance or something. And he was like, "No, no, no. He's like, 'Oh, here comes another black guy that’s gonna be super lazy here.'" And I was like, what? And that was the first polarizing moment for me in fine dining. And then I still had to answer to him and work through it, because if you speak up, it's like a death sentence.
Dan Pashman: Yeah that's an interesting thing that I learned from your book is that that incredibly regimented, fine dining kitchen style, which, as you say often also lends itself to all kinds of abuse.
Kwame Onwuachi: Mm-hmm.
Dan Pashman: Was actually created by a French military guy. So it is very military in nature.
Kwame Onwuachi: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: And including the part… like in all the movies where the sergeant screams at the new recruits and all that stuff.
Kwame Onwuachi: Mm-hmm. Kind of break you down to build you up mentality.
Dan Pashman: I heard you interviewed on another podcast and you're talking about those early days in fine dining. And you talked about that there's this mentality in those kitchens of working people — this is your quote now —“working people to death, abusing people physically or verbally. And for me, I know it brought back a lot of psychological issues that I faced as a child.”
Kwame Onwuachi: Mm-hmm. Yeah. I mean, I went through a lot as a kid and it brought me back into that space as being a child to being very vulnerable, of being continuously broken down, and not seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. I'm just seeing this fucking peeled walnut at the end of the plate, that took me forever to make. And there's no gratitude in it. And that brought back to my childhood of that abuse, that verbal abuse. And it was tough to thrive in that environment.
Dan Pashman: Verbal abuse, you're talking about mostly your father.
Kwame Onwuachi: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: I mean, it's a hell of a commentary on these fine dining kitchens that growing up with an abusive father is the best preparation.
Kwame Onwuachi: Yeah. I was able to... I had a thick skin in there, for sure. I was able to take it. And those are the people that really thrive in those environments, are the people that just put their head down and say, "Yes, chef," and brush a lot of these things off. But the people that break, you know, the people that put in their notice because they can't take it anymore or just never show back up. Those are the people that I think we’re really losing out on this industry. Some people haven't had that conditioning of going through shit that I went through as a child. Or certain people can't brush off the guy that's profiling you as soon as you walk through the door but still relying on you to get some mis en place to them. And I think that's where our industry is really losing, is we're just losing people for so many reasons that we are in control of.
Dan Pashman: Absolutely.
Dan Pashman: So after a period of fine dining, you start looking to open your own place. A lot of the people who want to invest in you think that you should do upscale soul food. They're kind of pigeonholing you. You get on Top Chef, although your restaurant was already in the works before that. But although you didn't win, you were kind of a fan favorite. And then you get these investors who finally say, "What do you want to do?" And you say, I'm gonna open this restaurant Shaw Bijou. Your mom's name is Jewel. So Bijou, French for jewelry. And Shaw neighborhood in D.C. And that's kind of based on your life story. But just before opening, the investors basically tell you that they're running out of money and you have to charge $180 a person, which was much more than you wanted to charge.
Kwame Onwuachi: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: And when that news gets out in the D.C. foodie media, what's the reaction?
Kwame Onwuachi: It wasn't good. It wasn't good at all.
Dan Pashman: Right. People were pissed.
Kwame Onwuachi: People were upset
Dan Pashman: They were pissed. And then the restaurant opened after two years of preparation and two million dollars, and then closed in three months. And people were really pissed about how much you were charging. And then when the restaurant closed, I certainly, even in New York, I remember sensing a disproportionate level of glee.
Kwame Onwuachi: That's a good way to put it. Yeah.
Dan Pashman: Where do you think that... I mean, $180 is a lot of money. But there was an especially strong reaction.
Kwame Onwuachi: Yeah. I don't know. I think it was hate, like hate in the heart that needed to be let out.
Dan Pashman: But I mean, it seemed like people were kind of saying like, "Who does this guy think he is?"
Kwame Onwuachi: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: And yet you had trained quite a lot.
