Chef Kwame’s ready to show D.C. a fine-dining experience unlike any other
By Tim Carman March 1
Chef Kwame Onwuachi, self-assured as he prepares to open Shaw Bijou in the District, his first restaurant. (April Greer for The Washington Post)
As he stands alone onstage at the Bitten conference in New York, sporting a tailored royal-blue blazer, white shirt and khakis, Kwame Onwuachi looks at ease in the spotlight. He’s dropping jokes and f-bombs like a comedian. His composure, in fact, is almost preternatural considering that, in just a matter of months, the 26-year-old chef expects to open a high-end, high-concept restaurant in Washington with only a limited amount of fine-dining experience to his credit.
Onwuachi’s forthcoming Shaw Bijou, an eight-table restaurant and members-only lounge on Ninth Street NW, might strike old-timers and traditionalists as folly: A former line cook at New York’s celebrated Eleven Madison Park has elevated himself to executive chef, ready to charge diners $150 or more for a tasting-menu journey through his globally influenced modern American food. Is he precocious? Or the Don Quixote of cooking?
As Onwuachi unspools his personal narrative to a packed auditorium at the Feb. 12 Bitten conference, the Shaw Bijou seems no more improbable than the rest of his history to date. A malcontent at age 10, Onwuachi is packed off to Nigeria to live with his grandfather, a former Howard University professor. At 21, he’s selling candy on New York City subways to raise money for his catering company. At 25, he’s tapped to appear on Bravo’s “Top Chef” and is entertaining million-dollar offers to back his debut restaurant.
After the Bitten talk, Onwuachi quickly becomes the main attraction at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Lower Manhattan, where the conference is taking place. Well-wishers, opportunists, social-media strategists and future diners all approach him during the lunch break, either to express their admiration or to pitch him an idea. By the time lunch is over — Onwuachi doesn’t eat a thing — he is clutching a handful of business cards. One is from a literary agent who wants to sell the chef’s story.
Onwuachi seems simultaneously proud and taken aback by the attention. “It’s sometimes overwhelming,” he says, finally alone in the hallway. “Everyone wants to pretty much work with me.”
An orange for his birthday
As one of three Washingtonians to compete on this season’s “Top Chef” — only Ripple and Roofers Union chef Marjorie Meek-Bradley remains as of presstime — Onwuachi cut an impressive figure while surviving weeks of the standard kitchen-based booby traps devised for the contestants. He radiated professionalism, getting rattled only a few times, including once in an episode where he had to reflect on his strained relationship with his critical father. The main thing that seemed to distract him was any statuesque woman who walked on set.
Girl crushes aside, Onwuachi seems self-possessed beyond his years. His maturity is striking when you consider that Onwuachi (pronounced on-WATCH-ee) has never been an executive chef at a restaurant, anywhere. He has run his own catering company and has worked in kitchens from New Orleans to New York. But he has neither overseen nor managed the many moving parts of a full-service, fine-dining experience.
So where does his confidence come from? And how did this Bronx native, whose food few people have tasted outside of a series of pop-up dinners around the country, become the face of the next highly anticipated D.C. dining room? You can chalk it up partly to Onwuachi’s captivating life story and to his television appearances. Mostly, though, it seems to come down to the usual suspects: hard work and luck. The talented chef has found perhaps the only investors in Washington willing to bankroll his dream, regardless of whether or not it makes money.
Onwuachi was born in Long Island to a mother who worked as an accountant and a father who worked in construction and architecture. His parents split when Onwuachi was 2, and the boy lived with his mother and older sister, Tatiana, in the Bronx. As a single mother, Jewel Robinson decided she wanted to spend more time with her kids, so she quit her job and began working as a caterer for crews on television commercials, music videos and magazine shoots.
His mother’s work would serve as Onwuachi’s gateway into cooking. Robinson would begin food prep wherever the family called home — the trio moved frequently, the chef says — and would draft her children into kitchen duties. They might peel shrimp or stir roux for gumbo. Onwuachi recalls that, as a boy, he would take his mother’s leftover ingredients and prepare dishes while she worked an event. Onwuachi tends to share these childhood stories to make a point: At a young age, he was already accumulating knowledge that would lead to an eventual, perhaps inevitable, career as a chef.
Onwuachi earned a spot in the gifted program in the New York public school system, where he could earn good grades without studying. But he was also trouble, pranking students and teachers alike. He lost so many pairs of eyeglasses that his mother put chains on them.
The breaking point for Robinson came when her son lied about throwing away her cutting board. She could live with an absent-minded prankster, but not a liar. She packed him off to Nigeria to stay with his paternal grandfather, Patrick Chike Onwuachi, who had moved back to his native country after a distinguished career in academia.
Kwame Onwuachi in 1990. (Onwuachi family photo)
The boy, then 10, thought he was staying for the summer. Onwuachi lived in a remote area of Nigeria for two years. Electricity was sporadic. Water had to be fetched from a well. If he wanted to eat chicken, he had to raise and kill the bird himself, usually through his own tears, because he had already named the animal. For one of his birthdays in Nigeria, the boy received an orange.
When Onwuachi returned home in 2002, his mom took him to the first place he wanted to visit: KFC, for a six-piece order of dark-meat chicken.
“At that moment, at that age, I was like, ‘I now get it. This doesn’t even taste good to me,’ because I knew everything that [the birds] went through,” Onwuachi says. “I’m tearing up just thinking about it.”
