Kwame Onwuachi Talks ‘Top Chef,’ The Future Of Restaurants, And Storytelling On The Plate

Avid Top Chef viewers are sure to remember when Kwame Onwuachi burst on the scene in season 13. At 26, his technique was already on point, he knew how to cook and share “his food,” and he had a fascinating backstory that unfolded gradually — making him ever the more compelling to viewers. Uproxx’s Vince Mancini was fascinated by both the dishes he presented and his tales of financing a catering company by selling candy on the subway, nicknaming the chef “The Prodigy.”

Over the past-half decade, that nickname has proven true tenfold. After Top Chef, Onwuachi opened Shaw Bijou — a 13-course tasting menu concept which faltered so quickly that the chef jokingly calls it a pop-up. But he bounced back from that setback with Kith/Kin, which won him rave reviews, a Beard award for Rising Star Chef of the Year in 2019, and 2019’s Chef of the Year from Esquire. It was a hell of a run, putting the food world on notice in a major way.

Onwuachi hasn’t slowed down since and doesn’t look likely to anytime soon. His widely acclaimed memoir, Notes from a Young Black Chef, is being turned into a movie starring LaKeith Stanfield, which the chef himself will have a cameo in. Meanwhile, he’s taken on an Executive Producer role at Food & Wine and is returning to Top Chef this season as a judge. He’s also worked with José Andrés at World Central Kitchen, gotten increasingly involved in food policy, and is throwing a food festival in partnership with Food & Wine and Salamander Hotels and Resorts in Virginia called “Family Reunion: A Celebration of Diversity in the Hospitality Community.”

Even Kith/Kin’s permanent closure during the pandemic has turned into a positive — with Onwuachi being vocal about the fact that he will expect ownership stake in all future restaurant projects. Plus there are brand deals, like his extended partnership with Guinness beer, and a possible mix-tape on the way thanks to encouragement from Dave Chappelle.

The “prodigy” has become a master. And he’s making huge moves in a hurry.

On the eve of Top Chef‘s return, we spoke with Onwuachi about the show, restaurants in the post-Covid era, diversity and representation in food, storytelling on the plate, and cooking with beer. Check the full interview below.

We’ve been big Kwame fans since you first did Top Chef. Vince Mancini interviewed you right away and we’ve all been following your career.

I still remember those weekly updates he did on Top Chef. They’re really, really funny.

You’re coming back this year in some capacity, right?

I’m a judge. What did you guys call me? “The prodigal son” or something like that? The prodigy!

That’s it! Well, you’re going to get some love coming up this season. What did you think of judging the show? Was it a fun process to judge this thing when you’d been on the other side?

It was the best. It was so much better than running around trying to get a dish done in 15 minutes. And I was able to be more empathetic to them, because I’ve been in their seat. So I wasn’t judging on the standpoint of “holier than thou.” It was more like, “How much time do you have to do this?” Oh, that’s plenty of time. Or, “Aw man, I know that time flies, so good job for what you got done.” There was more of an understanding from the judges panel this time around.

With chefs at that caliber, Vince and I are always wondering, “Does anyone really, truly mess up that bad?” Are there times where people really miss?

I got to say no comment on that one. [Laughs.] You’ll just have to watch the show.

It’s interesting to talk to you now, in a time of complete restaurant upheaval. You know that world and you know how to navigate the upheaval bit — because your first big shot was a tasting menu concept and maybe it didn’t work out the way that you’d hoped. And then you came back with something that was really working and obviously that was affected by the pandemic.

Well, the first restaurant was just a pop-up. So it was exactly how I wanted.

Oh, was —

No, it wasn’t, it wasn’t. [Laughs] I called it that because it only lasted nine weeks.

To your credit, you’ve carved such a fascinating career with so much risk-taking in such a short time. So you feel like the right person to speak on what you see post-pandemic cooking looking like. How do you see restaurants evolving coming out of this pandemic?

You know, I think it’s going to be interesting. We’re going to have to wait and see, you know. I wish I had the answer to that. I think, honestly, a lot of restaurants closed, but there’s going to be a resurgence — a lot of restaurants opening because they’re getting deals on rent.

So I think there’s going to be an influx of new restaurants opening and we have to see how it fares — if people are willing to go out and be around people, be amongst people. I think they will be. I think people are tired of doing dishes, mainly. They’re also tired of staying at home. Human beings are social creatures, so we want to interact with each other. Restaurants will be back. It’s going to take some time and the landscape will look a little bit differently.

One of the things I’ve always admired about your food is the storytelling aspect. I think it actually lends itself really well to the new moment that we’re heading into. People learned how to cook a little bit in quarantine. I think they’re going to come out of this saying, “Look, I don’t want to have someone cook for me something that I can do just as well, if not better, for my particular palate at home.” So I think the pairing of storytelling with technique that you have is going to really stand out in the post-quarantine era.

If a dish has a story, it has a soul. People don’t go out just to eat, they go to escape. People go to pasta restaurants because of the way that the restaurant made them feel — not just what they were served. So I think chefs are safe in that regard.

Even if you’re ordering a grilled cheese sandwich, it comes with service, it comes with music, it comes with the energy of other people eating around you. And I think that the restaurants offer a vibe. We’re selling a vibe, at the end of the day. And we just so happen to serve a plate of food with that vibe.

There’s also a conversation right now about representation in cooking. And how people have been failed. What are your hopes for the future of the restaurant industry?

