What Happened To Kwame Onwuachi After Appearing On Top Chef?

Kwame Onwuachi posing
Kwame Onwuachi posing - Arturo Holmes/Getty Images
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Prior to being a contestant on Season 13 of Bravo's hit TV show "Top Chef," Kwame Onwuachi had worked at some exceptional restaurants. This included staging at Thomas Keller's Michelin-starred restaurant Per Se and working as a line cook at Eleven Madison Park. These culinary experiences, and the skills he'd developed during his childhood, ensured Onwuachi thrived upon entering the "Top Chef" studios.

After days of grueling competition, the fresh-faced 26-year-old placed sixth, a great achievement for one of the show's youngest competitors. Even better than the placing, however, was the impact Onwuachi had on viewers. His personality, excellent cooking skills, and gripping backstory made him one of the season's biggest stars. Onwuachi was also a firm favorite of judges.

The exposure "Top Chef" gave Onwuachi looked set to send him and his soon-to-be-opened restaurant The Shaw Bijou into the culinary stratosphere. But life as a chef is rarely that straightforward.

Read more: The 101 Best Pizzas In America

He Opened The Shaw Bijou, And It Tanked

Staff in the Shaw Bijou
Staff in the Shaw Bijou - Gorsuch Holdings/YouTube

The Shaw Bijou was expected to open around three to four months after Kwame Onwuachi exited "Top Chef." It ended up being approximately eight months. Thanks to this extended wait and the exposure gained via "Top Chef," the opening of The Shaw Bijou became one of the most anticipated gastronomic events of the year.

For Onwuachi, the run-up to The Shaw Bijou's opening was not smooth. He lost his executive sous chef Michael Ellish a few weeks before the restaurant opened. After disagreeing on several issues, including price, Ellish decided to take the position of executive chef at Barrel. Ellish's announcement came about a month after Onwuachi announced the price of dinner at The Shaw Bijou: $185 for a tasting menu. When drinks, service, and tax were added, this number ballooned to nearly $1,000.

Upon opening, few thought the food was worth the price. Onwuachi's skills were displayed through dishes like Alaskan king crab served with bottarga, but too often the food was served cool and the narrative that surrounded them seemed forced. Bad reviews started rolling in and Onwuachi was forced to adapt, cutting the tasting menu from 13 courses to seven and lowering the price to $95 including a complimentary cocktail.

Unfortunately for Onwuachi, these changes were too little too late as The Shaw Bijou announced its closure just 10 weeks after opening. What should have been Onwuachi's finest moment quickly became an unmitigated disaster.

Onwuachi Became Executive Chef At Kith And Kin

Kith and Kin's dining room
Kith and Kin's dining room - DC Chamber of Commerce/YouTube

A person's true character is revealed in times of hardship, not success. And after The Shaw Bijou closed, Onwuachi demonstrated an impressive degree of tenacity. Just seven months after seeing his dreams dashed, he became executive chef of Kith and Kin, an Afro-Caribbean restaurant located at the InterContinental Washington, D.C.

Taking on a new role so soon -- and in the same city where The Shaw Bijou had failed -- was a bold move. But Onwuachi felt empowered by his previous experience, as he highlighted to the Michelin Guide: "The biggest takeaway I gained from it was losing the fear of failure [...] it showed that I am able to pick myself up and keep going no matter the obstacle or circumstance."

Despite the criticism leveled at The Shaw Bijou's narrative-style menu, Onwuachi stuck to this theme at Kith and Kin, creating another menu inspired by his life experiences. This time, however, he also featured recipes and inspiration from the wider African diaspora. He chose to do this because the restaurant's D.C. neighborhood (the Wharf) had a direct connection with the slave trade. The result was a menu featuring the likes of Trinidadian goat roti, Nigerian jollof rice, and Ethiopian sambusas.

Kith and Kin opened in October 2017. Early reviews were positive and momentum began to build. Soon diners were lauding Onwuachi's creativity and critics were celebrating the autobiographical culinary style that they'd dismissed only two years before.

In 2018, He Opened The First Philly Wing Fry

Onwuachi at Philly Wing Fry
Onwuachi at Philly Wing Fry - jakesauser/X, formerly known as Twitter

Philly Wing Fry was a concept Kwame Onwuachi first tried as a pop-up in 2016. The idea was simple: a cheap, fast establishment that served three things Onwauchi loves: Philly cheesesteaks, chicken wings, and waffle fries. Onwuachi made several tweaks to these familiar dishes: his cheesesteak was made with 50-day, dry-aged ribeye and provolone cheese, the wings were glazed with tamarind, and his waffle fries were flavored with berbere.

