Kwame Onwuachi on Special Sauce: Notes From a Young Black Chef

Kwame Onwuachi on Special Sauce: Notes From a Young Black Chef


Beauty shot of shrimp etouffee, made with a dark brown roux, on the plate with rice

[Kwame Onwuachi photograph: Rey Lopez. Shrimp étouffée photograph: Vicky Wasik]

This week’s Special Sauce guest, chef-restaurateur (Kith/Kin in Washington, DC) and memoirist (Notes From a Young Black Chef) Kwame Onwuachi, has led an interesting life, to say the least. How interesting? By the time he was 21, the now-29-year-old had already started a catering business and cooked on a ship cleaning up oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico—all after discarding a previous life that included membership in a gang and selling “nutcrackers,” or homemade alcoholic punch, on the streets in the Bronx.

Early on, Onwuachi discovered the satisfaction he could derive from cooking for other people, by helping his mom with her catering business: “Yes, serving food to actual paying customers…there’s a certain high about it. You know, like being in the weeds, you know, prepping, putting stuff together, and then reaching that finish-line moment when you’re serving it to the guests, and all is well. They’re happy…and you can see the genuine joy that they get when eating the food. I love that moment, and I got addicted to it.”

The entrepreneurial spirit he inherited from his mother had a way of colliding with some of his more destructive adolescent impulses. He would bounce back and forth between cooking gigs and less savory endeavors, including selling drugs, until he found himself at a crossroads around the time of Obama’s first inauguration: “Obama is walking across the stage accepting his presidency. At that moment, for some reason, it clicked for me. Because…I went out and I voted for him, but I was like, ‘There’s no way we’re gonna get a black president. There’s no way this is gonna happen. No way.’ And when he walked across the stage, I was like, ‘What am I doing? This man defied the odds. Fifty-five years ago, we weren’t even allowed to eat in restaurants; like, that was [when] the last restaurant was desegregated. Now this man is walking across the stage. That’s huge. And I’m sitting here selling drugs?'”

After that realization, Onwuachi ended up starting a catering company called Coterie, for which he raised the start-up capital by selling candy in the subway—yes, you read that right. His most popular item: peanut M&Ms (take that, plain-M&M advocates).

All of this, of course, was before Onwuachi began his restaurant career—cooking at Per Se and Eleven Madison Park, moving on to a seriously upscale restaurant in DC (which closed within three months), and, this year, being named a Best New Chef by Food & Wine for his current restaurant, Kith/Kin. But his pre–fine dining life was so eventful, we had to save all that for the second part of our interview. Rest assured, there’s plenty here to chew on and listen to.

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Transcript

Ed Levine: Welcome to Special Sauce, Serious Eats’ podcast about food and life. Every week on Special Sauce we talk to some of the leading lights of American culture, food folks and non food folk alike.

Kwame Onwuachi: Obama is walking across the stage accepting his presidency. At that moment, for some reason it clicked for me because I went out and I voted for him but I was like, “There’s no way we’re gonna get a black president. There’s no way this is gonna happen. No way.” And when he walked across the stage I was like, “What am I doing? This man defied the odds. You know, 55 years ago we weren’t even allowed to eat in restaurants, like that was the last restaurant that was desegregated. That’s huge. And I’m sitting here selling drugs?”

EL: This week it is my pleasure to have with me in the house, chef and memoirist, Kwame Onwuachi. Kwame is the chef of Kith and Kin in Washington DC. He has just been named one of Food and Wine’s Best New Chefs of 2019?

KO: Yep.

EL: And yet somehow he also found the time to write a fascinating and far reaching memoir, Notes from a Young Black Chef. Welcome to Special Sauce, Kwame.

KO: Thank you for having me.

EL: So glad that you’re here. Let me say that I really enjoyed the book. Congratulations on that and also being named one of Food and Wines’ Best in Chefs. You’re kind of having a moment, aren’t you, man?

