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.”
And so it was, Kwame came to be featured as a young entrepreneur in the New York Daily News when he was just 21. The piece reports jobs catering a party for Latrell Sprewell, a Sandra Bullock movie, an AIDS fundraiser at Alfre Woodard’s house in Harlem.
“I turned down no catering gig. Soccer practice? I’m there. Parent-teacher conference? I’m doing it. Anything I could do, I’d do. So I was just hustling. I did a hundred thousand dollars in sales in my first year but of course I didn’t know what to do with it. I was 20 years old. Like taking trips to Paris, just blowing all this money.”
Isn’t it annoying to meet people who are this actualized? Sorry, inspirational, I meant to say inspirational. Still, if there’s one thing that makes self-made success stories like Kwame tolerable, it’s that they occasionally grow to envy the overeducated as much as we envy them.
“I felt like I hit this glass ceiling because I only taught myself how to cook, and I only cooked through experience, watching my Mom,” Kwame says. “So, now I had this catering company and I always wanted to go to the CIA, The Culinary Institute of America, but [before] I couldn’t afford it. It’s like, 70 grand to learn how to flip some fucking eggs? But it’s a benchmark, just to be able to say you got through it. So, that’s when I took a step back and I’m like,’Let me do something for myself instead of taking trips.’ So, I went to school, applied, got in.”
Getting his school training and running a business concurrently turned out to have advantages all its own, ones that Kwame hadn’t even foreseen (and this is a guy who quit his job to sell candy because of a hunch).
“So, now I had this catering company. And then the kids were like, ‘You have a catering company? You’re our age?’ They’re like, ‘We’ll come and work for you for free, just so we can get some experience.’ So every weekend, we’d all head down to the city after class and prep and execute an event, like weddings — plated weddings, things on top of Madison Square Garden, you name it. And I was able to pay my way through culinary school by doing that. That’s where the candy really came into play.”
It’s tempting to hate the guy. Luckily, he’s one of those people whose success seems to have given him an upbeat outlook instead of a big head. And as much as he’s accomplished — a successful catering company, working at Per Se and Eleven Madison Park (where he says he fell in love with fine dining) — The Shaw Bijou will still be his first restaurant.
“This is my baby,” Kwame says. “The food is very representative of what I cook on the show — modern American with a global inspiration.”
Don’t begrudge chefs their genre buzzwords, they’re a necessary evil. They remind me a lot of my pitch letters to editors. You want something that sounds like it’s a specific angle, but that will secretly leave you just enough wiggle room to do whatever you really want. All anyone really wants is the freedom to tell their own story.
“[The goal is to make] food where you can’t really put your finger on where it’s from,” Kwame tells me over the phone, “but it has flavors from all over the world. Every dish [at The Shaw Bijou] really resonates with me, because you’re cooking in order to share an experience, not just hitting basic techniques.”
And how do you go about sharing the experience of growing up with a Creole mother and a Nigerian/Jamaican father in the insane culinary melting pot of New York? Well, hopefully, you make it taste really good.
“Probably my favorite dish [on The Shaw Bijou menu] was inspired by chicken and lamb over rice. I grew up eating that, especially as a cook. And our version is a rice chip, topped with lamb sweetbread that’s fried and glazed with chicken jus. And it has a Kashmiri sauce and a sesame emulsion with cilantro. So, it has all the flavors of the dish, but totally different. That’s one of the canapés. That’s one of my favorite dishes. They’re small, and it packs a punch, it hits all the flavor notes, all the textures. It’s cold, it’s hot, it’s crunchy, it’s soft, spicy, it’s sweet, has a lot of depth from the chicken jus. I really like that dish. I could eat a bag of them.”
Pro tip: always eat lunch before you start talking food with a chef.
The Q & A
What are your favorite and least food trends?
I like the influx of tasting menus because I don’t like to choose when I go out to eat. I like the chef to cook for me. So, I’ve seen a lot of more of those options when you go out to eat. It’s just less work.
Right, less mind work.
Exactly. And then, food trends that I dislike are probably the disingenuous farm-to-table movement that so many people are stressing. “Local” doesn’t mean good quality and it doesn’t mean it’s sustainable, either. So, I would just wish people would be more true when they say farm-to-table or local.
I mean, when anything becomes a buzz word, it sort of loses its meaning —
Exactly. A lot of restaurants, just use that word because they get their carrots from a certain farm, but then they’re getting their peppers from Mexico. And it’s like, what do you mean? You say you’re local and responsible. I can taste it in your food that that’s not the case.