The first permanent Philly Wing Fry opened in the South Capitol Hill Whole Foods Market in October 2018. This was followed by a second location that opened in the Northeast food hall in December of the same year. The public met both locations with enthusiasm.

Despite positive reviews, both Philly Wing Fry locations closed before the end of 2019. Onwuachi made this decision so he could focus on Kith and Kin and other upcoming ventures as he explained to Washington City Paper: "It's very enticing for chefs, especially in my position, to open another restaurant and another restaurant, but you spread yourself too thin [...] I still have a lot of growing and learning to do."

One Year Later, His Book Was Released

Young adult version of book
Young adult version of book - BigIkeCulinary/X, formerly known as Twitter

Kwame Onwuachi's first book "Notes From a Young Black Chef" was published by Knopf in April 2019. The book charts Onwuachi's life from its beginnings in the Bronx through to the opening of The Shaw Bijou.

While food and cooking play a central role in the book, "Notes From a Young Black Chef" is really about Onwuachi's experience as a Black chef living and working in the United States. This reality is not always pretty, as Onwuachi recalled in an interview with NPR: "These [racist] jokes happen more than you think. We get looked over [for advancement] more than you think. And it's not the direct racism ... it's the unspoken racism that's hurtful."

Onwuachi hoped that sharing his story would make professional cooking more open and welcoming to minorities. It definitely did; after publishing, many Black food professionals reached out and thanked Onwuachi for validating their experiences. The impact of the book was further amplified by it being adapted for the young adult audience. A feature-length film adaptation of the book by independent entertainment company A24 starring LaKeith Stanfield will only extend the book's impact further.

Onwuachi Also Won A Plethora Of Awards In 2019

Onwuachi at James Beard Awards
Onwuachi at James Beard Awards - Bryan Bedder/Getty Images

Kith and Kin opened in 2017, but it was 2019 when the accolades started to roll in. While several of these awards were focused on the restaurant -- such as its inclusion in Esquire's list of best new restaurants in America -- the vast majority celebrated Kwame Onwuachi.

The list of awards Onwuachi won in 2019 is staggering. It includes being named Rising Star Chef of the Year at the James Beard Awards, Esquire's Chef of the Year, one of Food & Wine's Best New Chefs 2019, and a member of Time Magazine's 100 Next. These awards acknowledged not only the creativity of Onwuachi's cooking at Kith and Kin but also its cultural importance.

By centering Black stories through cooking at Kith and Kin, and being incredibly successful while doing so, Onwuachi created a space that few Black customers had experienced before. This is bigger than any one award or person as Onwuachi admitted in an interview with Food & Wine: "You were able to see people inherently celebrate their own culture while celebrating a special experience [...] It [Kith and Kin] was bigger than me. People were finally able to go out and get dressed up, but still eat oxtails and curry goat and jerk chicken, and propose in the dining room."

During The Coronavirus Pandemic, Onwuachi Returned To The Bronx

World Central Kitchen sign
World Central Kitchen sign - Chef José Andrés/YouTube

Kith and Kin was going from strength to strength before the Coronavirus struck. Then, just like every other restaurant, its kitchen ground to a halt. For Kwame Onwuachi, the pandemic gave him a moment to reflect, and, like many other people during this time, he traveled home.

In the Bronx, Onwuachi put his culinary skills to good use, volunteering alongside José Andrés for World Central Kitchen. The two chefs cooked meals for the community, a practice that Onwuachi loved. In an interview with The New York Times, he said: "It was inspiring to cook for the community. It wasn't, 'Oh the nuances, this curry doesn't have enough anise seed in it.' They were just like, 'Thank you for this food.'" Onwuachi also worked alongside Rosa Garcia catering for 2,000 first responders per day from the kitchen at Mott Haven Bar and Grill.

Onwuachi's activism did not end there. In November 2021, he worked in partnership with Lehman College and Montefiore Health System giving out food for Thanksgiving meals. These meals were given to students in the Bronx, and Onwuachi also held cooking demonstrations about how to use them with the overriding goal of increasing awareness about food insecurity in and around campus.

Eventually, He Left Kith And Kin

Kwame Onwuachi smiling
Kwame Onwuachi smiling - John Nacion/Getty Images

Kith and Kin reopened in June 2020. One month later, Kwame Onwuachi resigned. It was later revealed that the owners had rejected his request for shared ownership. In an interview with The New York Times, Onwuachi said: "Something that profits off of Black and brown dollars should be Black-owned. It's something that's very, very important to me and something that I want to achieve in the future."