KO: It seems so. I’m not gonna-

EL: You’re kind of a skeptic.

KO: Yeah. Yes. Because I still have to go to service at night, you know, so it’s like I’m still very much in it cooking. But it is a great, great time. I’m very fortunate to have these accolades right now, you know, and the book coming out. I’ve been working on the book for so long. We were talking about it briefly before this. It’s a process.

EL: Yeah.

KO: It’s not six months, you know. It’s two and a half years.

EL: And every time you sit down and write your memoir it’s like an hour’s worth of therapy.

KO: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. Every single day for two and a half years.

EL: So you were in intensive therapy. I know it, man. I was the same way. So tell us about life at the Onwuachi table growing up.

KO: Life at the Onwuachi table growing up, I would say, was for the most part amazing. I had a really, really loving mother who nurtured me, and she instilled in me a lot of values. One of them that I still think about to this day is that entrepreneurial spirit. You know, she started a catering company in the house when I was about five years old.

EL: While she had a day job.

KO: While she had a day job. She quit her day job and then did the catering full time. My sister and me became her first two employees.

EL: I bet she didn’t pay you shit.

KO: Nothing, nothing.

EL: That’s not right. You and your sister should have gone on strike, man.

KO: Should have went on strike. No, but I took it over doing laundry, so I’d rather peel shrimp and cut vegetables than take out the trash and stuff-

EL: Than separate the whites from the dark?

KO: Exactly, although I still ended up having to do that. But for the most part, that was our main focal point, and that was life growing up: Me, my mom, my sister.

EL: What did she cook?

KO: She cooked a lot of things, you know, what she really took inspiration from was her creole roots. Her side of the family is from New Orleans, you know, Ville Platte, Louisiana. So you’ll have etouffe, gumbo, peel and eat shrimp.

EL: Yeah, and your grandfather had a pop up. Your grandparents had a pop up before they were called pop ups.

KO: Yeah. It was a pop up for a while, and it was due to the circumstances of the American South in the ’50s and ’60s, you know, that wasn’t very inviting to people of color in the dining scene. So a lot of African Americans had restaurants in the back of their houses. In the barns, they had little speakeasies, just so they wouldn’t be harassed.

EL: Right. So they were sort of like just to make some extra money, right?

KO: Extra money and also so they could-

EL: And a gathering place.

KO: And a gathering place, more importantly.

EL: A third place, as they say.

KO: We all know that margins are razor thin in the restaurant industry, so I can only imagine what you can actually charge for a plate of food if it’s in the back of your house. So I think it was more just to, one, they loved cooking. I come from a long line of chefs. Yeah, they wanted to keep it going.

EL: Yeah. So your mother, did you feel the love she put in her food? Is that a difficult question, because the circumstances were not easy?

KO: No, it was not easy, but I did feel the love. Because I did go to my other friends houses to eat, and the food did not taste the same.

EL: Yes. You talk about going to your friend’s and they served you London broil. You asked the mother of your friends, “How come this doesn’t have any taste?” I bet you weren’t invited back.

KO: I was, I was. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

EL: She forgave you?

KO: She forgave me. It was one of those innocent things that you do as a kid when you’re just being brutally honest and you don’t know that you’re being rude, until someone looks at you sternly or says something very curt to let you know that you messed up. She let me know immediately.

EL: So your mother had a day job ’till she didn’t. And she was catering, and you were helping to cater. So that was your introduction, as you say, to entrepreneurship but also to serving food for a living.

KO: Exactly. Yes, serving food to actual paying customers. You know, I don’t want to offend certain listeners, but there’s a certain high about it. You know, like being in the weeds, you know, prepping, putting stuff together, and then reaching that finish line moment when you’re serving it to the guests, and all is well. They’re happy. Most of the times they’re a little bit inebriated at these events, you know, and you can see the genuine joy that they get when eating the food. I love that moment, and I got addicted to it.

EL: Right. So right from the get go you loved that high.

