Why Chef Kwame Onwuachi Is Among The Food World’s Fastest-Rising Stars

The James Beard award-winning chef discusses his early pitfalls, toughest challenges, and his highly anticipated New York restaurant Tatiana.

(GH Mumm)

At just 33 years old, chef Kwame Onwuachi’s dizzying life has already overflowed with explosive successes and chaotic nadirs. Conscripted to early duty in mom’s kitchen, his parent’s rich cultural traditions (Nigerian and Jamaican father, Trinidadian and Creole mother) infused the prodigy with a robust gastronomic palate. After studying at the Culinary Institute of America, Onwuachi cut his teeth at esteemed NYC foodie Meccas like Per Se and Eleven Madison Park, once the World’s Best Restaurant.

(GH Mumm)

An early career marked by ambitious disappointments (his first restaurant, Shaw Bijou, closed after only three months) was counterpointed with a litany of successes—beginning in 2015 when Onwuachi was selected as a contestant on season 13 of Top Chef.

His second effort, Kith/Kin, met with overwhelming adulation; in 2019 it was named one of the Best New Restaurants in America by Esquire, which also dubbed him Chef of the Year. That same year the James Beard Awards named Onwuachi Rising Star Chef of the Year, and Food & Wine deemed him one of its Best New Chefs. His memoir, Notes from a Young Black Chef, was published that fateful year as well.

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We sat down with one of America’s most promising young culinary forces to discuss his early pitfalls, seminal challenges and the lessons learned, recently opening his highly anticipated New York restaurant Tatiana, and his “Mark Your Own Journey” campaign with venerable champagne house G.H. Mumm.

You grew up in New York, but your early life had some twists and turns. Tell me a bit about your parents.

My dad is an architect and project manager, my mom is a chef; I grew up with them. Very early on my mom threw me an apron at like five years old and I had to help out with her catering company in order to keep the lights on. She operated from the house.

You had some troubles in high school and they sent you packing to Nigeria. 

Yeah, it was interesting, man. I mean, I didn’t even know I was going there for a prolonged period of time—I thought I was only going there for a couple weeks. Then I quickly found out it was not a vacation at all and I would be there for two years, and it was a huge culture shock. We didn’t have running water, we didn’t have electricity, we had to raise our own livestock. It was definitely frightening at first, but then it became a way of life and I actually started to enjoy it a bit.

What were your first impressions arriving there?

It was a shock to the system. So the food was different, it wasn’t like you could just go to McDonald’s or anything. It was very traditional food so I didn’t eat much starting off. It was scary. I was 10 years old in a foreign land where English wasn’t even the first language, so there was a huge learning curve.

But like I said I grew to love it. It became the norm, it became something I assimilated to, that I started to resonate with. I started to understand the people there are actually extremely happy. Maybe in a reflective state they don’t have as much as us, but what does that even mean? They’re deeply rooted in culture and family and tradition, so it was beautiful to be a part of that after awhile.

What did you learn during your time there?

I think the lessons were pretty evident just because it was a way of life. If we killed a livestock, we used every single part of the animal. I learned to really appreciate what I have here in America, appreciate not even just having AC and electricity, but having opportunity to do whatever I put my mind to.

You told Trevor Noah you had to learn about respect before you could return. When did your mom recognize you were ready to come home?

I garnered a new appreciation for life out there in its essence. I will say that I think I came back maybe a little bit worse than I was sent out there in terms of the respect factor because I had actually been through more than my parents had been through living out there and surviving. So the Bronx wasn’t all that scary after I got back from Igbuzor, Nigeria. But I think it really hit me when I became an adult of what’s really important, what I need to spend my time worrying about. And also appreciating the life that I have and how life is such a gift.

You’ve faced both early failures and successes. After launching a catering company you realized perhaps you weren’t good enough, and enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America.