After leaving Kith and Kin, Onwuachi flirted with acting. He had a supporting role in "Sugar," a film about drug-dealing influencers that was released in 2022. Onwuachi added another acting credit to his name when he secured a cameo in the movie adaption of his book, "Notes from a Young Black Chef."

Kith and Kin did not do so well. The restaurant failed to survive Onwuachi's leaving and was replaced by Moon Rabbit, a Vietnamese restaurant headed by Kevin Tien. Like Onwuachi, Tien used the restaurant as a means of examining his own identity through food. Moon Rabbit closed during a unionization effort in May 2023.

In 2021, He Appeared On Top Chef As A Judge

Kwame as Top Chef judge
Kwame as Top Chef judge - Bravo

Five seasons after he appeared on "Top Chef" as a contestant, Kwame Onwuachi returned to the TV program as a guest judge. From Onwuachi's perspective, this was a great learning opportunity as it allowed him to develop his understanding of the critiquing process.

For that season's contestants, Onwuachi not only offered his guidance and support but did so while understanding the stresses they were under. He described this in an interview with Mashed: "I was able to judge from a point of empathy. I've been in their shoes. So, it wasn't coming from a place of not knowing exactly what it's like to be in these challenges, to have these times of stress, [to] being thrust into this new environment."

Onwuachi's appearance as a judge also heralded the growing emphasis "Top Chef" is placing on cuisines from the African diaspora. This was most clearly demonstrated in Episode 3: "Pan African Portland." During this episode, contestants had to cook food inspired by a tour of Portland's African restaurants. Onwuachi led the tour alongside Gregory Gourdet. Both men helped judge the final dishes.

Onwuachi Founded The Family Reunion Alongside Sheila Johnson

Kwame speaking at Family Reunion
Kwame speaking at Family Reunion - Shannon Finney/Getty Images

Kwame Onwuachi and Sheila Johnson, CEO and founder of Salamander Hotels & Resorts, launched the Family Reunion in August 2021. This food festival aimed to develop and celebrate racially diverse hospitality professionals through workshops, talks, and social interactions. It was a huge success and has since been held annually. Many of the most prominent Black food professionals in the U.S. have made appearances at the Family Reunion including Carla Hall, Mashama Bailey, and Gregory Gourdet.

Many people laud the quality and variety of sessions held at the Family Reunion. In the 2023 edition alone there were sessions on everything from Black and Brown wine producers to masterclasses on jerk. It was the prospect of sharing a variety of Black and brown contributions that attracted Onwuachi to the idea as he explained to Share Our Strength: "I've been a part of so many food festivals... and I was wondering why there wasn't anything that really just celebrated black contributions to the food industry. We need to have an event that celebrates black and brown contributions to the food industry on a black-owned property with a historical context."

The Following Year, Onwuachi Released His Second Book

Cover of Kwame Onwuachi's cookbook
Cover of Kwame Onwuachi's cookbook - Knopf Publishing Group

"My America: Recipes From a Young Black Chef" was released in May 2022 and marked Kwame Onwuachi's first foray into the world of cookbooks. Speaking to Saveur about why he decided to release it, Onwuachi said: "It's every chef's dream to have their own cookbook. I wanted to document the dishes that make me who I am, that tell my version of America. Everyone who grew up here has their own version, and this is mine."

Celebrating the blending of food and identity has been a hallmark of Onwuachi's career. As a result, many people weren't surprised to learn that each of the 125 recipes featured in the book came with some form of backstory. In this instance, however, it was not just Onwuachi's story that was being told but those of the countless enslaved Africans who were brought to the United States. By clearly highlighting the links between the dishes and the slave trade, Onwuachi provided context for each recipe and also honored the people who created them.

A large amount of research and writing was performed by the book's co-creator Joshua David Stein. As was the case for Onwuachi's previous book, the two worked in tandem. Stein teased out Onwuachi's personal stories and combined them with historical research, resulting in a book that's both personal and global.

His Restaurant Tatiana Opened In The Fall

Piri Piri Salad at Tatiana
Piri Piri Salad at Tatiana - 50 Best Restaurants TV/YouTube

Tatiana opened on November 1, 2022. That day marked Kwame Onwuachi's return to professional cooking for the first time since leaving Kith and Kin. It was also his first venture in his home city. Neither rust nor nerves were evident on opening night and the restaurant hit the ground running.