From a catering company to the CIA
It would be glib, and inaccurate, to say Africa changed Onwuachi. He continued to frustrate his educators but still graduated from Bronx Leadership Academy in 2007. After dropping out of business administration studies at the University of Bridgeport, he moved to Louisiana to work for his mother, who had started as a hotel chef in Baton Rouge.
But Onwuachi was soon lured away by oil money. BP was hiring cooks to feed the crews cleaning up the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon spill. The gig threw him into the deep end, metaphorically speaking: He eventually became head chef of a 40-person boat, where he was cut off from the Internet and his mom, two vital sources of culinary knowledge.
With money from the BP gig, Onwuachi moved back to New York in 2010 and eventually started waiting tables at Craft, “Top Chef” co-host Tom Colicchio’s well-regarded restaurant in Manhattan. But Onwuachi wasn’t satisfied with front-of-the-house work; the cooking bug had bitten him hard.
That same year, almost on a dare from a SoHo shop owner who needed small bites for a grand opening, Onwuachi decided to enter the catering business. So at 21, to raise capital, he quit Craft and starting selling candy on subway trains — quick, uncomplicated fundraising. It’s a story that Onwuachi has told repeatedly, his signature anecdote to summarize his ambition and industry.
No job was too small, or too complicated, for Onwuachi’s Coterie Catering, which he operated for about a year and a half. Whether a client wanted Puerto Rican or Brazilian cuisine, Onwuachi would research and prepare it. “That’s really where my style of cooking started to come about,” he says about his globally influenced fare.
But frustrated by his limitations, Onwuachi enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., in 2012. There, he met Bruce Mattel, the associate dean of food production, whose catering textbook had helped guide Coterie’s work. Mattel would become a mentor to Onwuachi. Part of his job, Mattel says, was trying to channel the student’s many ambitions.
Between catering and classwork, “there were times that it got a little precarious” for Onwuachi, Mattel says. “But he managed to make it all happen.”
Onwuachi received the refinement he desired at the CIA — not to mention an externship at Per Se in New York — but he got something else, too: a future business partner by the name of Greg Vakiner, another ambitious student at the school.
The right investors appear
Onwuachi and Vakiner, also 26, are the chef and general manager of the Shaw Bijou. They’re friends who have worked together for years, catering events and catering to the 1-percenters at chef Daniel Humm’s Eleven Madison Park. Several years ago, on the roof of an Astoria apartment building where they shared a place, Onwuachi and Vakiner began brainstorming about the restaurant that will become Shaw Bijou.
As they have waited on construction permits, which were delayed in part because the Shaw rowhouse had to be rezoned as a commercial property, Onwuachi and Vakiner have had time to refine their concept: The 28-seat restaurant will take diners on a journey. Literally. They will move from one space to another, consuming a cocktail and snack in one spot, a few dishes in another, and so on. Every one of the expected 17 courses will be served on plateware custom-made for that dish, in a setting with custom furniture and lighting.
Diners will buy tickets beforehand. It will probably cost them more than $150 each, not including prepaid service fees. Diners will not be shown a menu, but instead will be asked to trust that Onwuachi and his team will prepare them something delicious (after checking for allergies and other dietary restrictions). The food will not be, like some high-priced tasting menus, a paean to jaw-dropping innovation or technique.
Expect ingredients that have defined fine dining for decades: caviar, foie gras, lobster, dry-aged beef. Don’t expect all of it to come from local producers. Neither Onwuachi nor Vakiner subscribes to what they view as the unsustainable farm-to-table movement.
“Top Chef” contestants Phillip Frankland Lee, left, and Kwame Onwuachi during the “Wok This Way” challenge. (Kim White/Bravo TV)
“I can get [ingredients] in less than 24 hours and be able to showcase the best product that I can possibly get,” says Vakiner. “So it’s still the idea of farm-to-table, but it’s not necessarily local farm-to-table.”
Onwuachi and Vakiner’s concept departs dramatically from current dining trends that emphasize casual settings, mid-priced meals and local sourcing. It also will require a steep learning curve.
“It’s a tough jump,” says D.C. chef, restaurateur and fellow “Top Chef” alumnus Mike Isabella. “Sometimes it is tough when it comes to, like, ‘All right, what’s wrong here?. . . Why are we losing money? Why are the food costs high? Why are the labor costs so high?’ ”
Yet, despite his inexperience, Onwuachi entertained several investment offers after he left Eleven Madison Park and started impressing fussy eaters as part of Dinner Lab, an innovative series of pop-up dinners. He decided on the District for one reason: Investors Kelly Gorsuch and Glenn Paik placed no conditions on their money.
“I told him, ‘The only thing I expect is that it’s a ride. It needs to be an experience all the way around, super high-end. I don’t care if it ever makes a profit. I just need it to be a beautiful part of the company,’ ” says Gorsuch, president of Gorsuch Holdings, a group of luxury hair salons and other businesses. “As long as the quality is up to my standards, I’ll live with whatever happens.”
Gorsuch and Paik’s unconventional investment strategy should go a long way toward easing Onwuachi into his D.C. debut at Shaw Bijou, which he named after the woman who first taught him to cook. (“Bijou” is French for “jewel.”) He’ll be able to focus on the dining experience without the added stress of fretting over every invoice so he can pay back his investors faster. Gorsuch and Paik have even footed the bills to send the chef and general manager to India and other locations for research and development.
Still, Onwuachi is nervous, despite all the confidence he projects.
“It’s not going to be easy,” he says. “It’s a big risk, but I didn’t get here by not taking risks.”
Onwuachi will join Wednesday’s Free Range chat at noon: