The young man in the baseball cap, with the brim pointed forward, seems much too serious for his age. He can’t be more than a couple of decades into life, yet his demeanor is that of a businessman perpetually seeking new outlets.
But the outlets being pondered by this young man, Chef Kwame Onwuachi, are new ventures for culinary creativity, yet the business side is also part of his empire-building, one eatery at a time. Come springtime, he will add author to his resume with the release of his memoirs.
“Notes from a Young Black Chef: A Memoir,” written with co-author Joshua David Stein, will be released April 9 by Deckle Edge. His experiences in the kitchen, plus loved recipes related to each story, are at the heart of the book.
The 29-year-old, who is at the helm of the popular restaurant on the newly refurbished D.C. Wharf, has very personal ties to the eatery he named Kith/Kin.
“I wanted to cook the way I do for friends and family,” he said. “It literally translates to ‘friends and family.’ I looked up friends and family in the thesaurus and kith and kin popped up.”
At 23, Onwuachi was a contestant on the television show “Top Chef,” which he called a “great experience.
“I learned a lot,” he said. “It put me on a national stage and definitely opened a lot of doors for me. It was very beneficial to my career. Had it not been for ‘Top Chef,’ who knows what would have happened, but I would still be cooking.”
Cooking is in Onwuachi’s blood, and it gives him a wide range of cuisines to draw from. The son of a chef, he grew up helping his mother with her catering business in the Bronx. His heritage includes Nigerian (the origin of his last name), Jamaican, Trinidadian and inflections of New Orleans Creole.
Onwuachi describes his cuisine at the stylishly glossy, 3,500-square-foot restaurant that seats 96, nestled into a corner of the InterContinental Hotel on the Wharf, as Afro-Caribbean.
“I cook for my fiancée a lot,” he said. “We cook for each other. And I cook for my mom when she is in town. We’ll cook together.”
His betrothed is from Montserrat, although Onwuachi hasn’t really explored what that cuisine is, as the island was essentially destroyed along with its culture by a volcano. And he hasn’t yet launched into the unique Creole cuisine from Haiti.
“I haven’t really explored Haitian cuisine,” Onwuachi said. “I have eaten it but I haven’t tried to cook it. But maybe it is something we will try next.
“I would say a dish should tell a story, and if a dish has a story, it has a soul,” he said stoically. “You are cooking it is to share a memory, to share an experience and not just to balance flavors. It’s more soulful than that. Every single dish that I have comes from a place where I have a good memory.
“You’ll see oxtail, you’ll see curried goat, you’ll see Jollof rice, gumbo. It’s my Thanksgiving table on the menu,” he said. “You’ll have all that on the table, and peel-and-eat shrimp.”
Onwuachi’s personal tastes have also led to his expansion beyond Kith/Kin into fast food that he loves. The result was the first Philly Wing Fry that opened last year in the South Capitol Whole Foods, and he later added a counter in the popular Union Market food haven.
Onwuachi’s food doesn’t take the traditional path of African Diaspora cuisine. Instead, he finds ways to make it different, using a variety of spices and modern techniques to create new takes on well-known and loved dishes.
“I just cook it the way I want to eat it essentially,” he said, becoming more animated the deeper he goes into revealing his food philosophy.
“I started in the kitchen at 5 years old,” he recalled. “It’s something that is a passion of mine. I do the same foods [my mother] did in her catering business. She taught me to care about the food and if you are going to make curried chicken, make your own spice blend. Peel-and-eat shrimp? Make your own Cajun spice. She taught me everything about food.
“The food speaks for itself,” he said. “We’re not trying to oversell you. People enjoy the atmosphere here. The environment we foster is welcome. When guests come in here I usually tell them, ‘Welcome home.'”
His take on jerk chicken is a tender chicken breast, bursting with juice unlike the traditional jerk, which can get somewhat dry from long hours on the zinc-covered barbecue pit. It is served with a tamarind jam and barbecue sauce on the side. The coconut rice that accompanies the chicken is not too sweet, but has the distinct tropical flavor one would expect.
The spicy goat roti is velvety smooth and melts in your mouth, accompanied by a homemade roti flatbread to roll the braised goat meat and potato and celery combination in.
Vegetarians can get lost in the Mushroom Forest, with a variety of sautéed mushrooms, pickled mushrooms, eggplant choka (a type of Trinidadian/Indian chutney) and crispy Msmen, a Moroccan flatbread fried to be crunchy but light.
Cocktails also lean towards the tropics, with names like “Coki Beach,” and “Caribbean Belt.” Palm wine and Ethiopian Tej (honey wine) may also make an appearance in the cellars.
A new duty for the young chef is overseeing his two takeout establishments, Philly Wing Fry, which pays homage to three foods Onwuachi loves.
“I thought of Philly Wing Fry 10 years ago when I was living in Queens,” he said. “I like wings, I like cheesesteaks and I like waffle fries. I didn’t know any place I could get them in one spot. So I said, ‘When I get older, I’m going to open a place called Philly Wing Fry.’ And that’s what I did.”
The wings he serves are not your typical D.C. carryout wings. His are confit wings, “cooked low and slow in chicken fat. Then we fry them and toss them in house spices like my mother’s recipes. Then we serve a tamarind sauce on the side.”
His waffle fries are tossed in Ethiopian berbere spice blend, and the cheesesteaks are seasoned with berbere too.
“We used dry-aged beef, smoked provolone and local bread,” Onwuachi said. “It is a well-crafted, thoughtful sandwich.”
But he does eat wings with mumbo sauce with his carryout pork fried rice when he is out of his own kitchen.
“I love all food, hot dogs from Costco,” he said. “I love it all, and I eat it all.”
Kith/Kin is located at the InterContinental Washington D.C. – The Wharf. Philly Wing Fry locations are in the South Capitol Whole Foods (800 New Jersey Avenue SE) and Union Market (1509 5th Street NE).