Chef Kwame Onwuachi On His "Forever Mentor" & Advice for Aspiring Chefs
Long before the days of Top Chef, A-list clients of the likes of the Obamas, JAY-Z, Beyoncé, plus other high-profile names, and many well-deserved accolades, Chef Kwame Onwuachi was driven by these words instilled in him by his mom: “You're only as good as your last plate.” The James Beard Award-winning chef and author of the critically acclaimed memoir Notes from a Young Black Chef credits his mother as his mentor and the motivation behind his sharp culinary skills. Onwuachi says, “I had a hustler’s mentality at a young age. I think back to my mom, being a single mom raising two kids in the ‘90s in New York City, while still cooking, and that gives me the strength to continue pushing forward.”
Onwuachi trained at the Culinary Institute of America in New York City and has opened five restaurants before the age of 30. He appeared as a judge on season 18 of Top Chef in April 2021 and was a contestant on the show in season 13. Currently, Onwuachi is part of cookware company OXO, Chefs in Residence. “I've always been a fan of OXO. You want to have the best thing possible so that you can perform the task. Sometimes your tools are just as important as your ingredients. So, when they reached out to be a part of the Chefs in Residence, it was a no-brainer for me to be a part of that,” Onwuachi states.
Moreover, Onwuachi currently serves as Food & Wine’s executive producer, partnering on brand events and activations. Going into 2022, Onwuachi is looking forward to releasing a recipe book, continuing his collaboration with OXO, and “getting back into the restaurant game in some capacity,” he mentions. Outside of the kitchen, Onwuachi is preparing to launch a nail polish line and make his acting debut in a forthcoming Amazon Prime movie.
Here, we chat with Onwuachi about how his upbringing has molded him as a chef and the motivation that's helped him conquer challenges.
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You were raised in New York, Nigeria, and Louisiana. How did living in these different places shape your life as a chef today?
Immensely. Starting with New York, I think being raised there just diversifies your connection to people. There are so many different types of cultures in New York City. My mother, being a chef, she really exposed me to all those different areas, from the food to the music to the arts. So, that gave me a curiosity to seek more when I did venture out to other places.
Louisiana kind of brought it back home for me because my mother's Creole. So, all those dishes that I saw, and learned and tasted, and smelled, growing up, was crystallized in physical structures - all of the different restaurants. They really reflected who I was as a child, and I was able to see myself on a plate. And then Nigeria was to get even deeply rooted within my culture, my history, my lineage, and my ancestry and have greater respect for ingredients. We had to raise our own livestock. Things didn't come as easy as they do in America. So, the respect for the land and animals came at a young age from there, as well as my lineage of who I am as an African. So yeah, all those things directly impacted my life in general, but also my career.
Awesome. You touched on several solid points, but I love the fact that your mother was a chef. Do you feel like she was your first mentor?
She's my first mentor, my forever mentor. She taught me the principles that I live by, then, most importantly, taught me how to season my food at a very young age.
Love it. How have some of the guiding principles that you've learned from your mother translated into how you cook?
Well, she has a saying, “You're only as good as your last plate.” Meaning to just finish strong in whatever you do because that's what you're going to be remembered for. So, that’s stuck with me in my career. Also, to do everything with intention and love and to believe in yourself. It’s really easy for kids these days to get sidetracked by all of this information that's pumped down their throat all the time, but having that core belief and finding one’s center is something she instilled with me at a very young age that I carry with me to this day.
Nice. I saw the recent cooking video of you, Ciara, and Cardi B. Cardi said she could not cook, and I empathize. So, for people that cook at home, do you feel like it's a talent that can be acquired with practice?
Absolutely. I think everyone can cook if they put their mind to it. Everyone can cook if they put a little love in it. Start by cooking for someone that you really, really care about. You’re really going to make sure that they're taken care of because it's an act of love. It's an act of service and it can be really, really beautiful and rewarding – most acts of service are. And don't be afraid to fail. Within those mistakes, there are great lessons.
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That’s excellent advice. Do you feel like there was ever a point in your career where you felt like giving up?
Yeah, so many times. I started a catering company when I was 21 years old and that was incredibly difficult. Staffing and running that company at a young age with minimal experience, no formal business education, besides Introduction to Business 101, but I don't even think I passed. Those were tough times. I remember cooking out of the projects for big parties. I didn't have the proper equipment to really deliver this stuff. It would take me hours or days sometimes to produce something that could be made in an hour in an industrial kitchen. Those times were tough, but there was always a mission and a light at the end of the tunnel that I was reaching towards. So, there have been many times in my career that I felt like giving up, but those are the times that you got to focus and push through because that means there's something there.
Despite those challenges, when did you realize you wanted to stick with the path to becoming a chef?
I think it was early on in my career. I was doing this tasting for this store in Soho, my first big catering gig, and I stayed up all night trying to perfect this recipe, like ten hours straight. No music. I just really focused on the recipe, and I was having fun. It did not feel like work. At that point, I was like, ‘This is what I should be doing for the rest of my life.’
As for burgeoning chefs, who’s on your radar, and what advice would you give them?
Martel Stone is at The Gathering Spot in DC. He's definitely on my radar. Don't be afraid to really believe in yourself. I know that's a simple concept, but it's scary to a lot of people. They're like, ‘Oh, why do you have so much confidence?’ “I don't know, man, because I do!” I believe that should be the answer to those questions. Why shouldn't I have so much confidence?