The Great Ones is a celebration of humans we admire — and an exploration of why they cook, not just how. Chef Kwame Onwuachi is a chef (most recently at the now-closed Kith/Kin in Washington, D.C.), the author of Notes From a Young Black Chef, and a Top Chef contestant and soon-to-be judge for the show’s 18th season. We spoke to him at his new home in Los Angeles while he cooked a childhood favorite: curry chicken and rice.
I started learning about food at a really young age in my mother’s kitchen. She operated a catering company from home, and that was how she kept the lights on. My mom cooked a lot of Creole cuisine, but also West African and Caribbean food as well. I was thrown an apron and had to get into it, but I was young, so I did smaller tasks like peeling shrimp or stirring the roux for gumbo or étouffée.
I feel closest to Creole cuisine, but there are so many influences. We lived in Nigeria for a few years, and living there was a stark difference. We lived in a small village in the countryside, raised chickens, and cultivated some of our own vegetables. We didn’t have electricity or running water there. There was a lot of respect for the energy it took to make a meal. This definitely gave me an appreciation and respect for ingredients.
There was a lot of respect for the energy it took to make a meal.
I didn’t always know I was going to have a career in food. I didn’t aspire to it or see it as an option with longevity because, to be frank, we struggled growing up, and it didn’t feel like that was the career path for me. But as soon as it became a passion, it became apparent to me why my mom loved cooking so much and chose that path — it chooses you. It’s not something you get into for the money; you do it for the craft and for the pleasure of making someone happy. There’s nothing better than serving a plate of food to someone, and they enjoy it, and you can see it on their face.
Most of my dishes tell a story, and when a dish tells a story it has a soul.
Most of my dishes tell a story, and when a dish tells a story it has a soul. You’re not just cooking for the perfect seasoning, but you’re cooking to share an experience with someone, and most times you’re cooking to share your nostalgia with them. I tell stories about family, travel, and connectivity to other human beings through food. It’s often based on dishes I grew up eating, but seen through the lens of my culinary training. Sometimes it’s telling a story of a time in history. For example, the calamari at Kith/Kin was based on a dish from Veracruz, Mexico, and highlighted the Afro-Cuban contribution to that region of Mexico.
For me, it’s also about having that representation of food from the diaspora.
For me, it’s also about having that representation of food from the diaspora, served in a way that you can celebrate your culture while creating a special experience. Our food is often represented at takeout spots, so people aren’t used to paying above a certain price point for our food. I like being able to highlight that there is beauty on all sides: takeout to fine dining. The more visibility of that, the more investors are willing to invest in concepts outside the so-called norm. Some of our earliest memories are food memories, and you can really get to know someone by what they eat. If we can be more open to different things, we can bring people together, and that’s what really excites me about food.
I’m a risk-taker, and I always have been.
I’m a risk-taker, and I always have been. If it doesn’t work out, I tweak it and try again. I would be less inclined to think this way if I was operating on someone, but I am serving food. It’s trial and error, and you can always create something else. I used to get so depressed if a dish didn’t work out or correlate on a plate.
This confidence to try again has grown over time, and it comes from failure. The more you fail, the less afraid of it you are. You build confidence as long as you are learning from it each time. There was a dish called mushroom forest that, in the beginning, I was trying to do too much and didn’t just let the ingredients sing. It came together once I started scaling back and refining the flavors I wanted to convey. I think I worked on that dish for at least two years. I tweaked and tweaked. You keep trying.
The more you fail, the less afraid of it you are.
Now I have some visibility, and it’s fun — it’s a different aspect of the food world that I’m able to tap into now. It’s like having a career change, but in the same sector. There are parts that feel familiar, and there are parts I’m still figuring out. I love being new at something, learning, and seeing yourself grow and get better. We are forever evolving as people, so it’s beautiful to look back and see how you’ve grown — and the only way we really grow is to get out of what feels comfortable.
The only way we really grow is to get out of what feels comfortable.
It’s tough not being in a restaurant. I miss it so much. The industry is changing, and it’s just a different ball game. Whether you have a restaurant or not, you’re not engaging with people directly. I’m just trying to take control of my own narrative in many different ways now. I’m really getting into the media space. I just finished my second cookbook, which is coming out next year. There’s a movie being filmed this summer about my life story, and I’m trying to develop my own TV shows that I want to do. There is a lot of exciting stuff on the horizon, and I’m just working on me right now. All of the burners are on, and one of these dishes is gonna be done soon.
All of the burners are on, and one of these dishes is gonna be done soon.
I cook very simply for myself at home. Usually a seared protein and a good starch — whatever I can do to make the least amount of dishes. I’m not trying to blend up sauces or use a million pots at home. Can I make this in the broiler with a piece of tin foil? If I can do that, I win. I made curry chicken and rice for today. It’s a dish I grew up eating. Curry chicken and goat were always around in my household. My grandfather is from Trinidad, and it’s one of my earliest food memories.
I cook very simply for myself at home … whatever I can do to make the least amount of dishes.
I think my mom is proud at the end of the day because she was able to provide me with something she didn’t have, and every good parent wants to see their child doing better than them. She loves the interpretation (in my food), and she’s excited for me and to see where it all goes from here.
Photos by Luke Austin.