Special Sauce: Kwame Onwuachi’s Journey From Setbacks to Success Story
When we last left chef and memoirist Kwame Onwuachi, he had dived back into his catering business in New York City. Business was decent, but he’d begun to see holes in his game. “The food tasted good, but was it completely hot when it hit the table? I would roast the meat perfectly, but by the time I got to the table it’d be a little overcooked. The sauce that I thought would be really good, when I reduced it down, it was a little bitter. It was like these little things I didn’t know what was going wrong, and I needed to get to the bottom of it. I needed to scratch that itch, and education was the next step for me.”
Onwuachi attended the Culinary Institute of America to hone his craft and then went on to work at fine dining institutions like Per Se and Eleven Madison Park. But he ultimately found his own cooking identity through the now-defunct pop-up dinner company, Dinner Lab. “I cooked a dinner for it. It was a culmination of my life story. It was labeled Candy Bars to Michelin Stars. I cooked everything from the cheesecake [his sister’s recipe] that I made to…the Butterfingers I sold on the subway (we did those as mignardise)…It was an anecdotal tale through the food of my life.”
Eventually, Onwuachi opened the high-end restaurant Shaw Bijou in Washington, DC. His inexperienced restaurateur partners told him money was no object; that, in fact, they didn’t care about making money. Onwuachi naively believed them. “Yeah, it was like adding gas to a locomotive. I mean, we were adding coal. It was just like, keep going, keep going, we’re powering the engine. I was so deep in it, there was so much going on. It was the first time dealing with a lot of press, and I was really, really young. I came from the South Bronx and I’m catapulted into the stratosphere of the dining culture across the country, and I was trying to just do anything to stay afloat really.”
The restaurant failed after less than six months, its demise hastened by a less-than-stellar review in The Washington Post. “It was soul-crushing to read that,” Onwuachi said. “I remember reading it in the back alley, and it was not a good review, but it also pushed me, you know? It pushed me to change some things up, switch some things around, get everybody excited again, and keep going. It wasn’t like, ‘Okay, now we need to close.’ I was like, ‘Okay, we’re gonna fix this. This is the first bite.’” But they couldn’t fix it in time, because, as he put it, “We ran out of capital. That’s why businesses close. That’s the short answer.”
The last chapter of Onwuachi’s book, Notes From a Young Black Chef, is called “The Lesson.” Why? “The lesson that I learned (from Shaw Bijou) is to keep going,” he told me. “Just keep going. Not to stop, no matter what obstacles get in your way. If you have your mindset and you have goals in place, stick with those goals, figure out how to adapt, how to pivot, and continue moving.”
Kwame Onwuachi’s tale is as inspirational as it is cautionary. Catch it all in this week’s episode of Special Sauce.
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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 folks alike.
Kwame Onwuachi: I would say Egusi stew, a dish from Africa, Nigeria, West Africa. It is a-
EL: Your Dad was Nigerian?
KO: Exactly. It’s like ground melon seeds with pumpkin leaves and crayfish powder and fermented locust beans, garlic, onions. It’s really delicious and it’s served with fufu, it’s pounded yam, on the side. Then we have curried goat and roti, which is like a Trinidadian dish. And then, there’s this really nice gooseberry piri-piri salad with marinated cucumbers, avocado, and puffed quinoa, that show how the food from the dashboard can be elevated.
EL: We are back with chef and memoirist Kwame Onwuachi.
EL: So, you decide to end your candy selling days-
KO: Not by choice. As you’ll read in the book, it was a rude awakening. So yeah, I’m on to bigger and better things. Catering is in full swing. I’ve got a team. I do an event, call my mother up-
EL: Get a bigger team.
KO: Get a bigger team, bigger van, bigger kitchen, and yeah, I’m really, really starting to hit my stride with this catering thing.
EL: But then you end up at a restaurant, because you still need to make more money, right? So, you end up at Craft, but not in the kitchen.
KO: No, in the dining room. Yeah, I was a wine apprentice and a server.
EL: How long did that last?
KO: I think it was like nine months. I don’t think it was long, yeah.
EL: What did you learn? You talk about you sort of had a bit of an epiphany.
