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Kwame Onwuachi was the Rising Star Chef at the 2019 James Beard Awards. His Kith and Kin restaurant in Washington D.C has been lauded for its creative take on Afro-Caribbean cuisine. Onwuachi joined a star list of previous Rising Star winners: David Chang, Cristina Tosi and Grant Achatz to name just a few. The young chef said the win was something he had worked towards his entire life, and listening to his story, you realise he really did start early.
At the age of just 10-years-old, when most boys are still being boys, Onwuachi had to grow up fast. With teenage trouble detected on mum’s radar, he was made to leave his family home in the Bronx, New York, and move to Nigeria.
“She sent me to Nigeria to live, to learn respect and also to understand where I came from, my culture, give me a different set of values.”
For a young person with roots set in New York - friends, school, a whole life - Onwuachi said the move was a serious culture shock, “I went from playing Playstation to doing my homework by kerosene lamp.” However, for a young person who had already found a passion for cooking thanks to hours put in at his mum’s catering company, Nigeria was the foundation for a future career in the kitchen.
“It was an experience that directly translated in my professional career path because when I did become a cook I appreciated my proteins and even my produce at a different level because I had raised them, I saw what went in to that.”
After returning to New York and selling candy on the Subway to fund his own catering company, eventually going to the CIA to learn how to cook, Onwuachi also picked up stints in some of America’s best kitchens, he said he “got really interested in fine dining."
The food at Kith and Kin is colorful, it's homely but there's an obvious deep level of technique behind each dish. Take the curried goat for example, based on a Trinidadian dish Onwuachi remembers eating during his childhood. He marinates a whole goat in green seasoning: celery, culantro, green onions and fermented scotch bonnet peppers. This is then braised in chicken stock and served with a curry Velouté. It's finished with crispy potatoes tossed in green seasoning aoli and garnished with celery curls and micro celery, "to accentuate those celery notes that are throughout the dish."
"I decided to cook food honoring my ancestors, traditions and my culture. It’s Afro-Caribbean with the four pillars of Jamaican, Nigerian, Trinidadian and Creole from Louisiana and you have the American South and the diaspora sprinkled in there as well. Stuff from all over Africa, all throughout the Caribbean and the American South. I wanted to introduce that, you don’t have many restaurants that celebrate that culture so it’s an honor to be able to that in that location."
James Beard has always been a barometer for the culinary landscape in America, shining such a prestigious award towards such diverse Afro-Caribbean cooking is something that should be noted. It's simple for Onwuachi, "It gives it a platform. People are now starting to open their eyes to it, it’s another door that’s opened. I know James Beard pledged to have more diversity in their committees and I think that changes things. It comes from the top, people making these decisions, if they are diverse they will start to seek out things that resonate with them and that’s how we make change. It’s happening."
Onwuachi would like to see more awards, more lists and more guides diversify their offering, to consider fine dining as something that has and is always evolving. "I thinking about what the word fine dining really means. Does it just mean a four-hour long meal with multi courses or does it mean a really great plate of food and you feel really great when you leave a restaurant? Once we start rethinking about what does fine dining really mean then the conversation will start to shift even more."
"I’ve been to really great restaurants that the food isn’t the star, the service and all the theatrics that go into it are. I think that there are so many opportunities to include the entire industry in these lists. If the food is good and if you walk away smiling that should be one of the most important things."
"By opening the conversation, by us even having this dialogue, I think it’s a step."