He’s working on a movie, based on his best-selling memoir, “Notes From a Young Black Chef.” He’s developing a culinary television show with Fulwell73, the production company behind “The Late Late Show with James Corden.” He’s writing a cookbook, to be published late next year or early 2021. He is a spokesperson for the Independent Restaurant Coalition, petitioning Congress to pass legislation to help save restaurants.
And he’s also making plans for his next venture: a restaurant group all his own.
With each of these endeavors, Onwuachi, 30, is keenly aware that people both inside and outside the restaurant industry are following him.
Whether we know him from his appearance as a “Top Chef” contestant, his restaurants (the short-lived French tasting menu restaurant, Shaw Bijou; fast-casual cheesesteak concept Philly Wing Fry; and critically acclaimed Kith/Kin), or his James Beard Award for Rising Star Chef, Onwuachi has never been afraid to share both his successes and his failures with us.
“I feel like people have been appreciative of the vulnerability [I’ve shown] and happy that there’s a story out there that’s not just this Cinderella story from point A to point B,” he said.
But now, Onwuachi knows that people aren’t just following him, they’re also looking to him, too.
“It comes with the territory,” he said. “There are not a lot of chefs who have achieved the accolades that I have who look like me. I know I have a job to do to continue to advocate and make sure that everyone feels included in the conversation and that they can achieve it if they put their minds to it.”
And he wants to do it on his terms. His resignation from Kith/Kin took many by surprise, but for Onwuachi, the departure was spurred by his desire for ownership.
“Owning my intellectual property. Getting paid for my ideas. Having control over my own narrative,” he said. “All those things are ownership for me.”
Anyone who has read Onwuachi’s book knows how much ambition has shaped him. It’s what has always pushed him forward, whether he was selling candy on the subway or launching his own catering company at the age of 20. Last year, in a piece for Food & Wine, he wrote, “I don’t know about anyone else but if there is another level to achieve, I inherently want to reach for it.”
The ambition is still there, but it’s shifted now.
“Right now, thinking about getting an award for cooking isn’t really, just being transparent, at the top of the list of priorities for me,” he said. “Providing for my family, spending time with my family, inspiring the next generation, providing opportunities for the next generation [matter most]. Sometimes those things do go hand in hand, you know, getting that platform, getting those awards. But you know, right now, that’s why I’m taking some time to really figure out what this restaurant group that I open is going to look like so it’s an equitable experience or opportunity for the next generation.”
As he puts it, the pandemic has been a “reflective and eye-opening experience.” In April, while Kith/Kin was closed, he cooked meals at Mott Haven Bar and Grill in the Bronx as part of The Bronx Community Relief Effort and World Central Kitchen’s efforts to feed locals affected by COVID-19.
“We forget why we get into this industry,” he said of the experience. “It’s to feed people. It’s not for four stars or anything like that. That realization came full circle for me in this pandemic.”
The personal stories of Black chefs like Peter Prime, Nina Compton, and Edouardo Jordan have inspired Onwuachi, too.
“In talking to them I’m trying to be hopeful that things are getting better and more people who look like us will want to or try to achieve their wildest dreams,” he said. “It let me know that in order for us to really see some change in the future we need to invest in our youth. All of us.”
He hopes diners will continue to support their local restaurants, as well as those outside their zip codes, and that support for Black- and minority-owned restaurants continues.
And Onwuachi’s idea of what defines a successful restaurant has changed, too.
“I think a restaurant should be an anchor of the community,” he said. “It needs to find out how to feed people whether people can afford to be there or not.”
He also doesn’t want to just do what he’s done before, or to go back to the old way of how restaurants have long operated. That means opening up access to health care, paid time off, and maternity leave for restaurant workers.
“If that means tearing things down and building them back up, then that’s what that means,” Onwuachi said. “It’s something I’d like to see more people doing — myself included.”