KO: That was the first time I walked into a kitchen and it was professional from the outside looking in. People tool ownership of every single detail there. Everything was well thought through. The placement of where the bread trays were and the knife that cut the bread on the server station. It was like these little things that I was like, “Why don’t we think of where this goes? Why don’t think of where that goes?” Everything was thought of. And then, we had a chef that everyone was behind, Tom Colicchio, and it was an amazing, amazing restaurant, to the point that I would come in three hours before my shift as a wine apprentice and just organize their wine cellar, which we know is extremely beautiful.
EL: Right, and now you can’t do that, because Tom would have been forced to pay you for those three hours.
KO: Well, he paid me, he paid me.
EL: He did?
KO: Yeah, he did. Absolutely. I was a wine apprentice, so I came in, I worked closely with the wine director. I think his name was Greg at the time, and he showed me what books to get to learn about wine, and I started really getting into it.
EL: Because you talk about in the book that when you were there, it was like you were fully focused, and it was like a light bulb went off.
KO: Yeah. It let me know that this is what I really wanted to do, because I was seeing another level that I didn’t even know existed.
EL: Craft as a restaurant is well named, but your epiphany involved your craft.
KO: Finding my craft.
EL: Yeah. So, talk a little bit about that.
KO: It was these events that kept happening. They went okay, they didn’t go swimmingly, you know. I was-
EL: Your catering events.
KO: The catering events. The food tasted good, but was it completely hot when it hit the table?
EL: Got it.
KO: I would roast the meat perfectly, but by the time I got to the table it’d be a little overcooked. The sauce that I thought would be really good, when I reduced it down, it was a little bitter. It was like these little things I didn’t know what was going wrong, and I needed to get to the bottom of it. I needed to scratch that itch, and education was the next step for me.
EL: Yeah. So you go to the CIA, which is not cheap, and you’re paying whatever it is, $20,000 a year, probably more with room and board, to go take a job paying $10 an hour.
KO: $10 an hour. Exactly.
KO: Yeah, yeah. And then, you’re lucky. This industry’s tough. I’m very, very thankful for the path that I had, and the trajectory that I had, there’s a lot of chefs that work really, really hard out there in this country that don’t get paid what they deserve. So, even if you make it to that executive chef level, you still may not be making enough to even pay back your loans for quite some time.
EL: Right. Right, for sure. There’s a sort of consommé metaphor in the book. You learn how to make consommé at the CIA.
KO: So, a consommé, for those of you listening that aren’t familiar, it’s a stock or broth that is clarified by protein. So, you make a raft, per se. So, it is some sort of acid in the form of tomatoes usually, a ground form of meat that’s usually the same flavor of whatever consommé you have. So, if you have a chicken consommé, you use ground chicken, and then egg whites. Then, you’ll bind that with some aromatics to enhance the flavor a little bit more, and you’ll add it to this cold stock. As you heat it up, a thick protein raft will form at the top, coagulated protein from the egg whites, the ground meat, and as the liquid starts to gently bubble over this raft, it clarifies it, and all of the small little proteins get caught in this coagulation, and that’s how you have your consommé.
EL: Got it.
KO: So, that is a metaphor for what happened to me when I walked into the CIA until the time that I walked out.
EL: Which was-
KO: Definitely a little naïve. Maybe a touch arrogant. And then, I came out with a lot of humility because I saw this world of dining that I didn’t even know existed. Once again, it as another step. Then you also find out all the techniques, and also what it really takes to make it in this industry, and how hard it is and how hard you have to work, and how much you have to put into it.
EL: So, the metaphor involves clarity.
KO: Mm-hmm. Clarity. Clarification of your mind, body, and soul.
EL: So, then you go to work at Per Se. Or, maybe it was part of your externship.
EL: Which is what everyone has to do with the CIA. They go work in restaurants between terms, or maybe during breaks or whatever.
KO: Yeah, you do one semester away.
EL: Yeah. Per Se was not a great experience for you.
KO: No. I mean, the kitchen culture there wasn’t really anything that I would be proud of if that was my kitchen now. If you put it on paper, they were the best restaurant in the country at the time, seventh best in the world. Their food is amazing. The techniques and things that I learned there, I can’t put a price on it, and that’s why I worked there for free for six months. But, the culture and the way I felt was something that was left to be desired.