KO: Exactly, exactly. And I wanted it, ’cause I saw my mother doing it, and obviously I wasn’t the one interacting with the guests or anything like that. So it was something that I wanted for myself.

EL: You were also a teenager.

KO: Yes.

EL: Which means you were a teenager, as you talk about it in the book, you eventually moved to the Webster Houses in the Bronx, and you fell prey to various things in the environment-

KO: Yeah, I became a product of.

EL: Even though you continued your entrepreneurial spirit, you also were dealing with some pretty heavy shit.

KO: Yeah, yeah. It was a different perspective of life for me. You know? It was something that I wasn’t really privy to, and then I had to adapt when I was in that lifestyle.

EL: And so you were-

KO: I had to survive.

EL: Yeah, and you survive selling weed. First you’re selling punch.

KO: Yeah. Nutcrackers.

EL: I love that. Talk to us about nutcrackers.

KO: Nutcrackers are like a jungle juice, you know, rum punch that they serve in the Bronx. I’m pretty sure they serve it in Brooklyn, they serve it in Harlem I know. It’s usually like somebody with a shopping cart going around. They have a shopping cart, it’s full of ice, full of nutcrackers, in these little sealed off containers, and they sell it for like five dollars.

EL: You put in some cheap alcohol.

KO: Cheap alcohol, some juice.

EL: Hawaiian Punch, whatever.

KO: Whatever, exactly.

EL: Sunny Delight.

KO: Whatever. No one shares their nutcracker recipe. I don’t want to give it all away. Yeah, and so they would sell them like that. So when I got to school, I was broke. My parents did what they could to send me there, but from there I was on my own.

EL: Right, you ended up at Cardinal Spellman High School, which was a parochial school, a Catholic school. Right?

KO: Yeah.

EL: So in high school your entrepreneurship was your nutcracker days.

KO: No, in high school I worked at McDonald’s.

EL: Oh, okay.

KO: Yes. That was my first job, and I loved it, it was great.

EL: But you talk about in the book, you were in part rebelling against your dad, right, who was difficult in many ways that you go into in the book. You end up joining… You describe it as being a low level member of the B.A.B.Y…?

KO: Yeah, the B.A.B.Y. Crew.

EL: The B.A.B.Y Crew, which was a Bloods-affiliated crew?

KO: Yeah.

EL: What was that about? What did you take away from that?

KO: Well, it was a sense of belonging. Unfortunately, you want to belong to something when you’re in that environment. You want to be a part of something, and you want camaraderie, usually in any environment. And that’s where the camaraderie was from the people that I surrounded myself with.

EL: Do you feel fortunate in getting out relatively unscathed from those days?

KO: I feel very, very fortunate.

EL: You talk about buying a piece in the book. I’m like, “Damn.” Kwame, you were swimming in some pretty-

KO: Choppy waters.

EL: Choppy waters, man.

KO: Yeah. I don’t know. I was very fortunate to come out unscathed from there. The only thing that I have to tell are these stories, and that’s why I’m sharing them, you know, to let people know that there’s… In America there are these stories, and they’re real. You know? It doesn’t matter where you come from, it’s where you’re going.

EL: Yeah. Then you ended up at the University of Bridgeport. That’s when you really upped your entrepreneurial game in the pot business.

KO: Yes.

EL: But then you got busted by the administration, right?

KO: Yes.

EL: So you just… I love that you just… ‘Cause first of all, I was busted for selling pot in college.

KO: Oh, okay.

EL: So that’s in my memoir, you know, which is not called Notes from a Young Black Chef.

KO: It’s not?

EL: But you just moved your operation off campus.

KO: Yeah. Yeah, so I was able to stay enrolled in school. I just had to move off campus, essentially.

EL: When did that stop? What forced it to stop?

KO: As you read in the book, I had this come to light moment where I realized… I was looking in the mirror pretty much like, “Who am I? Who is this guy right now?” You know, I have stacks of money everywhere, you know, I have a plethora of drugs, you know, I have all these people around me that I don’t even know who they are.

