Chef Kwame Onwuachi won the "Rising Star Chef of the Year" James Beard Award in 2019.

Chef Kwame Onwuachi won the "Rising Star Chef of the Year" James Beard Award in 2019.

Chef Kwame Onwuachi is a star in the culinary world. He’s the critically acclaimed author of his 2019 memoir “Notes From a Young Black Chef,” a Forbes 30 under 30 honoree, Esquire’s 2019 Chef of the Year and a James Beard Award winner.

Now, after four years as the executive chef at Kith/Kin, the restaurant inside the InterContinental Washington D.C. hotel on the Wharf and lauded for its rustic Afro-Caribbean, Chef Onwuachi is moving on to begin a new culinary venture.

What does the native New Yorker make of the District’s culinary scene? What will become of the restaurant industry in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic? And how can the culinary world be made more accessible to people of color?

We sit down with the chef to talk about his career and the future of his craft.

Produced by Kayla Hewitt


  • Kwame Onwuachi Former executive chef and creator, Kith/Kin; author, “Notes From a Young Black Chef”; @ChefKwame


  • 12:20:02

    KOJO NNAMDIAfter three and a half years at the helm of Kith/Kin, a hub for Afro-Caribbean cuisine in the District, Chef Onwuachi recently announced that he's leaving to begin a new culinary venture. So what comes next for Chef Kwame Onwuachi? How has the pandemic affected his view of the culinary world? How can restaurants join the fight against racial injustice? Joining us now is Chef Kwame Onwuachi. Kwame, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 12:20:28

    KWAME ONWUACHIKojo, thank you for having me. It's been too long. It's been too long.

  • 12:20:39

    NNAMDIIt has been too long. And it's my understanding you're at an airport and flying off.

  • 12:20:44


  • 12:20:45

    NNAMDIHopefully we won't lose contact.

  • 12:20:47

    ONWUACHIYes, yes.

  • 12:20:48

    NNAMDIYou were the executive chef at Kith/Kin for three and a half years.

  • 12:20:51

    ONWUACHII was.

  • 12:20:52

    NNAMDIWhy did you feel that this was the right moment to part ways with the restaurant?

  • 12:20:55

    ONWUACHIWell, you know, I think we have to think about what's important right now and what's important to us. And for me I think it's just a natural next step for me in my career. You know, I want to own something. You know, I want to have ownership. I want to start my own restaurant group like my mentors before me. And this seems like a good time to reset.

  • 12:21:14

    NNAMDIYou have become a young star in the culinary industry. Why is it so important to also be an owner of your next restaurant?

  • 12:21:22

    ONWUACHIBecause I have to be able to control my own narrative, you know, out of all the years that I've worked, I've appreciated I've learned so much. But being able to control my own narrative at this point in my career is extremely important.

  • 12:21:35

    NNAMDIYou've spent last three years developing and working on Kith/Kin. What have you learned from that experience that you would like to bring to your new venture?

  • 12:21:44

    ONWUACHIJust in terms of a way to operate a business. You know, we did over 500 covers a day at that restaurant. We served a lot of people. And figuring out how to operate in such high volume with still keeping up amazing quality is something that I'll take with me onto the next venture.

  • 12:22:01

    NNAMDIKith/Kin was celebrated for the autobiographical nature of its menu. What was your process for crafting Kith/Kin's menu? And did the location of the restaurant help inspire the food you chose to serve?

  • 12:22:13

    ONWUACHIAbsolutely. I mean, if you look at the Wharf it was a place that, you know, African and Native American met to trade ideals. You know, it was a place that 272 slaves from Georgetown sailed down the river. So it was important for me to tell that story.

  • 12:22:27

    NNAMDIIn case you're just joining us, we're talking with Kwame Onwuachi, the former head chef at Kith/Kin and the author of "Notes From a Young Black Chef." He is boarding an airplane even as we speak. So the noises you hear in the background are, well, those regular airplane noises that you probably haven't been hearing much of since many of us have not been traveling on planes. But we're going to continue the conversation anyway. Kwame, before leaving the restaurant you led Kith/Kin reopening efforts. What will it take for local restaurants to survive this pandemic?

  • 12:22:58

    ONWUACHIIt's going to take a lot and it's probably going to take some help from the government. You know, we employ more people than any other industry. And we need a bailout. So I've been working with the Independent Restaurant Coalition to lobby for that. And, you know, we've made some strides within the CARES Act and the PPP, but we're going to need more help or else a lot of restaurants are not going to open up.

  • 12:23:19

    NNAMDIThe coronavirus pandemic has exposed the financial insecurity of many low wage restaurant workers. In your view, what needs to be done to support those workers moving forward?

  • 12:23:30

    ONWUACHII think the restaurant -- or restaurant relief fund is something that needs to happen, but also we need to be valued as an actual profession. You know, I think people bat their eyes at expensive burgers and, you know, expensive pasta and things like that. But we should be able to charge money so we can take care of our staff. Things like healthcare should be normal for our industry, because we employ so many people.

  • 12:24:00

    NNAMDIYou've spoken out about the difficulties that chefs of color face when trying to rise up in the culinary industry. Now that you're a decorated chef in your own right, how do you hope to carve a path to success for those coming behind you?

