Photos by Scott Suchman
“Grit and hard work pay off.”
Long before the James Beard Foundation named Kwame Onwuachi “Rising Star Chef of the Year,” Kwame was a child living with his mother and sister in a one-bedroom apartment in the Bronx. He worked alongside his mother and sister as his mother opened a catering service in their apartment. She instilled in him a sense of entrepreneurship and a passion for food. After misbehaving in school, Kwame’s mother sent him to live with family in Ibusa, Nigeria. He thought it would be for just one summer. He stayed there for two years. His mother didn’t want him to return home until he learned respect. Kwame’s experience in Ibusa was fruitful. Through his connection with his grandfather, he began to appreciate his heritage. He returned to New York City with a better sense of who he was.
Unfortunately, after Kwame returned to New York City, he became a product of his environment. He lost a sense of who he was. In his teenage years, he joined a gang and after enrolling at the University of Bridgeport in Bridgeport, Connecticut, was kicked out for selling drugs. It was in his early 20s that he turned his life around and graduated from the Culinary Institute of America. With stints at Per Se and Eleven Madison Park on his resume, he opened his own restaurant, the Shaw Bijou, in Washington, D.C. With mixed reviews and an expensive menu, it failed to make a profit and was forced to close. In a way, it was a blessing in disguise. He was awarded the opportunity to become the executive chef of Kith/Kin, an Afro-Caribbean restaurant located in The Wharf in Washington, D.C. There, he designed the menu around his ancestry and the African diaspora. While he initially felt overwhelmed with the position, he successfully ran the restaurant for four years. It became one of the best in D.C.
In 2019, Kwame wrote Notes from a Young Black Chef: A Memoir about his love of food and overcoming his personal struggles. Now, Kwame has made the decision to leave Kith/Kin. He plans to continue his family’s tradition of entrepreneurship and become the chef of his own restaurant once again. Right now he says he’s taking time to work on himself. “It is important to take care of your mental health, especially during these times,” he says.
At 30, Kwame has had great success and desires to do so much more. “I’m blessed,” he admits. “I want to continue to be happy and take care of my family.” For Kwame, burning out is not an option. The flames of passion continue to burn bright.
“It is important to take care of your mental health, especially during these times.”