First Meal Back: Kwame Onwuachi
Onwuachi, a James Beard awardee, helms Kith/Kin in the Wharf
In honor of all of the restaurants we dearly miss and can’t wait to get back to, we’re asking some of the country’s most decorated chefs to tell us about the meals that will be at the top of their list when Stay at Home orders finally lift. This is First Meal Back.
The coronavirus pandemic certainly isn’t the first time Chef Kwame Onwuachi, owner of DC Afro-Caribbean restaurant Kith/Kin, has had to deal with a little adversity. Growing up in the Bronx in New York, Onwuachi contended with plenty of financial hardship, at one point joining a gang, selling drugs and getting expelled from college. He eventually scraped together enough funds to start his own catering business, leading to an unparalleled upwards journey that involved culinary school, working at some of the top restaurants in NYC and competing on Bravo’s Top Chef.
This meteoric trajectory was halted once again when he opened his first restaurant in DC, the Shaw Bijou, which closed after just 11 weeks — highlighting just how difficult it is to keep the doors of a fledgling restaurant open and profitable in the best of times. By contrast, his next venture, Kith/Kin, continues to be a success, and in 2019 helped Onwuachi claim the coveted title of Rising Star Chef of the Year from the James Beard Foundation.
As part of our new series First Meal Back, we caught up with Onwuachi to find out more about the Independent Restaurant Coalition, a group he recently helped found to give a voice to small restaurants across the country. We also wanted to hear what the chef has been cooking and eating since this all started, and where he’s most excited to drink and dine when it’s hopefully all over.
InsideHook: How has it been for you and your restaurant, Kith/Kin, since the start of the pandemic?
Kwame Onwuachi: I mean it’s been tough — it’s been a tough process for sure, not being able to do what I love every single day. So, yeah, I mean it’s been five weeks trying to figure it out, stay busy, stay positive, stay motivated, and stay healthy throughout this timeframe and stay connected so my staff.
You’ve taken on a lot with helping to found the Independent Restaurant Coalition. Tell me a little about that.
The coalition was formulated to provide a voice for independent restaurants. It was a response to COVID-19 and the lack of response from the government, and we really wanted to mobilize a unit of like-minded individuals that are also in the same boat that needed answers and solutions during this tough time.
We need to make sure that we’re included in the CARES Act, as we’re not just another small business. It’s great that they’re helping out a lot of small businesses, but we also need to make sure that we’re represented in a way that really puts them in our shoes, and lets them know that we operate on razor-thin margins. You know, we’re not a business where you can just flip the lights on and it’s just like we’re right back to where we were. We’re a business that really pumps out a lot of money that we make and that a lot of other industries rely on. We need to make adjustments for the PPP (Paycheck Protection Program), and we’ve been pushing all of our efforts towards that.
Where are you most looking forward to having a dine-in meal again?
The first meal would likely be Los [Hermanos], a little Dominican restaurant here in Washington, DC. I really like this braised tripe dish, like a tripe sofrito almost. It’s something that definitely reminds me of home, because I grew up in the Bronx around a lot of Dominican and Puerto Rican people, so it’s something that really resonates with my childhood and reminds me of home.
Where are you most excited to get a drink?
Probably Death and Co. in New York City, but in DC, probably the Columbia Room. The vibes there are great and it’s very relaxed, with a nice open outdoor space as well. I usually order a gin and tonic, but I also trust them and get stuff there that’s new — they have a pretty adventurous menu that rotates quite often.
What have you been cooking up at home?
Everything, anything that I crave. I mean I started out eating really clean and healthy, but I needed a little bit of comfort, so I’ve made everything from mac and cheese to burgers, to a whole mez platter and regular pasta. Anything I’m really craving, you know? Dumplings.
What’s been your most indispensable pantry item?
Probably house spice — it’s my family’s spice blend recipe, kind of like a Creole spice blend. It goes on everything, and I put it on everything.
How do you think DC’s dining culture will be affected by this in the long run?
I think the industry forever will be changed. You know, I think it’s tough to really say, I wish I had a crystal ball may put me at ease a little bit more, but I think we’re going to see 50-percent occupancy for a while in restaurants and it’s going to take a while to get to our old normal. We’ll probably have to get accustomed to, you know, a new normal.
What do you hope comes out of all of this madness, and from your work with the IRC?
I think mom-and-pop shops are going to be hard to reopen, but I also think people are resilient. I think we’ll find a way to come back from this and there will be a new normal to get used to. What I’d like to see is restaurants turning into community kitchens. We’ve seen it happen now and there’s no reason why that can’t continue for the people that can’t really afford to eat, and can’t provide for themselves. We should be representatives of the community in that way.
You know, I think it’s a shame that it took this long [for the IRC] to come together, but there’s always been issues in the restaurant industry, and that’s why the coalition will be there to be that voice that can get through to the change makers. We all have these platforms, but I think we have a bigger formula when we put them all together, and it makes it easier to formulate a plan and mobilize for action. So that’s what we’re really focused on right now: making sure that we get back open, but after that there’s going to be plenty of things that we can work on to help this restaurant industry thrive.