Kwame Onwuachi: Yeah. I mean, I don't know. I think about it all the time, why people were so upset because you just didn't have to go there if you didn't want to eat the food. These are things I think about in the shower sometimes. If you don't want to eat, you didn't have to go there. Or was it because I was black and young? Did I not have enough tattoos? You know, I'm just thinking of weird things. I don't know. I can't put my finger on it.
Dan Pashman: So was there ever a time where you like... it seems like from that time on the boat when you were in the Gulf of Mexico and you're like, this is what I should be doing with my life. Or you're cooking the cheesecake and you see how focused you are. This is what I should be doing in my life. I mean, after Shaw Bijou closed, obviously, you question some things about your approach but did you ever question that?
Kwame Onwuachi: Yeah. I questioned if I should still be cooking, if I'm as good as I think I am. Unfortunately, you start to really believe what people are saying about you, especially when you're defeated and they're still kicking you while you're down. You know, there was so many articles on why the Shaw Bijou closed and what I could have done better. And I'm reading these things, like maybe they're right. You know? And I think, for me, having a group of people around me that believed in me more than I believed in myself. You know, people that were still with me from that catering company I started when I didn't even know how to make a cheesecake but still believed in me. That's what really got me back on my feet. And I opened...you know, I haven't really told anybody about this, but I opened a restaurant like a month and a half later.
Dan Pashman: Opened Kith and Kin?
Kwame Onwuachi: No, no a restaurant that I've just have not talked about. I just wanted to cook again without the press, without talking to people, without going into the dining room. I just wanted to cook, you know? I knew I couldn't just go and get a line cook job. So I just opened a restaurant. My friend acted as the chef in the press and the owner, and I just cooked. And it was great.
Dan Pashman: This is between Shaw Bijou and Kith and Kin.
Kwame Onwuachi: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: What was it called?
Kwame Onwuachi: I can't tell you that.
Dan Pashman: Is it still open?
Kwame Onwuachi: Uhh, I can't tell you that.
Dan Pashman: Come on, Kwame. I mean, there's a lot of restaurants in this city. That's not exactly gonna give anything away.
Kwame Onwuachi: I don’t know. You seem like you talk to a lot of people. I don't know...
Dan Pashman: I'll take that as a yes that it's still open. Somewhere in the city, there's a restaurant, a secret Kwame Onwuachi restaurant. It's kind of cool. I think you should open a secret restaurant in other cities.
Kwame Onwuachi: No, it was great. It was fun. I had fun doing it. Yeah. But I wanted to cook again. I wanted to get my passion back without having to deal with anything. Just cook, you know. And I did that for I think three months. And then Intercontinental called me. They Facebook messaged me. They didn’t call me. Slid in my DMs.
Dan Pashman: Right.
Kwame Onwuachi: It's funny. It's a funny story. You want to hear it?
Kwame Onwuachi: So I was in this Netflix wormhole of Black Mirror and I remember I was in my room, hoodie on, like this...
Dan Pashman: Like very bundled up...
Kwame Onwuachi: Very bundled.
Dan Pashman: Hoodie, blanket...
Kwame Onwuachi: I was watching Black Mirror, so I was like, that's crazy, what if this happens, you know? And then the little message thing comes on Facebook. I don't know the sound that it made, it was like [sound]. And I clicked on it and it was like, you have a message. I'm like, OK, cool. So I open it up. And it was a guy named Mufasa. And there's two things about Mufasa. Like, first off, I don't know anyone named Mufasa. And more importantly, I don't know any white people named Mufasa. And there was a white guy in the circle thing. And I'm like, "Who is fucking with me?! Once again! D.C., leave me alone!" "And it’s like, "Want to open a restaurant?" I'm like, you gotta do better -- X. I go back to Black Mirror, watching this. So like a month goes by. And finally, I'm like, all right, let me just... I’m like, hey...you know, I just respond back, like, hey. He's like, "Oh my God, we've been waiting for you to respond to us. We just got this space on the water. Can you come in for an interview? We want to do whatever you want." And I was like, OK. So I came and it was a fucking white guy named Mufasa. It was crazy. So I'm like, this is a sign I should be doing this. This is crazy. And he's like, let me take you to the waterfront, to the wharf. I'm like, what's the wharf? And he's like this new development we’ve been working on for like ten years. So we go there and it's just this shell and it's overlooking the water. And he's like, "This is your restaurant if you want it." And I'm like, "Why are you doing this?" And he is like, we had people that came to the Shaw Bijou, they said it was fucking awesome. So if you want it, it's yours. You don't have a job, do you? You know? And I was like, yeah, besides my secret restaurant, I think I'll do this.