I think I wanted to hone my craft. I think I was always well versed in culinary arts because I started so young. But I think the word “failure” is put on you by other people and it’s not something that you should ever say when talking about your own experiences in this world. If Beyoncé sold 200,000 albums she would be considered a “failure” to other people. But if you sold 200,000 albums you’d be an overnight success. So it’s something that other people put on you. I think life experiences are opportunities to learn and grow, and I think I’ve had a lot of them, whether they’ve been “successes” or “failures.”

(GH Mumm)

You opened a restaurant at a very young age, Shaw Bijou—what were the lessons you learned from that experience?

Just pick a better team. Because I opened Kith/Kin 10 months later and that was a James Beard award-winning restaurant. So it was just making sure that you had the right people around.

What life lessons did you learn from Kith/Kin?

I learned how to lead a team. I kind of found my voice. I think that’s the most important thing as a chef is find your voice in the kitchen, and I was able to do that there. And I was able to start having fun in the kitchen again.

Chefs often stress how important their teams are. You learned that lesson early on.

Your team is everything. I think as a chef, you’re definitely the face of the restaurant, but that lifeline and that pulse comes from the people that are in there every single day, people that are opening and closing, the people that are trusting in your vision to then execute on that. So I think the team is the most important thing for a restaurant. You can’t do it all alone— it’d be physically and mentally impossible. Having that team that’s there to support you is a game changer.

(GH Mumm)

What are three things you look for in teammates?

I look for good attitude over experience; people that care and people that want to grow.

You already wrote a memoir, Notes from a Young Black Chef. How important was it for you to tell these stories? 

I was approached to write a book. It was not a thing for me. I gave a speech and somebody was in the audience and said, “You should write this down.” It was about my life story. So I partnered with Joshua David Stein and it was a very cathartic experience, like reliving memories and recanting your life story and trying to find the most interesting parts and trying to weave that together.

So it was definitely a little tumultuous, but it was extremely worth it. I think a lot of people think it’s not that important, but I think everybody has a story and you never know who you’re going to resonate with or inspire.

You recently opened your new restaurant in New York, Tatiana. What was the inspiration?

Lincoln Center reached out to me to see if I wanted to put a concept in there, and I wanted to pay homage to my childhood. And I thought there was no better way than to shine a light on my big sister [Tatiana] because she helped raise me and we ate a lot of meals together. So it’s my love letter of how I grew up eating in New York City.

How would you describe your cooking style?

Well my cooking philosophy is if a dish tells a story, it has a soul. You’re not just cooking for perfect seasoning, you’re cooking to share an experience, a memory with someone. So it’s the full gamut of cuisine. I [pull] from a lot of different cultures, and you’ll see that at Tatiana. There’s definitely an Afro-Caribbean through-line, but there’s influence from all different nations as well because that’s what New York is: it’s a melting pot of so many different people and cultures.

(GH Mumm)

How did the G.H. Mumm collaboration start?

I think it was a natural connection. They have such attention to detail, but also they’ve been around a while doing things at a high level. And a sentiment that I’ve always said is the journey is the reward. It’s not just the end goal, it’s the journey of getting to that place. And they have the same sentiment of Marking Your Own Journey—like you shouldn’t wait to drink champagne just when you’re celebrating something. It should be part of your lifestyle. And that’s the way I like to live my life—I think every day is such a gift and I try to live it to the fullest.

The concept of the campaign seems to really match your own personal journey, which featured major successes and—let’s not use the word “failures,” let’s say lessons learned—so in theory you’d also drink champagne when your restaurant closed, right?

Exactly, we definitely drank champagne that day. It was bittersweet, but it was like we’re still on our journey. It doesn’t stop until the pulse stops. So we’re not going to cry over spilled milk, we’re just going to keep going. And we just kept opening up restaurants.

So what’s next? 

The restaurant right now, and I’m really excited to be a partner with G. H. Mumm. We’ve done some dope events and campaigns together, so the sky’s the limit.

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