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If Kwame Onwuachi had called it quits after his first restaurant, Shaw Bijou, closed after eleven weeks, that would have been understandable. He told The New York Times about its opening: “I thought it was going to end with me opening the Shaw Bijou and getting three Michelin stars — like, this is it!”
But the restaurant ran out of money and got terrible reviews. But Onwuachi didn’t quit, and he opened a couple of new spaces — Kith and Kin and two outposts of the fast-casual Philly Wing Fry.
Kith and Kin is a mindful host. Customers settle in with coco bread, subtly sweet and cotton-candy-light, and if you order chicken wings (and you should), cool moist towelettes follow on a silver tray. Island-inspired cocktails are dressed up with fanciful pineapple garnishes, and an order of espresso involves chocolate-covered almonds. That condiment on the table? It’s the chef’s grandfather’s hot pepper sauce. There are no obvious shortcuts. The wings, for instance, are brined for two days and smoked with pimento wood, from Jamaica, before getting fried and glazed. Onwuachi makes five spice blends, one of which combines cumin, coriander and curry powder and makes for haunting plantain chips, an accompaniment to the seductive king crab curry.
Onwuachi’s new memoir is called “Notes From a Young Black Chef.” In it, he talks about how he came up in the world of fine dining. One notable revelation is Onwuachi’s allegations of racist behavior and other abuse at Thomas Keller’s Per Se.
Here’s an exerpt about his experiences there, published in Eater
There were other moments too, when I felt like I was being called the N-word with no one actually saying it. No one had to and maybe they were too smart to. So it was left to me to decide whether it was because I was black or because I was just me that I was the only one greeted with a growling “Get the [f—k] back in the prep kitchen!” when I ran food out to chefs on the line. From that point on, I took those words to heart. I didn’t have conversations. I came in and did my job, getting better and better each service, but I didn’t look for friends or colleagues. I had my mask on and shield up. It was that old familiar feeling of being confused, scared, unsafe. And as I did as a boy, I did now as a man, cutting off the wires of my emotions. When the other chefs yelled at me I was no longer there.
He also talked about similar allegations at Eleven Madison Park.
We talk to Onwuachi about his successes and failures — as well as the secret to good jollof rice.
Produced by Jonquilyn Hill.
- Kwame Onwuachi Executive chef, Kith and Kin; author, "Notes From a Young Black Chef;" @ChefKwame
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