Dan Pashman: Right. So what are you thinking? I mean, you're in this empty shell of a restaurant in this empty development that is now… Now I think every city has their industrial area that's been transformed into an upscale hipster enclave. I think that the D.C. one is especially nice. Some other cities, I feel like they're a little soulless, but I love the one, the D.C. area I think is beautiful. But it wasn't beautiful then. It was still empty.
Kwame Onwuachi: Yeah, it was empty.
Dan Pashman: And they're just like here, we're Intercontinental Hotels. It's a massive international hotel chain.
Kwame Onuwachi: Mm-hmm.
Dan Pashman: And they're like, we just wanna give this to you. Like a month ago, you were watching Black Mirror in a hoodie. What are you thinking?
Kwame Onwuachi: I still had the hoodie on, by the way, just with a hard hat. I was… there was a lot of things. I was scared because I was like, "How big is this restaurant?" They were like, like 7,000 square feet. You know, I'm like, OK, that sounds big. I was like, "How many seats?" They’re like, "Probably like 200 seats." I'm like, OK, shit. I was like, "So you got somebody to do room service? They're like, "No we don’t, that'd be you." And I was like, alright, fuck. I was like, "So we're only open for dinner, right?" They’re like, "No, breakfast, lunch, and dinner." I’m like, ok, Kwame, all right. Where do I sign? You know, that was just that. I was nervous for a second, but I'm like, you know, I only have one life to live, so why not go for it?
Dan Pashman: So the menu for folks who haven’t been is Afro-Caribbean at its essence. Is that fair to say?
Kwame Onwuachi: Mm-hmm. So the restaurant Kith and Kin is split into two. It’s like there’s Kith and there’s Kin. So kith means friends, so that’s more of my friendly interpretations of dishes. That’s where you’ll see the cucumber avocado salad with gooseberry piri piri or uni escovitch, right? And the on the kin is family. It’s dishes I don’t really mess with. These are my family dishes. If I made a jerk chicken roulade my grandmother would slap the shit out of me. I make good jerk chicken but we think about it a little bit more, I think.
Dan Pashman: I want to ask you about the word elevate.
Kwame Onuwachi: Mm-hmm.
Dan Pashman: It’s a word that gets thrown around in food a lot. And to me it’s sort of often has a certain code in it because often the cuisine that is being elevated, when we’re told that a chef is elevating some cuisine, the cuisine being elevated is a cuisine associated with brown or black people. And the way that it’s being elevated is by applying European techniques and sensibilities. So that use of that word assumes a certain hierarchy in food. What do you make of that word?