EL: Yeah, it sounds a lot like sort of that old fashioned, macho, drill sergeant, nobody says anything nice to you, kind of culture.
EL: But, it didn’t dissuade you.
KO: No. I mean, there was definitely times I was like, I don’t need this. I should just pack my things, go to another restaurant and stuff, but as you’ll read in the book, there’s a lot of times where I’m faced with that adversity, and I like to plant my feet and push through it, and not just pick up my bags and walk away.
EL: Yeah. I assume part of what you encountered, not just at Per Se, but throughout your experiences working at other peoples kitchens is either a subtle or not so subtle form of racism.
EL: Talk a little bit about that, because I think people don’t really understand the culture of kitchens.
KO: Yeah. So I mean, there’s a lot of things that can be hidden by the macho-ism of put your head down and continue working. There’s a lot jokes that can be said. Undertones, phrases like ignorant and lazy, but you can’t really define it, and then there’s no real HR room to even go and define these things. You have to-
EL: Right. Only now, after all the Me Too stuff, right?
KO: Yeah, absolutely. So, there’s a lot that still happens, and I would say it’s across the board in a lot of industries, but I say cooking, for one, is something that it can hide beneath those lashing out moments that are kind of normalized in these kitchens.
KO: Oh, like he blows up on everyone, but he doesn’t he blow up the way that he … you know. The things that he says, and the “you people” and the “you are super lazy”. These things, they don’t happen to everyone else.
EL: Mm-hmm. Interesting. And yet, you did move on to a much more positive experience at 11 Madison Park.
EL: Talk a little bit about that. What made it positive?
KO: The environment. It was just different. It was night and day for me. Everyone was happy to be there. There was camaraderie, but not camaraderie in the sense of like … not a negative, fearful camaraderie. It was a-
EL: Right. You weren’t banding together against a bad boss.
KO: Yeah. No, it was let’s get through service. This is awesome, we’re putting out great food, we’re talking to guests. People are happy, people are excited, and our leader is everything that we want to become one day.
EL: Right. The leader was James Kent, who was the Chef de Cuisine, who now has his own restaurant, right?
EL: And then, you talk about how devastated you were when he left.
KO: Because I admired his leadership, and it was something I hadn’t seen. Coming from another fine dining kitchen, I was definitely scarred a little bit, but wanted to continue honing my craft, and that’s why I went right back into one.
KO: It was really Daniel Hume that really inspired me. I was working on a project, and he was talking about the philosophy of the restaurant and how it’s all a family, and he was like, I’m still learning as a leader and we all learn from each other, and I thought that was a very interesting perspective.
KO: Then I met James Kent, and he kind of went in that same vein and backed up those sentiments, and I was like okay, I can get down with this. These are real people. We’re not have this macho facade that you spoke of earlier. That’s what really led me there, so when he left, yeah, I was devastated because I thought I had so much more to learn from him.
EL: Yeah. And then you end up cooking your food at a short lived entrepreneur experiment called Dinner Lab. What was Dinner Lab, and what happened there?
KO: Dinner Lab was a private supper club, so they have outlets in … they had it in all the major cities across America. You pay $200 a year, then you get newsletter invites to a private dinner by Chef Kwame for the night.
EL: Yeah. Yeah, we were gonna do Serious Eats Dinner Lab, because I knew Brian.
KO: Yeah, Brian’s great. Brian–
EL: We literally had 30 cities lined up where we were gonna do Serious Eats. It was gonna be like a joint venture. And then, the next thing we know we get a phone call, “Oh, we ran out of money. We’re closing the company.” Damn.
KO: Yeah, that was tough for everyone.
EL: But for you, you did have another epiphany.
KO: Yes. So, I cooked a dinner. It was a culmination of my life story. So, it was labeled Candy Bars to Michelin Stars. I cooked everything from the cheesecake that I made-
EL: Which was your sisters.
KO: Which is my sisters, admittedly.
EL: You fess up to that.