Well, technically, it did come from a farm and they’re serving it at a table, so…
That’s true. That’s not what they mean. If you go to McDonald’s, that’s farm-to-table, if you think about it. But, it’s like, just cook food and be responsible. But to each their own.
What’s your philosophy on it?
I just believe in the best quality food possible. My fish on my menu’s flown in. My turbot’s flown in from Brittany, France. My hamachi is flown in from Japan. I get Wagyu beef from Oregon. I don’t think it necessarily needs to be local to be good or sustainable. And if you’re going out to eat at a restaurant, you kind of just want the best product possible. So, if I have to source carrots from two states away, I will. You can have the sweetest carrots and have the best farming practices. That’s what I’m going to do as opposed to talking about just doing stuff local.
Do you have a first food memory?
First food memory? Yes. So, my father’s Nigerian and Jamaican. My mother is Creole. My father introduced my mom to African food. And I just remember her eating – whatever she was eating – putting it in the blender, and giving it to me. It could be the spiciest food in the world, like African food. And I was all about it as a kid. It would be all over me, and it would be disgusting, but I loved it.
What are some African foods that the food world has yet to discover?
A lot. There’s a really good one called Suya. It’s a grilled beef and it’s seasoned with this suya spice. Essentially, it’s dried peppers, ground peanut powder, and black pepper and suya spice with that, and then grilled, and then sort of chopped onions and tomatoes — roasted onions and tomatoes. And that’s served back on the streets in Nigeria. There’s also Jollof rice, which is kind of like a Nigerian fried rice, but they use a chile and shrimp paste as the base. And then they use this dried smoked fish stock as the water, and tomatoes, and peppers. That’s delicious. And there’s also an Egusi stew, which are melon seeds that have been ground and toasted, and cooked with spinach and palm oil. And then once again that dried fish stock — that dried smoked fish stock as a liquid to cook it in. And then you would braise meats in that and eat that with pounded yam. So, there’s a lot.
There’s a lot of different, really interesting things that the [mainstream food] world isn’t really privy to. I don’t think it will ever be because it’s not really very approachable.
What makes it not approachable?
I would just say it’s not approachable because you can’t really relate to it in another type of cuisine. I mean yeah, there are certain nuances, like the shrimp paste may be indicative in South East Asia, but as a whole I don’t think they’re going to be things that people ever eat every day, like Chinese food and Sushi. Things that have been widely accepted by American culture. I just don’t think certain foods are fit for that. But, it doesn’t mean that people won’t be aware of it, and if they had it, they would love it.
Okay, now for the important questions: Home fries or hash browns?
Hash browns all day. [This sounded like an honest answer, but it’s possible that he just knew it was the right answer for me. He did claim to be a fan of my work at the beginning of the conversation. One never knows. -Ed.]
Lastly, what’s your favorite food movie?
My favorite food movie? Ratatouille, all day. That’s easy.
That’s the only answer I’ve ever gotten from that question.
There’s no other ones that are accurate. That’s the most accurate one.
In closing, Kwame humbly asks for your vote for Top Chef Fan Favorite. Even though I’m pretty sure Isaac’s going to win.
Vince Mancini is a writer, comedian, and podcaster. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.
BONUS RECIPE FROM CHEF KWAME
Braised Duck Leg in Egusi Stew
Total time: 2 hrs
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
4 duck quarters, skin removed
1 cup palm oil
2 cups ground egusi seeds (melon seeds)
2 tablespoons ground dried shrimp
2 tablespoons shrimp paste in hot chili oil
1 ½ quarts chicken stock
1/3 cup spinach leaves
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Salt to taste
Preheat oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit.
In an oven-safe large sauce pan over medium high heat, place the vegetable oil. Season the duck legs with salt and place in pan to brown, about three minutes on each side. Remove from pan and set aside.
In the same pan, add the palm oil and egusi seeds and sauté on medium low heat for 10 minutes. Add the shrimp powder and shrimp paste and sauté for another 3 minutes. Add the chicken stock, spinach leaves, cayenne, and duck quarters. Bring to a simmer.
Cover with a lid and place in oven or simmer an hour and a half, or until the legs are fork tender. Remove the pot from the oven and season with salt.
Serve as is, over rice or with pounded yam.