EL: Right. You describe in the book, waking up one morning like with somebody in your bed and people all strewn throughout your house and the house being totally wrecked.

KO: Totally destroyed, totally destroyed. And then Obama is walking across the stage, accepting his presidency. At that moment, for some reason it clicked for me. Because leading up to … I went out and I voted for him but I was like, “There’s no way we’re gonna get a black president. No way this is gonna happen. No way.” And when he walked across the stage I was like, “What am I doing? This man defied the odds. 55 years ago we weren’t even allowed to eat in restaurants, like that was the last restaurant that was desegregated. Now this man is walking across the stage. That’s huge. And I’m sitting here selling drugs?”

EL: So Obama had that profound and direct effect.

KO: Absolutely, yeah.

EL: The book is sort of a series of crossroads.

KO: Mm-hmm, and it jumps around a little bit. It’s not like a perfect story.

EL: Right. But it’s… look, all these stories… my story, your story… they’re all non linear. That’s why we can tell them in a memoir.

KO: Yes.

EL: If it’s a straight line, nobody wants to read it. It’s boring.

KO: It’s boring.

EL: So you end up having this moment. You’re like, “Okay, which way am I gonna go?” And then what happened?

KO: I flushed all my drugs down the toilet. I gave away what I couldn’t flush. And bought a one way ticket to… I called my mom and asked if I can come and stay with her, that I needed to come down.

EL: So you went to Baton Rouge first.

KO: I went to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, which was the complete opposite of where I come from.

EL: And you talk about, like, what culture shock you suffer.

KO: Huge culture shock, huge culture shock.

EL: Just as a young black man.

KO: Yeah, I never spent time in the south. So it was a clear divide, you know? I thought … I looked at it as like segregation, this is still real. I mean, no, there’s no laws, but people are still just split. It was interesting. You know, I learned a lot about myself. That’s why I went down there, to get away from my environment that I was becoming a product of, so I can produce my own destiny, my own path.

EL: You talk about working in restaurants down there.

KO: Mm-hmm.

EL: What did you learn from that period?

KO: Being in Baton Rouge, it really taught me that it’s the people you surround yourself with can really propel you, essentially.

EL: It does take a village?

KO: Yeah, absolutely. You know, I think at any age your peers say a lot about you, and that’s not any knock to the people that I grew up with in the Bronx. I love them. Those are my brothers. But in order to get where I am today, I had to get out of all of that and find out what I needed to do.

EL: Yeah. Then you moved to New Orleans, right, and you end up cooking on a ship.

KO: Yes.

EL: That’s the first time where you’re really cooking, right, besides helping your mom.

KO: As you know, you wrote a memoir, you can’t put it all in there. It’s kind of boring if you’re like, “And then I did this, and then I did that.” So I worked on the line in a bunch of restaurants in New Orleans. But to your point, cooking my food, this was the first time I was putting a menu together. That was the first time.

EL: So you’re cooking on a ship, and you talk about you were essentially the sous chef to this guy who really didn’t care, you know, to say the least.

KO: Yeah.

EL: He was sort of more than happy to give up the real responsibility. So you started cooking your food, which was I’m sure more your mother’s food than anybody else’s.

KO: Absolutely.

EL: Is that the first time you got the rush of, “I can do what I want to do and people are responding?”

KO: Yeah. It was the first time I was like, “I can cook. I can cook. I may not be a chef, I may not be the most organized, but at the rudiments of my craft, I am good at it. I just need to build upon this.”

EL: Yeah. And the ship was one of those ships that they send out to clean up oil spills.

KO: Yeah, they responded-

EL: You talk about, like, and it’s true and I started thinking I’ve only seen oil spills on the news. When you see them up close, it must have been-

KO: It was a sea of black as far as the eye could see. It was the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen in my life. The fumes.

EL: Overwhelming.

KO: Yeah, it was like 37 gas stations in your nose. You know?

