Ever since the Shaw Bijou closed in January after three turbulent months, chef Kwame Onwuachi has lived with a constant visual reminder of one of the fastest crash-and-burns in recent restaurant history.
And he did, every day for a month after it closed, when he was in what he refers to as his “Netflix rabbit hole” period. Seemingly everyone saw the closing of the Shaw Bijou coming except for the 27-year-old chef, who was blindsided. He got plenty of job offers in the aftermath, but he spent those days contemplating whether he should quit forever.
Onwuachi didn’t stay down for long. On Oct. 12, he will open Kith/Kin, a 96-seat restaurant in the InterContinental Hotel at the new Wharf waterfront complex. The name, which is verbalized as “Kith and Kin,” is synonymous with “friends and family,” and the restaurant will focus on cuisine from Onwuachi’s heritage, with dishes from West Africa, the Caribbean, and Creole traditions. It’s the kind of food that he was making in the Netflix rabbit hole, which he says reminded him of his roots, and of why he became a chef in the first place: “To make other people happy.”
“Just imagine someone’s giving you your dream,” he said, paraphrasing a dialogue between him and Gorsuch: ” ‘I’m gonna give you a restaurant, whatever you want.’ I’m like, oh, amazing. ‘You can do whatever you want.’ Oh, cool. ‘We’re going to get these blue velvet chairs from Copenhagen because that’s what I want.’ And I’m like, oh. I’m not really gonna say no because you’ve given me this amazing opportunity. And then it snowballed and snowballed and snowballed and at the end it was like, whoa, what’s going on here?” But he accepts the blame for his role for the final outcome, which was, he says, a restaurant that “was all packaged in a way that wasn’t authentically me. The price point wasn’t authentically me. The gaudiness of the restaurant, in itself, wasn’t authentically me.”
What is authentically Onwuachi is peel-and-eat shrimp, a dish from the Kith/Kin menu he made in his home kitchen during this interview, and which his mother, a caterer, used to make for him. It’s also jollof rice, a traditional Nigerian dish that reminds him of parties in Igbuzo, the Nigerian town where he lived for a few years with his grandparents as a child. It’s Jamaican beef patties and coco bread; it’s moimoi, a Nigerian bean pudding shaped and fried into fritters; it’s roti with spicy braised goat.
“When I was approached to put a concept in, I was like, ‘Oh, I’m going to do what I’ve been doing, of course. Modern American,’ ” he said. “But then I was like, ‘What would speak more to who I am? What would make my family proud?’ ”
This is Onwuachi’s family: He has a French-speaking Creole great-grandmother and Trinidadian grandfather on his mother’s side, and a Jamaican grandmother and an Igbo Nigerian grandfather who used to teach at Howard University on his father’s side — all of whom shaped the Bronx-raised chef’s palate. Most formative was his time with his father’s family: At the age of 10, he went to live with his grandparents in a rural Nigerian village, where culture shock set in immediately.
“It was tough,” he said. “You go from playing PlayStation to having no electricity, trying to think of games.”
On top of that, his grandfather made him raise and kill a goat so that he would understand where his food came from. When the day came, there was “hysterical crying. I named it and everything,” he said, wistfully. “Goaty.”
Another formative food experience: Before Onwuachi went to culinary school, he landed a job as a cook on a ship working to clean up the Deepwater Horizon oil spill off the coast of Louisiana. As the only black person on the ship, he says it was the first time he truly experienced racism. He cooked Creole dishes like etouffees and gumbo, his mother’s recipes, which the crew came to prefer over the other, white cook’s food.
“When people started liking my food and not eating his food, he would throw away my food,” Onwuachi said. “He would say, ‘You people’ and call me the n-word and stuff.”
If you’re thinking that Onwuachi’s story would make a good memoir, he’s one step ahead of you: He has already written one with journalist Joshua David Stein, due to be published next summer by Knopf. In a way, Kith/Kin is a type of memoir, too.