KO: I do, I do. I give credit where it’s due. The Butterfingers I sold on the subway. We did those as mignardise. We did like a bacon, egg, and cheese course with smoked pork jowl and a hen egg emulsion and brioche espuma. It was an anecdotal tale through food of my life.
KO: With doing that, I told the story of my life, and I would say I’d be remiss not to mention that I think that’s one of the reasons why I’m sitting across the table from you right now.
EL: Yeah. It was a competition, right?
EL: And if the company had lasted, you probably would have won the competition, but the company lasted long enough for you to do this dinner, and then-
KO: Exactly. All across he country-
EL: Yeah, and then you end up, through that, meeting the guys that started your first restaurant with, right?
KO: Exactly. I had an apprentice. He was following me around, and helping me out with everything. He was doing his externship for his school. He went to the FCI. He had some friends who went to Georgetown University that came to eat in D.C., and they had some friends that were trying to open up a restaurant, so they reached out to me after stopping in D.C. So, when Dinner Lab called and said that they were going bankrupt, it was okay honestly, because I had other opportunities lined up.
EL: Yeah. The interesting thing to me when I read the book was these two guys, one was a guy who’d made his money in private equity, and the other was the son of a family that had a bunch of hair salons. You didn’t worry that they weren’t adding anything besides money?
KO: No, not at the time honestly. I was admittedly young, a little naïve, and excited.
EL: You’re still kind of young, man.
KO: I guess so, yes. I can still get away with this title, huh?
EL: Notes From a Young Black Chef. Not only for a couple years more.
KO: Only for a couple years more. But, I was young and hungry. Like I said, this business is tough. You don’t get many opportunities to open your own restaurant. This was before Top Chef. This was before everything. I was just doing pop ups around the country.
EL: In the book, and I was struck, you say, “With the Shaw Bijou, I was planning to open the most ambitious restaurant Washington has ever seen.” Looking back, do you think, “Well, what about Jean Louis Palladin’s restaurant?”, and there are other restaurants. But, I think that’s just you’re wanting that to be true.
KO: Yeah. Yeah, I mean I think for the time being, or maybe of my time, it was the most ambitious restaurant. In terms of my experience before that, turning this restaurant from a row house, from a residential to a commercial building, it was ambitious in many factors that are-
EL: Go beyond the plate.
KO: Go beyond the plate, exactly. And, that’s what I mean when I say that.
EL: So, you opened the restaurant. You’re gonna do a pre-fix, and you set the bar at $185. That’s probably not your first choice.
KO: No. I’ve always looked up to this restaurant in New York City, Contra, how they’re able to do an affordable tasting menu format. That’s really where-
EL: You wanted to go.
EL: But, these guys said okay, we’re gonna do $185, and for $185, it doesn’t include wine, tax, and tip.
KO: No, but it did include a cocktail. A crafted cocktail.
EL: Okay. All right.
KO: When you sat down, you got any cocktail that you wanted, and then there was another cocktail in the kitchen later on.
EL: Yeah. I was struck by when you met these guys, Glen and Kelly, and they’re saying things like money’s no object, I don’t care about making money, you who were so street smart in so many ways, you believed it, even though if you really thought about it you wouldn’t have believed it, right?
KO: Yeah, it was like adding gas to a locomotive. I mean, we were adding coal. It was just like, keep going, keep going, we’re powering the engine. I was so deep in it, there was so much going on. It was the first time dealing with a lot of press, and I was really, really young. I came from the South Bronx and I’m catapulted into the stratosphere of the dining culture across the country, and I was trying to just do anything to stay afloat, really. You know?
EL: So, what happened?
KO: We ran out of capital. That’s why businesses close. That’s the short answer.
EL: I guess Tom Sietsema happened. But it couldn’t have been helped, because Sietsema came in really early. He’s an old friend of mine from way back in the day, and he wrote a review that was more about the price value equation as he saw it, right? That must have been devastating.
KO: Yeah, it was soul crushing. It was soul crushing to read that. I remember reading it in the back alley, and it was not a good review, but it also pushed me, you know? It pushed me to change some things up, switch some things around, get everybody excited again, and keep going. It wasn’t like, okay now we need to close. That wasn’t my … I was like, “Okay, we’re gonna fix this. This is the first bite.”
