“Why do you think you can write a memoir at age 29?”
This is the question chef Kwame Onwuachi asks himself, seated across from me at a table as the final lunch guests of the day leave the sunny Kith and Kin dining room.
It’s the same question that Washington, D.C., asked when he set out to open his first restaurant, an ambitious, pricey affair that would tell his life story, weaving Creole and Nigerian culinary influences through a multi-course tasting menu.
“I’ve heard it a lot,” he says. “I just want people to know that everyone has a story.”
Onwuachi spent his formative years in the Bronx, learning from his mother’s cooking at home and at her catering company. After teen years spent dealing drugs, Onwuachi began working in restaurants (and on a ship) and started his own catering business. His passion and obvious talent for cooking led him to the Culinary Institute of America, where he studied while working in a local restaurant and running his catering company to cover tuition costs. He externed at Per Se, and then after graduating worked in the kitchen at Eleven Madison Park.
Both experiences were educational, but as he describes in his memoir, Notes From a Young Black Chef, which hits shelves April 9, Onwuachi was also subjected to racism both personal and systemic. In the book, he calls out specific chefs in the Per Se and Eleven Madison Park kitchens, still something of a rare practice in the chef-memoir genre. “It’s not easy to call out people,” Onwuachi says. “I think it’s important if you want change to occur, if you want people to listen. With this book, I want everyone to listen. This book is for everyone. It’s not just for young black chefs, it’s just not for chefs of color. It’s just not for chefs. It’s for everyone to know that no matter what happens in life, you should just keep going.”
He left EMP to tour with the Dinner Lab, basically doing pop-ups and competing with (and consistently beating) other chefs as part of a fundraising program. Eventually, two D.C. entrepreneurs offered Onwuachi and his culinary schoolmate and fellow EMP (front-of-house) alum Gregory Vakiner a seemingly blank check to build the restaurant of their dreams, which would be the Shaw Bijou. While that restaurant was under construction, Onwuachi competed on Top Chef Season 13, finishing in the final six. His profile on the show added flames to the fire of the hype around the Shaw Bijou, and when the restaurant closed only three months after opening, it came as a shock to everyone — including the chef.
As I wrote at the time of the closure, the meta-narrative around the Shaw Bijou was troubling. A major bone of contention within D.C. was that the Shaw Bijou was too expensive, at $185. In his memoir, Onwuachi reveals the domino effect of mismanagement that led the team to need the cash from early, high-cost ticket sales. And it wasn’t just that the Shaw Bijou would be expensive. It was the audacity, as some saw it, of such a young chef (he was only 26) opening his first restaurant project at such a high price point.
Looking back, it’s impossible not to wonder whether it wasn’t also that some of the D.C. dining public simply wasn’t open to a young black chef charging so much money and asserting his confidence in the fine dining space at all. The glee with which some corners of the internet cheered the closure says a lot more about dining culture in 2017 than just the enduring power of schadenfreude; it also tells us that the restaurant industry and its diners still believe big breaks are “deserved” or “earned,” even as the goal post for what it takes to be “deserving” isn’t fixed in place.
In the first chapter, Onwuachi writes, “More infuriating is the question about to whom I should have been paying dues. It seems like the only ones keeping track are the white guys with tall hats. And how did those guys get into the club? By paying dues to older white guys with even taller hats.”
In fall 2017, he burst back onto the D.C. dining scene with Kith and Kin, which has continued to gain steam, earning positive reviews from former Eater national critic Bill Addison and the Washington Post’s Tom Sietsema. When I sat down with Onwuachi earlier this month, it was only two weeks after he learned of his place on the James Beard Award semifinalist list for rising star chef. He’s back in the spotlight again, and maybe this time, people won’t insist he’s there too soon.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Hillary Dixler Canavan: One major theme you really wrestle with in the book is the meaning of paying dues. Specifically, what happens when you’re paying dues to people who don’t look like you, who operate in systems that are meant to keep you out. But also, you understand why one would have wanted to work at Per Se or EMP before doing something on their own.
In the mythology of professional kitchens, there’s the idea that kitchens are for outsiders. It’s this rag-tag crew of people and if you’re a misfit out there, you’re welcome in here. In reality, there are a lot of people for whom professional kitchens are a very unwelcoming place, for many women, LGBT people, people of color. Do you feel there’s a way for this industry to make room for young people that are in that period without defaulting into the dues-paying mentality that seems to be inherently stacked against them?
Kwame Onwuachi: As a young professional of color too, you teeter on: Okay, I go here to this restaurant. I “pay my dues” and then I’ll eventually get to open up my own restaurant. The reality is you go there, nine times out of 10 it’s the unspoken racism. The not moving you up, the let’s try again in a year and see where we’re at.
It’s not necessary. For me, I had my own path and I got exposed to fine dining, one from living in New York City, two going to the CIA and seeing the opportunities that were there for the externship program. For me, it was a different narrative. At Per Se, I didn’t get paid to work there. That’s now a real reality for people in general, but where I come from, where we take care of our families: It’s a very collaborative effort, when we’re at home, I pay some of the electric bill and everyone pitches in to make ends meet. That’s not a reality for everyone.
It shows the systematic oppression. I don’t think it’s necessarily intentional, but I remember there was another kid that was an extern there and he lived downtown near Per Se. Yes, he didn’t get paid either but his rent was paid for, his parents sent him money every weekend, and he was able to get there [easily]. I had to travel all the way from the Bronx and spend two hours in transit to get to Per Se. It’s not an equal, level playing field. When I get there, I’m exhausted before I even step through the door. I remember one chef telling me I was the laziest person he had ever met in his entire life after I had to work at 6 a.m. as a backup chef for Chopped [a paid job], just so I could afford to pay rent to come here. I was noticeably tired. No one asked, “Hey, are you okay?” It was like, “What are you doing? You’re so lazy. You know that? You’re the laziest person I’ve ever met in my entire life.” Meanwhile, I’m there working for free, busting my ass.