EL: What a great image: 37 gas stations in your nose.

KO: Yeah, it was crazy.

EL: You should have used that in the book.

KO: I should have. Next book, that’s for the next one. It was very interesting, you know, especially the characters that were on that boat. They were from the shrimping communities in Home, Louisiana, so they were there cleaning up that oil. The faster they clean up the oil, the faster they can get back to shrimping.

EL: Got it.

KO: So they didn’t look anything like me. It was very scary walking onto that boat, and I had my assumptions just from the way that they looked. As soon as I got there, you know, you read in the book and Tex asks me if I know how to read, and using things like “you people.” You know what I mean? Which further confirmed my belief about the majority of the group. I was so wrong. These guys were like, they reminded me of the guys I grew up with back home in the Bronx.

EL: Yeah, interesting. And then you end up moving back to New York. You have this catering company, Coterie. You’re trying to sort of invent yourself as a catering company, right, you don’t really have any … I mean, you had your mom’s experience, but it’s hard to break into the New York catering world.

KO: Oh, yeah.

EL: But then you talk about something that I really want to talk to you about, which is selling candy in the subways.

KO: Yes.

EL: ‘Cause anybody who’s ever been in the New York subway stem has been confronted by somebody selling candy in the subways.

KO: Not for a basketball team or just to stay out of trouble.

EL: Exactly, just to stay out of trouble. I always wondered if even when it’s for the basketball team, is it really for the basketball team? Then you say it turns out when you meet somebody else selling candy on the subway, that “all my worst fears are confirmed, that in fact the people selling the candy don’t get to keep all the money.”

KO: Yeah, yeah. Now I’m sure that there are some independent people out there like I was, but for the most part it’s an organized business.

EL: It’s kind of like a racket.

KO: It’s a racket, it is.

EL: Right? ‘Cause you talk about being confronted by another group of kids selling candy in the subway, and they ask where you’re from, and when you mention a name and you’re from the Webster Houses then they’re okay with it. And then you vow, okay, this is not for me.

KO: No, no, no. I need to get out of the game.

EL: But you have the biggest menu of any candy salesman I’ve ever seen on the subway. Usually, they only have like three items.

KO: Yeah.

EL: You had a lot of candy.

KO: I had a lot, yeah. I mean, I needed to compete. There’s a huge market out there. There’s a racket out there.

EL: What did you do with the money?

KO: I started a catering company. I formulated an LLC, I got insurance, I got all the things I needed to start really making some money.

EL: That is so awesome. That’s the thing I’m gonna most remember about your book is that you built your catering company on-

KO: Candy.

EL: …money you made from candy sales in the subway. What was the best selling candy you had?

KO: Peanut M&Ms.

EL: Peanut M&Ms, not plain M&Ms.

KO: Peanut M&Ms. People love peanut M&Ms.

EL: You know, that’s an ongoing argument in the Serious Eats offices about whether you’re a plain or a peanut person. I’m peanut person, too, and now market research is now proving that I’m right.

KO: More people are peanut. I would go through a hundred peanut M&Ms in like three hours.

EL: So what couldn’t you give away on your menu?

KO: Nutter Butters.

EL: Nutter Butters.

KO: Nobody wanted Nutter Butters.

EL: Nobody wanted Nutter Butters.

KO: I would have so many of them stocked, ’cause I would buy the variety pack of like Teddy Grahams, Nutter Butters, Oreos. I would have so much Nutter Butters. My roommate at the time loved Nutter Butters, so he would just be eating all the … I would lose all my profit from the Nutter Butters. Nutter Butters.

EL: Listen, we’ve been so busy discussing Nutter Butters that we haven’t even gotten to how you actually entered the food arena as a chef, your education as a chef. So Kwame Onwuachi, we’re gonna save that stuff for the next episode of Special Sauce with you. At this moment, I have to say so long, Serious Eaters. We’ll see you next time. And you’re gonna stick around.

KO: All right. See you next time.

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