Kwame Onwuachi can’t say much about the new restaurant he’ll be opening in the InterContinental Hotel at the Wharf later this year. He won’t talk about the timing, except to say that it will be a part of the wave of October openings in the complex. He won’t discuss the restaurant’s name. And he won’t reveal the concept, at all: “I don’t want to say something and change my mind,” he said.
You can hardly fault him for keeping the details close to the vest. Onwuachi’s last restaurant, Shaw Bijou, saw nearly a year of hype, following his stint on “Top Chef.” And it didn’t exactly work out to his benefit. After he revealed the restaurant’s price — nearly $1,000 for dinner for two, with the wine pairings — it kicked off a wave of bad publicity that began in August, long before the restaurant’s November opening, and quickly became its undoing. He was forced to cut those prices in January, and eliminate plans for a members-only bar on the second floor. The restaurant closed in January, a mere three months after it opened, and around the same time that Onwuachi was named to the Forbes 30 under 30 list for food.
Onwuachi, originally from New York, could have walked away from a city that didn’t exactly roll out the red carpet for him — he was criticized for being too inexperienced to open a restaurant that ambitious. But after he licked his wounds, Onwuachi decided to stay.
“It wasn’t hard for me to stay. It’s become home,” he said. “I feel like I have a great support system here. “
And the strong reaction to his first Washington endeavor hasn’t left him bitter. “I feel like I did something, and it was critiqued, and that’s what happens when you put yourself out there,” he said.
When Shaw Bijou closed, Onwuachi took some time to himself. He did a few events with chef Danny Lee of Mandu and Erik Bruner-Yang of Maketto. He also traveled to Curacao, Mexico and Colombia, “Just to get some inspiration. Travel always opens your eyes, it always influences your cooking, and it’s a direct lens into someone’s culture.”
Asked if those travels would be reflected in the Wharf restaurant’s concept, he demurred, and not for the first time in the interview. His move to the Wharf “has been in the works for a while,” he said. The restaurant has private owners, but when he was asked to discuss the ownership structure and its relationship with the hotel, Onwuachi’s publicist interjected and said they could not provide that information.
As for the look of the future restaurant: His Instagram account may offer a few hints.
And he did offer up one small kernel of what D.C. diners can expect. He’s been researching the history of the neighborhood throughout time.
“There’s a lot of deep roots in history, whether it’s the Great Migration from the south, the Civil War, the Native Americans that treaded on that land before,” he said. “There’s so much rich history that’s involved there,” and much of it has influenced the concept — along with his own autobiography.
Onwuachi’s personal narrative was threaded throughout the menu at Shaw Bijou as well, but this restaurant will be different — conceptually and emotionally.
“There’s a lot of lessons learned from the last restaurant. The thing I take away the most is to never lose sight of your vision and your dreams,” he said. “It’s not how many times you get knocked down, it’s how many times you get back up that count. … I think I’m a testimony to that. I want to carry that into this next project.”
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