EL: Even though it was the Washington Post, which is the most important review in Washington, D.C.
KO: It is the first bite, you know. You still get another three months before … You get time to right the ship, you know, and it’s not like we were serving garbage. The review wasn’t like this food is bad, he just thought it was expensive, and certain dishes he just didn’t like.
EL: Fois Gras was too salty.
KO: Fois Gras was too salty, and that’s a slip of the hand. There are not robots back there, that’s something that can be adjusted. So yeah, I mean I think we were righting our ship, and we were getting in control, but we ran out of money.
EL: Yeah. So, you run out of money, and then the last chapter in the book, you call The Lesson, what you learned from the Shaw Bijou experience.
KO: The lesson that I learned is to keep going. Just keep going. Not to stop, no matter what obstacles get in your way. If you have your mindset and you have goals in place, stick with those goals, figure out how to adapt, how to pivot, and continue moving.
EL: In the middle of opening Shaw Bijou, you went on Top Chef and you were doing really well, and then they busted you for using frozen waffles.
KO: I don’t know what you’re talking about.
EL: That must have been a really low moment.
KO: Yes, okay, I used frozen waffles. You know why? You know why? Because I’m an all-American, okay? I’m a patriot, all right, and I’m not gonna apologize for it.
EL: But when they busted you, were you like, “Oh, shit!”
KO: I was like damn, that was pretty dumb. I should have done my homework a little bit and saw that the pre-made stuff doesn’t really fly on here. I couldn’t watch the show. I tried to watch it afterwards to get experience, and my stomach would hurt. I would have so much anxiety. I was like, “I don’t know how to cook out of a vending machine. What if they give me that challenge?” So, I would not watch it, but that’s a big no-no.
EL: Yeah. You gotta know what you’re-
KO: I had two things to cook, waffles and chicken. I should have just cooked both of them. So-
EL: Live and learn. Live and learn. Didn’t stop you.
KO: No. I kept going.
EL: That’s the lesson.
KO: That’s the lesson.
EL: Right. And now you have, right? You have another restaurant.
EL: In a hotel?
KO: Mm-hmm. It’s in Intercontinental Hotel.
EL: Called Kith and Kin.
EL: And, it’s still your food presented differently.
EL: Do you feel like you’re dreams have been realized with Kith and Kin, or do you still have many more dreams?
KO: I have many more dreams. Yeah. Many more dreams. I think Kith and Kin is an amazing restaurant of amazing partners with the Intercontinental Hotel. I’m able to cook food for a group of people that aren’t really represented in the culinary industry. I’m giving those people a chance to celebrate a special occasion while celebrating their culture, and I’m also giving an outlet for other people of other cultures to experience this in a way that is inviting and expressive in many ways. Whether it’s the spiel from the server, whether it’s a crafted cocktail that can go with it, whether it’s a glass of wine that we can pair with it, we’re creating an experience and letting people know that Afro Caribbean cuisine can compete with any other type of cuisine a high level.
EL: Give us three dishes on the menu that sort of represent you.
KO: I would say Egusi stew. It’s a dish from Africa, Nigeria, West Africa. It is a-
EL: Your dad was Nigerian?
KO: Exactly. It’s like ground melon seeds with pumpkin leaves and crayfish powder and fermented locust beans, garlic, onions. It’s really delicious and it’s served with fufu, it’s pounded yam, on the side. Then we have curried goat and roti, which is like a Trinidadian dish. And then, there’s this really nice gooseberry piri-piri salad with marinaded cucumbers, avocado, and puffed quinoa, that show how the food from the dashboard can be elevated.
EL: So, those are the essence of Kwame.
KO: Somewhat. I like to say I love all my children equally, on my menu.
EL: You have to say that.
EL: All right. Now it’s time for the all you can answer, Special Sauce buffet.
KO: All right, let’s do it.
EL: So, who’s at your last supper? No family allowed.
KO: It’s Barack Obama, Michelle Obama, Dave Chappelle-
EL: Okay, you’ve got two more people at the table.
KO: Two more people. Beyonce and Jay Z.
EL: That’s a hell of a table.
EL: What are you eating?
KO: We’re eating gumbo.