I think representation matters so much, not just in the forward-facing positions. It’s also in investments and investors and editors and critics. There needs to be a diverse group of people in the food industry at all levels. I wrote an article a few years ago, “A Jury of My Peers.” It talked about a Dave Chappelle skit where a person was arrested. It was kind of like a play on Law and Order. And at the end there was a white guy getting arrested for something silly. And the judge was like, “You’re being judged by a jury of your peers. So this is a fair trial.” And the jury was all Black dudes with stereotypical… you know, Tims, do-rags, all this stuff.

But that’s a reality for us when we’re being judged in the courtroom and out of the courtroom by people that have no emotional connection to our culture at all. So then how can we, how can that food be reported on fairly and effectively? How can awards be given out fairly and effectively if there’s no connection to a culture that is unlike theirs [the critic’s] or something that seems a little bit foreign?

I think that’s what really needs to change for this industry to really change. We need somebody diversifying the boards of these awards and the boardrooms where people are planning out magazines. We need to be diversifying the people that are going out and sourcing the talent and putting people on the radar.

I also feel like there are conversations about how food is produced happening more these days. Are you excited about where like the future of American agriculture and the products that you’re able to serve when you’re cooking are headed?

People are more conscious about it now, but I also think it is a gimmick and that’s where it’s a little bit frustrating. “Farm to table” or “buy local” — if you’re responsible, you should be doing that anyway. It doesn’t need to be something that’s broadcasted. Cause then when you don’t have it, it’s a false narrative, right? Because we do have to run out and get something every now and then. We do run out of things and need to just get whatever’s close by to make service happen.

But if you’re thinking consciously, you should be doing these things anyway. And I’m excited for diners to really have the knowledge of what it takes to procure ingredients. Then they’ll think about that in terms of food waste and how much they’re wasting food. Cause we throw out 30% of all food that’s produced, which is a disgusting number when one in five children are hungry every single day.

So we’ve got a ways to go, but I’m always excited about it. I’m always optimistic.

Do you, do you know what your next big cooking project will be coming out of the quarantine? Or is that still kind of in flux?

It’s in flux. I talk to someone who wants to open a restaurant every single week. It’s just about waiting for the right time.

When you take those meetings, how do you describe your own cooking philosophy? Like what stuff excites you and what stories you want to tell on the plate coming out of the pandemic?

Stories excite me, always. That’s what most of my restaurants have been built around, down to the name. True narratives excite me. That’s where the learning begins. You get to learn about someone’s culture. You get to learn about them as a person. You get to learn about the vibe that they’re trying to create.

I think that’s the beautiful thing about opening a restaurant — creating this piece of art that can be enjoyed and interpreted through different lenses based on the person who had the glasses on.So I’m taking my time, you know? It has to be the right person to do the restaurant with the right place, the right time, the right location… everything.

Do you see yourself continuing to cook for a long time? I mean, there are so many people who have made their name as chefs and then want to get into other parts of the industry or want to be camera facing. But do you see yourself cooking for a long time?

In some capacity. I may not be physically in a place cooking every day, but I’ll have an influence on the menu and create a space for people to enjoy my cuisine. I think that’s important in this industry, but I also think it’s not necessary.

People are becoming “more than a chef” because being a chef doesn’t just mean operating a restaurant. It means being a leader and knowing about food, obviously, and how to operate. But there are so many different ways you can take this beautiful craft and craft it into something that you want to do, that makes you happy, that excites you.

I’m excited to find out what those things are for you as things open up. Talk to me about this beer partnership you’re doing. How did that all come about?

I’ve been working with Guinness for about three years now — doing events in person, creating recipes, I even went out to Ireland and cooked for this huge, huge meat-centric event utilizing Guinness. So it’s something that I’ve always been drawn to. I lived in Africa and it’s extremely popular there. I think it’s like the second-largest importer of Guinness. And it’s a part of the culture in Nigeria. It’s the first beer I tasted. It’s something that my family drinks.

I just thought it just made sense for me. There’s so much depth of flavor within Guinness. It’s not like your average beer. It’s more than that. It’s a true, true beverage that can lend itself to cooking and drinking because of its complex flavor profile.

When you think of cooking with beer, what dishes do you think it really lends itself to?

You know, it’s really good in Shepherd’s Pie, obviously. As it reduces, all those caramel notes come out, those multi flavors and the sugars are more pronounced. So it gets really, really glaze-y. And then speaking of glaze-y, I’ve made glazed short ribs with Guinness — adding that to the braising liquid. And then reducing that braising liquid.

I also make… I call them guonions. It’s Guinness caramelized onions to put on top of a burger.

We’ve talked about kind of where the food world is heading. You’re talking about fusions and bringing ingredients from one part of the world into foods from another part of the world, et cetera. There’s been a lot of conversation around kind of appropriation in food, which is a serious conversation, but many chefs seem to balance those concerns with saying, “Look, this is what food does. This is it, you know, it mixes and matches and melds with each other.” What’s your thought process on that? Is that something that you hope to celebrate and see more of? More of those fusions, more people drawing inspiration from all over the place?

Yeah. That’s the beauty of food. I have a saying with my cooks, when they create something or when I create something — “Nothing is new under the sun. It’s been done before.” Maybe it wasn’t done by a famous person. Maybe it wasn’t in a magazine, but it’s been done before. So we shouldn’t think of ourselves as grand wizards. You know what I mean?

So, yeah, I think people should have fun. And I think people should be playful because it’s, it’s an art form that we get to ingest. At the end of the day, it’s sustenance. There’s a lot of history involved with cuisine, which needs to be respected and honored, but at the end of the day, we’re creating edible art. You know, we’re creating art, you can ingest. And with that, it’s left to interpretation.