“It’s important to me to finish telling my story, and tell the story of my people, of my grandfather, of my grandmother, of my mom,” he said.
Nigerian food, in particular, has been on the horizon of food publications as a potential Next Big Trend for two years now, and that gives Onwuachi mixed feelings. On the one hand, he’s glad to see the cuisine getting more recognition. On the other hand, “It’s kind of unfortunate sometimes that you have to associate those ethnic foods with the word refinement in order to make it a draw, or for people to want to spend money on it.”
His Afro-Caribbean food will be refined, he says — but “it’s refined because of my background,” which includes a stint at Eleven Madison Park. “It’s not refined because I’m taking it and transforming it into something that it’s not.”
For example, that jollof rice, a homey Nigerian dish, will be served with a confit of spring onions and whipped ricotta. His moimoi fritters, a vegan dish, will come with cauliflower curry and a tangerine aioli with plantain granola. In a nod to his Bronx heritage, he’ll have a bacon, egg and cheese sandwich on the brunch menu, but with house-made Jamaican coco bread and jerk bacon. And for dessert, the puff puff — a Nigerian fried dough that is the predecessor of beignets — will be topped with a vanilla creme anglaise.
Onwuachi recognizes that, for some of the visitors to the hotel and the Wharf, his restaurant could be their first experience with these cuisines, and he wants to make it approachable for them. He hopes his menu will highlight the Afro-Caribbean origins of American foods like jambalaya. He may broaden the menu beyond his heritage, too, eventually incorporating dishes from Ethiopia or Sierra Leone.
“I think every great meal is like an education experience,” he said.
There’s another reason Onwuachi chose to go with the InterContinental: He sought out an educational experience of his own. One of the biggest criticisms of the Shaw Bijou was that a chef so green — it was his first time running his own restaurant, and Gorsuch’s entrepreneurial prowess was mostly in hair salons — charged more than critically acclaimed restaurants from far more seasoned chefs. Although the restaurant is owned by the InterContinental, Onwuachi says he was given near-total creative freedom, but also the structure of a large corporation to guide his decisions.
“The people I work with now have been opening hotels and restaurants as long as I’ve been alive,” he said, and they’re teaching him how to run a business. You could almost say that it was a safe choice, except Onwuachi doesn’t believe in that. “There’s no safety in the industry. What safety am I looking for? Monetary? No. The media? No.” he said. “There’s no safety net with opening a restaurant. There’s risk.”
But there’s a bit less risk when you have a team of experts helping you design a dining room in shades of yellow, gray and cream, and manage the hiring of a team, and make sure everything is ready for an October grand opening of what will essentially amount to an entirely new neighborhood for the District. And there’s a certain safety in the price range, too: entrees will be between $12 and $26, befitting of its upscale-casual environs, but far cheaper than his previous venture. Cocktails — they’ll be rum-based, given the restaurant’s Caribbean heritage — will range from $13 to $17. The most expensive dishes on the menu will be served family-style, like a dry-aged rib-eye paired with red bean sofrito, Carolina gold rice, charred cabbage with smoked carrot yogurt, and foie gras cornbread stuffing. The large-format dishes range from $22 to $65, but they’re intended to be shared by two to four people.
But what’s really going to be different about Kith/Kin is that this time, people are rooting for Onwuachi. While some Internet commenters may have reveled in the schadenfreude of Shaw Bijou shuttering, there’s a collective sense that Onwuachi’s hazing period with Washington is over, and he’s a full-fledged member of the club. He handled the closure with humility and grace, and became a careful student of his own errors. And people who may have once scoffed at his chutzpah are now genuinely hopeful for his success. D.C. put him through its worst, and yet, he decided to stay and try again. Who wouldn’t respect that?
“I want to grow. I feel like I have a lot to learn,” he said. “Sometimes learning in the public eye is difficult, but it’s the path I chose, and I’m ready to do it again.”
Kith/Kin, 801 Wharf St. SW.
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