Top Chef’s Kwame Onwuachi Explains How He Used Costco Candy To Finance His Dreams

Senior Editor
02.25.16 17 Comments

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Top Chef
Season 13 competitor Kwame Onwuachi might be a long shot to win fan favorite this year, if only because he had the misfortune of being on the same show as Isaac Toups, a sort of jolly Cajun Santa Claus who seems like he’d fill the children’s stockings with roux and hushpuppies while cracking raunchy jokes. But if there was a vote for “Most Inspirational,” Kwame would win going away.

The difference between Top Chef and most other cooking competitions is that Top Chef contestants tend to be fairly accomplished already. They didn’t get there by losing 100 pounds or by having a relative battling cancer. By and large, they’re executive chefs running major restaurants, many of whom have already won awards and achieved some level of prestige. As such, there isn’t as much room (or need) for human interest angles (which is nice, actually). Yet on a show that’s relatively light on backstory, the 26-year-old Bronx native stands out, casually revealing a new character nuance almost every episode.

He sold candy on the subway to finance a business. He dealt drugs. He dabbled in rap and poetry and released a mix tape. All this despite looking like he’d get carded at an R-rated movie. What other multitudes does this guy contain?

Well, for one thing, he’s opening a new restaurant this year, The Shaw Bijou, in DC, at which he plans to offer an ambitious, multi-course menu in a former residential space. The space will have just 28 seats and serve 17 courses in all, Kwame says. Ambitious, because with so few seats and so many courses, turnover is low, meaning the pressure is on to provide a real “special occasion” kind of experience that loyal customers will come back for (and presumably pay a lot to enjoy). It’s just the sort of ballsy plan you’d expect from a guy who’s living his dream thanks to a decision to sell candy on the subway.

Oh, about that: It turns out, there’s a lot more to the Kwame Sold Candy On The Subway Story than we saw on Top Chef (maybe they’re saving the full reveal for sweeps week?). Turns out, it’s more than just a funny aside. Turns out, it’s practically an origin story. A defining moment, even.

“This was five or six years ago — I was actually working at Craft for [Top Chef judge] Tom Colicchio — I was waiting tables,” Kwame says. “And my mother, she had a catering company growing up and I used to help out. My chores were like stirring roux and peeling shrimp and things like that. When I got older, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. So I figured I’d start my own catering company, but I needed capital. I was on the train coming home from working at Craft one day, and there were a couple of kids selling candy. And usually in New York City they sell candy on the train for a basketball team or something like that. I kind of just laughed at it, and then I was like, ‘Wait a minute, this kid just made like five dollars in two minutes.’ And then I was like, how much is that an hour? …What is an eight-hour shift of that? Like $600 a week?”

One thing you notice immediately about Kwame is that he does math fast. This may be an important predictor of future success that hasn’t been studied enough.

“And so the next day I went back to Craft and I quit. I bought a sh*tload of candy from BJ’s and Costco. I went on the train and started selling candy. Within two months, I saved up enough money to get catering insurance, formulate an LLC, get my own commercial space. I started catering in the city, and then I really made a name for myself.”

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