Kwame Onwuachi: I think it’s like you can look at it in different ways. Because if you do go to France, there is French country food, like countryside food. And that’s not as elevated as food in Paris. They have their country-style pates. In Paris, they do really nice foie gras torchons. So I don’t want to say that if I’m elevating a dish that is African or Caribbean descent, and I’m using some techniques that… they don’t even have to be European. It could just be I’m being just a little bit more thoughtful in the techniques that I have learned. If I’m making a puree, I’m going to make it the smoothest and creamiest puree and it may not be as chunky. Is that wrong to say that I elevated it in that aspect? I don’t think so. But when you say something isn’t elegant, I think that can be some sort of marginalization to certain groups of food. Because I think jerk chicken is very elegant. So I brine the chicken in jerk brine for two days. We make our own jerk paste, we import wood from Jamaica, pimento wood to smoke it. Our coconut milk we make in house and we toast it for the rice and peas. We braise the cabbage in Red Stripe and ginger garlic puree and baste it with butter. So we put thought into it. But if you go to your auntie’s house, she will put thought in her food. So I wouldn’t say that I’m extremely elevating that stuff. I’m just doing it as if a really good cook in Jamaica or Nigeria were to make it. That’s how it would come out.
Dan Pashman: And in terms of running the kitchen behind the scenes at Kith and Kin, I know you said earlier you had to learn to be more compassionate, forget some of the old habits that you brought with you from some of those fancy restaurant kitchens and the way that those places are run. Is that ever a struggle?
Kwame Onwuachi: Yeah, definitely. Absolutely. Yeah.
Dan Pashman: How so?
Kwame Onwuachi: All the time. Because you’re just used to… it’s like a baby mentality. You yell, you get your way. It’s like trying to stop that is difficult. And I’m still learning that.
Dan Pashman: So your book opens with a scene where you are cooking the food for the opening of the National African-American History and Culture Museum. I hope I got the order of those words right. But the museum here in D.C., you're cooking for the opening and you kind of are in your chef's whites overlooking the scene, preparing for the meal. And I'd like to ask you to read an excerpt from the book where you're setting that scene. Here you go.
Kwame Onwuachi: I don't think this is the right page...Joining me tonight is a chef who has become well-known, not just….
Dan Pashman: I slipped a Sporkful plug into your book, I don’t know if you knew about that.
Kwame Onwuachi: There are two of me. Well, more than two. But two have starring roles for the night. Chef Kwame and Kwame all smiles. Both are me, but not all of me. As any artist with patrons knows, there's a song and dance to be done for the guests. Luckily for me, I've spent my life modulating which Kwame to show to the world. There was Kwame of his father's house and Kwame of his mother's kitchen. Kwame at school, and Kwame in Nigeria. Kwame the drug kingpin and Kwame on television. The only Kwame I haven't yet settled on is Kwame alone, with no one else watching. I'm still trying to figure out who that one is.
Dan Pashman: So I want to do a little… I wanna tick back through all those Kwames and I want you to tell me the couple of words to describe each one. Who's Chef Kwame?
Kwame Onwuachi: Serious, determined, filled with passion.
Dan Pashman: Kwame all smiles.
Kwame Onwuachi: Jokester, pensive, and thoughtful.
Dan Pashman: Kwame of his father's house.
Kwame Onwuachi: Insecure, melancholy, and scared.
Dan Pashman: Kwame of his mother's kitchen.
Kwame Onwuachi: Confident, happy, experimental.
Dan Pashman: Kwame at school.
Kwame Onwuachi: Bored. High.
Dan Pashman: Kwame in Nigeria.
Kwame Onwuachi: I would say inventive… um, this is hard. Exploring. Yeah.
Dan Pashman: Kwame, the drug kingpin.
Kwame Onwuachi: Rich.
Dan Pashman: Kwame on television.
Kwame Onwuachi: Nervous.
Dan Pashman: What about Kwame alone? This book was written now two years ago, and you say that's the one Kwame I haven't settled on yet is Kwame alone when no one else is watching. But so have you figured out who Kwame alone is?
Kwame Onwuachi: No, I'm still figuring that out. I think everyone is figuring that out. You know, we're around people more than we are by ourselves. So it's self exploration that I don't think really ends until you're old and you don't really care what you say in front of people. And you're just like, I think about my grandmother, my grandfather, they just tell you exactly how they feel. So I think it takes time to get to that point.