Tatiana is marketed as Afro-Caribbean. Like many of Onwuachi's ventures, this blend of cuisines is told intimately, through recipes that celebrate the various origins of his family members. For example, Egusi soup is associated with Onwuachi's Nigerian father, and Creole-style shrimp with his mother's childhood on the Gulf Coast of Texas. Despite its diasporic, international style, Tatiana remains a proudly New Yorkian restaurant. This is achieved by serving playful takes on the city's bodega foods like a chopped cheese made with bao buns, ribeye, and mozzarella.

Prior to the launch of Tatiana, Onwuachi had an interview with Women's Wear Daily. In it, he highlighted how drawing on New York's culinary scene also meant drawing on a global one: "I'm drawing from Jamaican bakeries and I'm drawing from Chinese takeout spots. I'm drawing from Italian places on Astor Place; some of the Afro-Caribbean and Nigerian places in the North Bronx." The challenge was presenting all these influences in a cohesive and impactful manner. At Tatiana, Onwuachi achieved this in style.

Tatiana Was Soon Named One Of The Best Restaurants In The Country

Kwame Onwauchi being interviewed
Kwame Onwauchi being interviewed - New York Live/YouTube

The initial reviews of Tatiana were overwhelmingly positive. Pete Wells, restaurant critic at The New York Times, gave it three out of a possible four stars, which is almost unheard of for newly opened restaurants. Like other critics, Wells appreciated the stories that Onwuachi and the team at Tatiana tell through their food; a meal there is, in a stroke, both delightful and important.

Given Tatiana's tremendous launch, awards and accolades were sure to follow. The speed with which they arrived, however, caught many people by surprise. In April 2023, just a few months after it opened, Wells named Tatiana the best restaurant in New York City, beating out institutions like Via Carota and Le Bernardin. Just one month later, the restaurant was named winner of the Resy One to Watch Award by The World's Fifty Best. This marked Tatiana as an up-and-comer in the global restaurant industry and suggests that it will soon make the global 50 best list.

Thanks to his upbringing, Onwuachi is not letting success get to his head. In an interview with Vogue he said: "In the Bronx, you've got to grow up fast. It's a tough environment. You have to be able to stand up for yourself, believe in yourself [...] that makes you focus on your craft. You don't need outside validation."

Onwuachi Was Part Of Several Collaborations

Kwame Onwuachi x Orly collaboration
Kwame Onwuachi x Orly collaboration - Orly

The combination of Kwame Onwuachi's success and his likable personality is a marketer's dream. For this reason, he has been approached by numerous brands. Perhaps the most iconic collaboration was between Onwuachi and Orly. Together, they released a limited edition range of breathable nail polishes that are suited for wearing while cooking. Money raised through the collaboration was donated to Bigs and Littles NYC, a charity that supports New York's youth.

Onwuachi has also collaborated with restaurants. In February 2023, he designed a menu with Gucci Osteria da Massimo Bottura Beverly Hills to celebrate Gucci's 4th annual collaboration with the NAACP. In the past, Onwuachi has also collaborated with the likes of Rémy Martin and Belvedere. For the former, he came up with dishes to pair with the classic Rémy sidecar cocktail. His creations were braised wagyu short ribs and grilled sea bass.

In 2023, He Announced A Return To Washington D.C.

Kwame Onwuachi and Shelia Johnson
Kwame Onwuachi and Shelia Johnson - Shannon Finney/Getty Images

During the summer of 2023, it was announced that Kwame Onwuachi was returning to Washington D.C.'s restaurant scene in partnership with Sheila Johnson. Having successfully launched the Family Reunion together, sharing a restaurant seemed like a logical second step, especially given Johnson's extensive property and hotel portfolio.

The as-yet-unnamed restaurant is set to open in 2024 inside a recently purchased hotel on Washington D.C.'s Maryland Avenue. The restaurant's concept also remains under wraps. Given both Onwuachi and Johnson's previous work, we assume it will focus on Black, African, and diasporic cuisines.

While much remains unknown, we are sure the restaurant will not be the beginning of an extensive chain. Instead, it will be one of the few establishments associated with Onwuachi. The mercurial chef has no plans to develop an empire as he explained to Robb Report: "I don't know how many restaurants I want to open. I don't think I want a lot, just something manageable. Not even that—I want something intentional [...] Having a bunch of restaurants can dilute a message. I don't think I'll be having a bajillion."

Read the original article on Daily Meal.