I think what it’s gonna take to change that scope is a little more diversity within the critics, more diversity with editorial staff. It’s gonna take more diversity with people of color within the staff of these large houses in order to really seek out these places from these people of color that may not have had the opportunities to work at places like Per Se or Madison Park, or go to the CIA, or even have the opportunity to have a restaurant like this. This is amazing. I’ve worked really hard for it. I’m very proud of it. There’s a lot of people doing pop-ups, or they have a small restaurant that’s open for dinner, or it’s been passed on throughout their family. They got a chance to send their kid to culinary school, but they still have to go back home and help run that restaurant. That is what it’s going to take in order to change things around a little bit.
HDC: And of course this isn’t unique to the restaurant world. In many professions, young people hear “it’s not your time yet, pay your dues, head down.” And then there can be a real backlash against people who put themselves out there when they feel ready to instead of when they are told they’re ready.
KO: Yes, when they’re told they’re ready.
HDC: I also wonder about if some of the conditions on the ground change, would that aspect of it change? If paying dues doesn’t mean the same thing for every person. If the person next to you at Per Se was paying his dues but living rent free, it’s different.
KO: It’s a lot different.
There are a lot of people that have worked their whole lives and then they get a chance to work in a restaurant, maybe like mine, and they can get a little bit of experience. They may feel that they are ready. Who am I to say that they’re not ready to go on and do their own thing?
Who are they paying their dues to? If anything, you’re paying your dues to yourself. When you feel like you’re ready, you should be able to go out and do whatever you put your mind to. This is a very short life we live. I would hate for someone not to strive for something and always have that what if I would’ve just done this.
HDC: In the book, it seems like you’re arguing that the whole concept of dues-paying in your own story was a way to validate certain types of experiences and not others. That there is a whole range of experiences that might be relevant.
KO: It depends on what you want to do.
HDC: Related to that, one thing that surprised me is that you really named the names. You didn’t shy away from saying this is who I worked for, here’s how they behaved. Did you have any hesitation about being so honest?
KO: There’s always some apprehension when you’re, for lack of better words, being an open book. Are people going to shun me or judge me for this? Or will they be upset at me because I named names, or how dare I speak about these things that should be left in the kitchen? I think that that’s bullshit and there is no bravery in that, on my end. How am I going to prevent that from happening to the next person if I don’t openly talk about it? Give real examples about it. That’s when things stop.
When people realize, Oh man, I’ve done that. I shouldn’t do that anymore. I didn’t know that these small little racist jokes affect people. When you’re a chef, most people are just like, “Yes chef” to you. I deal with that in my own kitchen. I’m like “Hey, how’s it going?” They’re like, “Good, chef.” I tell my sous chef, “Go see how it’s actually going over there. They are just telling me it’s all good.”
We need to know that our words matter. Especially if it’s some sort of harassment. We don’t talk about racism in the terms of harassment a lot. We talk about it as yes, if something major happens like if someone was racially profiled or it is a hate crime, or something like that.
The small, subtle jokes go unheard. Those are the ones that hurt the most because they are usually in front of a large group of people. If you understand it for what it is, then it’s like you’re not cool. “We’re just joking around.” But I didn’t start joking like this. Why do you feel that you could do this?
You just have to push through that small little area of uncomfortability. Whether it’s speaking up, speaking out, or just believing in yourself.
HDC: Right now, naming names has been such a powerful part of the #MeToo movement, too.
KO: It’s important to name your abusers. I don’t have to be excited about it. I’m just telling the story. I think that’s the same thing with the #MeToo movement. They are saying what happened and that it’s not okay. It takes a lot of bravery and I’m so proud of the women that have come forward and said that, because it has sparked change. I’ve noticed it in the industry.
A lot of friends that have restaurants now have sensitivity classes around sexual harassment. We have it here about racial equality as well. I think that that’s something that needs to be talked about more and more, to have people feel included, feel welcome.
HDC: Another theme of the book is that you are still young; it’s very much about a young person finding their voice and their career path. With the opening of the Shaw Bijou and Kith and Kin under your belt, with a book now under your belt, what’s your sense for young chefs who do feel ready to express their voice? Do you feel like you have any takeaways? Is your thinking about doing that different now than it was before?
KO: Not really. I think people learn in different ways. For me, I learn a lot by doing. I couldn’t have opened a restaurant that’s successful without having another restaurant that either went well or didn’t go well. I can only learn as much as I can with being hands on. I think it depends on the chef. I have a lot of chefs that look like me in my kitchen, which is amazing. They are like, how did you do it? I’m like: “I started to do pop-ups and then I traveled around the world. Then I got an opportunity to open up a restaurant and I was scared as hell, but I did it. I failed. I tried again, and that was it.” When they are like, “What should I do?” I’m like, I don’t really have the answers for you, what you should do specifically. I know as a cook I can give you what you need to work on as a cook: Hone your craft, more importantly. Keep your station clean. The normal things of being a good chef, that’s the foundation. To garner exposure, there is a multitude of things you can do. You can start writing. You can start doing YouTube videos. You can start doing pop-ups. You have to do what makes sense for you. Maybe you want to open up a food truck after this. You can go right into that after working in this kitchen. If you want to open up a restaurant this big, maybe start with a smaller one. It depends on the person, really.
If you’re ready to do anything, I would just try it. I’ve never written a book before and I did this. When are you gonna be ready for something unless you just do it?
Hillary Dixler Canavan is Eater’s restaurant editor.