Dan Pashman: Yeah, my wife and I are in our early 40s, and she was remarking recently, Janie was saying that she's like, man, now that I'm in my 40s, I just really tell — she was talking to a friend of hers who is in her 50s. And Janie says, now that I’m in my 40s, I just tell people what I think and I don't really care. And her friend said, wait till you get to your 50s.
Kwame Onwuachi: I'll wait, wait for that.
Dan Pashman: All right. He's the chef and owner of Kith and Kin here in D.C. His memoir is called Notes from a Young Black Chef. Big hand for Kwame Onwuachi.
Kwame Onwuachi: Thank you. Thank you.
Dan Pashman: And a big hand for all of you. Thank you so much for coming out. Good night.
Dan Pashman: Kwame!
Kwame Onuwachi: Dan, what’s up man? I don't have your video on now but I assume that you are—you have a Nutcracker in hand, I hope.
Kwame Onuwachi: That’s why I have my video off. So I can drink two at once and not be judged by you or anyone else.
Dan Pashman: For the record I would not judge you for double fisting nutcrackers.
Kwame Onuwachi: At least out loud you wouldn’t, I’ll give you that. I'll give you that.
Dan Pashman: I follow Kwame on Instagram, so I know he’s been staying very busy during this pandemic. It seems like every week he’s repping a new brand like San Pellegrino or Sweetgreen. He’s even developing recipes for a baby food company. He’s doing a take on Caribbean rice and peas, and curried squash, but as a puree.
Dan Pashman: And did you test pilot the recipes on babies?
Kwame Onuwachi: Tested it on myself, which is very similar to a baby. Then they did actual market research and gave it to infants. I mean, you gotta let the babies tell you if it’s good or not.
Dan Pashman: But they can’t say it’s too salty or I don’t like the taste of curry. You can only sort of...either they're gonna like frown and push the food away and cry or they're just eat it like maniacs.
Kwame Onuwachi: Yeah. We have buttons. One sound is like the Teletubby theme song and the other is [alarm sound]. So they know based off of the sound what they don’t want to hear or taste.
Dan Pashman: Seriously?
Kwame Onuwachi: No! Not seriously, but it would be amazing if that was exactly what happened. I can see it. I can see the visual!
Dan Pashman: That’s your next million dollar idea right there!
Kwame Onuwachi: Yes. Yes. Yes.
Dan Pashman: We taped our live show with Kwame almost a year ago. But it feels like forever ago. So much has happened since then—in the world, of course, but also, with Kwame, in particular. Soon after COVID hit, he helped found the Independent Restaurant Coalition, and became a spokesperson for it. There are 500,000 independent restaurants in the country, and the industry as a whole employs more than 11 million Americans. The coalition was created to lobby for stimulus money to save restaurants and bars affected by the pandemic.
Kwame Onuwachi: You know that restaurants are very different from other small businesse. The margins are very different. The workload is very different. Our inventory is very different. So we can’t just turn the lights off and then turn them back on in a couple months because we get this little package. We need real long-term help for this. Because we’re still dealing with this to this day. Once we open back up at 25%, 50%... We cannot operate like that. So we need help. We need help now. We need to make some noise and we need to do whatever we can.
Dan Pashman: So Kwame, when I saw you out in front of that effort I was like, that’s great. Like I can see why Kwame, he seems like the kind of guy who would care about that. But it wasn’t until I re-listened to your Sporkful episode a couple days ago, and I was reminded that you have this long history in your family. You said, your family has always had restaurants, going back to—not just your mother but your grandmother and your great grandmother.
Kwame Onuwachi: Mm-hmm.
Dan Pashman: This is really in your blood. What has it been like in the last few months to not have that?
Kwame Onuwachi: It’s been interesting. I’ve had to pivot andI’d much rather be in the room, I’d much rather touch and hug people, connect with people. You know those...that’s hospitality. It was that true connection of taking care of someone. So yeah, it hurts. It hurts not being in the restaurant. Even when I did go back to my restaurant, it felt strange. It felt strange putting food 6 ft away from them. It felt strange not being able to shake their hand or hug old regulars. And having this extremely stripped down menu, it didn’t feel right to me.