KO: Yeah, my mother’s gumbo.
EL: Your mother’s gumbo.
KO: My mother’s in the kitchen, so she’s around the corner.
EL: That’s a good way around the no family allowed. That’s brilliant, man. You’re the first person that’s ever come with the mother work around. So, your mother’s gumbo. What else? There’s gotta be other things.
KO: Her peel and eat shrimp. We’ll have jollof rice on the table, which is like a Nigerian staple. Probably some cheese steaks, chicken wings, waffle fries-
EL: Can I come?
KO: Yeah, you can come. Yeah.
EL: All right. So, what do you cook when there’s nothing in the house to eat? Like, when you come home, well you know, it’s late, it’s after service. What do you do, and do you ever get a day off? What would you cook?
KO: I don’t. If I come home after a service, I do not cook. I’ll cook like frozen dumplings that I have, or my fiancé will cook. She’ll make like a quesadilla or pasta or something.
EL: Something really simple.
EL: But never frozen waffles.
KO: No. I have a waffle maker at home.
EL: So, what’s in your fridge at any given moment?
KO: There’s my grandfather’s fermented scotch bonnet sauce. There’s this sauce called no-no sauce that I got in a gift bag that’s really delicious. I still don’t really know what it is. Eggs always. Butter always. Different flavors of flavored water, like Mountain Valley Spring Water, San Pellegrino. I try to keep it at a minimum so we don’t waste food.
EL: Got it. Do you have a guilty pleasure?
KO: It is two things, chicken wings and pork fried rice from Chinese takeout, and banchan.
EL: I love pork fried rice from a Chinese takeout. I really like roast pork egg foo young, no sauce.
KO: I had shrimp egg fu young last night at two thirty in the morning.
EL: Shrimp egg fu young, you’re getting into dangerous territory with the shrimp, man.
KO: Danger zone.
KO: But then I double down with shrimp fried rice, so.
EL: And you had … You should have made one of those pork. If you would have just called me, I could have set you straight, man.
EL: So, what’s the book that’s had the greatest influence on you as a person?
KO: The Autobiography of Malcolm X.
EL: Got it. Who would you love to have a one on one lunch with just to see how he or she thinks?
KO: Leah Chase.
EL: Leah Chase. The great, great Leah Chase from Dooky Chase’s in New Orleans, Louisiana, who is 90 now?
EL: And still doing it.
KO: Still doing it. Still showing up to service.
EL: She’s your role model?
EL: She’s like a combination of you and your mother.
KO: Yes. Yeah, she’s awesome.
EL: She is awesome.
KO: I’ve never met her, but-
EL: Oh, I’ve met her, and she was as awesome as you would imagine.
KO: Yeah? Wow.
EL: She’s great.
EL: So, it’s just been declared Kwame Onwuachi day all over the world. Okay?
KO: Let’s declare it. That’s it.
EL: That’s it. What’s happening on that day?
KO: Oh, okay. We’re making that a thing.
EL: Yeah, well we will, but first we have to find out what’s happening.
KO: On Kwame Onwuachi day, fatherless children get a mentor, a very successful mentor, and follow them around for a day to see what they can become.
EL: I like that. Is there pleasure involved? Food? What are they eating?
KO: They’re just following them around, so whatever their mentor eats, that’s what they eat.
EL: All right.
KO: It’s less to do about food, and more to do about youth that don’t have positive male role models in their life are able to.
EL: Yeah, so you want to make sure that on Kwame Onwuachi day that people don’t have to get through their childhood in the same circumstance that you got through yours?
KO: They just have an alternate circumstance. I wouldn’t say it’s directly reflective of me. I’ve had positive role models in my life that have been male, but I just know what happens when you don’t more times than none, and I’d much rather they got an opportunity to have that.
EL: Yeah. Well, thank you so much for sharing your special sauce with us Kwame Onwuachi.
KO: Thank you for having me.
EL: By all means, read the provocative and thought provoking memoir Notes From a Young Black Chef, and if you’re in D.C., check out Kith and Kin.
EL: So long, Serious Eaters. We’ll see you next time. And, thanks again Kwame.
KO: Yeah. No, that was really great. Thank you for that.
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