  • 12:24:13

    ONWUACHIThat's where ownership comes into play. You know, and that's why I want to have my own place so I can help them. And I can lead the way that I want to lead. And, you know, reach down to those people that don't have a voice or, you know, get looked upon and get overlooked and don't really get that shot. And I want to provide opportunities for other people.

  • 12:24:35

    NNAMDIThe restaurant industry is one of the hardest hit by this coronavirus pandemic. Do you think there's an opportunity here to make restaurants more accessible and inclusive for people of color once the pandemic is over?

  • 12:24:47

    ONWUACHIYeah, well, you know, this gives us a time to reset and not go back to the old normal. You know, we can forge our new path and create opportunities for all so everyone has a seat at the table. You know, I think that's extremely important. You can see that with any industry, you know, that people of color always have a little tough -- a little more rough of getting to that path to the top. And if we can create a more equitable space for everyone then we can create a better future for our industry.

  • 12:25:15

    NNAMDIWhat do you think needs to change in order to make the culinary industry more accessible to open up new opportunities for chefs of color here?

  • 12:25:24

    ONWUACHII think we need more editors. You know, we need more critics that are of color that can review these places and have some sort of emotional connection to it, and I think it starts there. And then we need more investors of color as well.

  • 12:25:39

    NNAMDIAs we said, we're talking with Chef Kwame Onwuachi, the former head chef at Kith/Kin and the author of "Notes From a Young Black Chef." He is on an airplane even as we speak. So that accounts for what you hear in the background. Kwame, do you think the pandemic will have a disproportionate effect on restaurateurs of color?

  • 12:25:59

    ONWUACHIYeah, I think that's what's going to hit the hardest, these mom and pop shops, these small places, people that have put their all into this. And now it's wavering and there's little hope. And that's why we need this restaurant relief fund.

  • 12:26:15

    NNAMDIYou're originally from New York, but you opened your first restaurant Shaw Bijou here in D.C. What drew you to the District's culinary scene?

  • 12:26:22

    ONWUACHIWell, my grandfather chartered Howard University so I always looked at D.C. as kind of a second home. So I'd spent my summers here when he would come back from Nigeria. And when I came to visit I did popups and I fell in love with the city. And I say the city chose me in that regard.

  • 12:26:41

    NNAMDIA lot of foodies put a premium on authenticity when it comes to eating certain cuisines. But in reality people from different backgrounds are creating different foods. What are your thoughts on this whole authenticity issue and where's the line between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation when it comes to food?

  • 12:26:59

    ONWUACHII think you got to be authentic to who you are and more importantly you have to cook from your heart. I think you also have to have some sort of respect to the culture that you are cooking. You know, and you should have done some sort of research. You should have visited these places in order to properly convey it. But at the end of the day, you know, food is a way to really transpire cultures and travel oceans on a plate. And, you know, you can really get to know someone's culture through a dish.

  • 12:27:30

    NNAMDIBlack chefs often feel a pressure to resist cooking food that represent their cultural heritage, at times hesitant to cook foods that represent black culture, whether that's Caribbean, African or southern foods for being pigeon-holed by the culinary world. Have you ever felt that pressure? What do you think needs to happen to combat that phenomenon?

  • 12:27:49

    ONWUACHII mean, I definitely felt it earlier in my career. Now, I don't care. I just cook what I want to cook. So I think it comes with, you know, gaining confidence with your craft and taking those skills that you've learned and applying it to your own culture. You know, and that's when things really started to click for me and I found my voice is when I revisited those, you know, that goosy stew and that gumbo and that (unintelligible) and I just cooked it through the lens that I see.

  • 12:28:14

    NNAMDIWell, I got to bring this up before you go. Your memoir "Notes From a Young Black Chef" is being adapted into a film starring Lakeith Stanfield of "Get Out" and "Sorry to Bother You" and "Atlanta Fame." How do you feel about your book getting the Hollywood treatment?

  • 12:28:28

    ONWUACHII feel it's not going to hit me until I see it or I'm on set. You know, I think it's super cool, because also I'm going to reach a whole different crowd of people. People are more susceptible to watch movies than read books unfortunately. And with that I'm going to show the next generation that you can become whatever you want as long as you put your mind to it. You can achieve it.

  • 12:28:50

    NNAMDIWell, this film will undoubtedly bring new readers to your memoir. Do you think your book will be perceived differently in the wake of nationwide protests against racial inequity?

  • 12:28:59

    ONWUACHII think it will be more -- people will absorb it a little bit better. It was polarizing last year and it's like required reading. So I think it's an important story. It's a real story. And you can change that word chef to any profession and that narrative will remain true.

  • 12:29:19

    NNAMDIKwame Onwuachi is the former head chef at Kith/Kin and Author of "Notes From a Young Black Chef." We're going to take a short break, but Kwame, of course, you know, ever since I discovered from reading your book that I knew your grandfather, I think of you as one of my own. So good luck to you.

  • 12:29:34

    ONWUACHIThank you. I'm telling my mom that today actually.

  • 12:29:37

    NNAMDIPlease do. And in your venture. Thank you so much for joining us.

  • 12:29:39

    ONWUACHIAll right. Thank you. Bye-bye.

  • 12:29:41

    NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll be talking with Stanley Love Astronaut on Kojo For Kids. Remember adults can listen, but only kids can call, 800-433-8850. You can start calling now. Shoot us a tweet @kojoshow. Email to or go to our website Join the conversation there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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