Dan Pashman: Like so many other restaurants during the pandemic, Kwame’s place Kith and Kin closed for three months. They weren’t even doing takeout. They reopened for outdoor dining in June.
Dan Pashman: How has this affected workers at your restaurant?
Kwame Onuwachi: Some of them have gotten COVID. So it has affected them directly. Some people's family members have gotten it. Some people don’t want to come back to work. Some people are afraid to come back to work. Some people are at risk, you know, health wise, so they can’t come back to work. So it’s affected my restaurant entirely. It's devastating in the restaurant industry as a whole.
Dan Pashman: It seemed hard to believe but I read 72k restaurants in America have closed permanently.
Kwame Onuwachi: Yeah, I mean I could… they cannot sustain on 50% occupancy without the help from the government. There’s just no way.
Dan Pashman: The proposal that Kwame is now advocating for is a 120 billion dollar stimulus package specifically for restaurants. The bill still needs to gain more support in Congress, which is a tall order. But Kwame and the Independent Restaurant Coalition have had some success. They were involved in pushing through amendments to the original COVID stimulus bill that benefit restaurants.
Kwame Onuwachi: I learned that we all have a voice. I never thought I’d be the one doing that. It’s inspiring for sure because you can also apply that to other issues. But I do think we are a very resilient industry. We think on our feet. And that’s one of the reasons why we’re even in this business because we like it. We love that hustle and creating great experiences for people. So I don't think it'll end but I do think we need help in order to sustain it.
Dan Pashman: It’s hard for me to imagine not wanting to go out to a restaurant and sit down in the restaurant. Yes, sometimes takeout is more convenient, especially if you've got kids, but it’s no substitute for the experience of going out to a restaurant.
Kwame Onuwachi: Absolutely not. Yeah. You gotta go out, sit down and experience that. I mean, that’s why people like to go out is being taken care of.
Dan Pashman: When Kith and Kin reopened with limited capacity in early June, it was soon after the killing of George Floyd. During the protests in D.C., Kwame felt that keeping the restaurant open was his own way of showing support.
Kwame Onuwachi: Being a restaurant that serves food of the diaspora and black culture, it was a stopping point for people on their way to the protests. You can see them with their signs, charging up with food before they went out and hit the streets. It was a beautiful thing to see and something that meant a lot to me, to be able to see them getting nourishment to fight the fight and really be the representatives of our culture and what we’ve been through.
Dan Pashman: A month after the limited reopening, Kwame made big news in the restaurant world when announced that he was leaving Kith and Kin. He’d been thinking about the decision for a long time, but the pandemic and the protests seemed to bring things to a head.
Kwame Onuwachi: I was an employee there. It was time for me to venture out and own my own content and start creating something that’s mine.
Dan Pashman: While Kwame was the Executive Chef, he didn’t have an ownership stake in the restaurant. It’s owned by Intercontinental Hotels. When Kwame announced he was leaving, he told The New York Times, “Something that profits off of Black and Brown dollars should be Black-owned. It’s something that’s very, very important to me and something that I want to achieve in the future.”
Kwame Onuwachi: I was hoping I would grow into that position. I created the content, I created everything for it. And I thought eventually down the line it would be offered in some capacity but it wasn’t. And that’s okay. I was an employee, at that point it’s my decision if I want to continue to stay on or not.
Dan Pashman: So how do you feel about the fact that they wouldn’t allow you to have some amount of ownership?
Kwame Onuwachi: Obviously, I left so I didn’t feel great about it but that’s their decision to make. It’s not my decision. So I can either stay there and continue on, or I can leave and make my own narrative. So I chose to do that. But I had a great time working with them. There’s no bad blood. I would have loved to just have gotten some sort of percent of ownership and then be able to do Kith and Kin in another city, or have that option to do that with all the IP and heart and soul that I put into that. But that’s the gamble you take whenever you work for someone or when you hire someone.
Dan Pashman: I’m sure you didn’t come to the decision to leave lightly.What’s the hardest part about it?
Kwame Onuwachi: Flipping the coin. You know, flipping the coin.
Dan Pashman: You mean the risk of starting over and going out on your own.
Kwame Onuwachi: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: The unknown.
Kwame Onuwachi: The unknown is...that's the biggest risk I guess, but not really because I know what I’m able to do. I know what I’m able to create at this point in time. I’ve opened 5 restaurants so I’ve had a lot of practice. At this point it’s just me taking matters into my own hands. So if I’m able to do that with something that isn't mine, I’m excited to have something that’s mine and have my DNA stamped all over it.
Dan Pashman: Yeah and there's something...look I started the Sporkful ten years ago after getting laid off from 6 radio jobs in 8 years.
Kwame Onuwachi: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: A couple of those jobs weren’t great but a couple of them I thought this is my future, I’m gonna be here for 20 years. I’ll work my way up and eventually, I’ll get my own show. And then whether it was poor decisions or recessions or whatever happened and then shows got cancelled. So when I started this podcast, I was like, "Well, at least nobody can cancel it but me."
Kwame Onuwachi: Exactly. I wanted to have control. I wanted to be able to close the restaurant when I wanted to close, whether it was for the safety of the staff or open when it was time to open it for various reasons. And when I looked at it and knew I didn’t have that, it was clear to me. It was very similar to what you're saying. You want to be the one to cancel. You want to be the one to shut the door. You want to be the one to open the doors. Because at the end of the day, you have the best interests at heart for the show that you’ve created.
Dan Pashman: I’m confident that your next chapter will be a success.
Kwame Onuwachi: Thank you, I appreciate that. I think it’s good timing for me to be able to take my time to really think about it. Because this is not a time for me to open a restaurant or sign a lease until we can figure this thing out.
Dan Pashman: Right.
Kwame Onuwachi: So I get some time to think about it, think about what I want and go from there. I'm excited. It’s an exciting moment.
Dan Pashman: I’m excited for you, I’m excited to see what’s next.
Kwame Onuwachi: Yeah, thank you. Thank you.
Dan Pashman: Is there any kind of sneak preview or you’re still contemplating?
Kwame Onuwachi: Still contemplating, but as soon as I know, you’ll see it on Instagram probably.
Dan Pashman: Or we’ll all get some sort of message zapped directly into our brain depending on whatever the technology is available at the time.
Kwame Onuwachi: Well by 2047 when my baby food is out...there will be a baby restaurant and only babies will be allowed in.
Dan Pashman: There will be an app that will watch the babies. You won't need human nannies or parents even.
Kwame Onuwachi: No. I mean, it seems like they're gonna have full time jobs reviewing food, so they'll be able to afford it and everything. I'm looking forward to it.
Dan Pashman: That’s Kwame Onwuachi, his memoir is Notes From A Young Black Chef. Thank you so much for listening this week and all the weeks, I hope you enjoyed hearing these special episodes and updates as much as we enjoyed putting them together. If you liked any of our special releases this week, please share your favorite on social media. Tell your friends to check us out, we’d really appreciate it.
Dan Pashman: And please make sure you stay connected to our show so you don’t miss future episodes, like our next one, about the enslaved man who taught Jack Daniel how to make whiskey, and the two women who are making sure he gets the credit he deserves. So if you listen in Apple Podcasts, subscribe. In Spotify, Follow. In Stitcher, Favorite. Go ahead you can do it right now while you're listening. Thanks.
Dan Pashman: And one final reminder, Instagram Live 10th Anniversary Party is tomorrow night 9 p.m. eastern! Bring a drink and/or ice cream. I'll be bringing both and I'll see you there.