Today’s opening of Philly Wing Fry, Kwame Onwuachi’s new cheesesteak-centric restaurant within Whole Foods, comes after a dizzying three years for the former Top Chef contestant.
In that time alone, Onwuachi has risen and crashed on scales larger than most chefs ever experience. At 28 years old, he’s already run a catering business, worked in some of New York’s top restaurants, appeared on Season 13 of Top Chef, and launched a foray into the D.C. dining scene that’s left him both the butt of the joke, and — more recently — the chef with the last laugh.
His latest move is a fast-casual take on punched-up cheesesteaks, chicken wings and waffle fries, inside the new South Capitol Hill location of Whole Foods in Navy Yard.
Yesterday was Onwuachi’s final day to scurry around his new kitchen and make final tweaks. Despite the chaos, he showed that the sum of his experience has made him confident, adaptable and fully in control of his own narrative.
Philly Wing Fry opens after the critical success of Kith and Kin, his Afro-Caribbean restaurant housed on the Southwest waterfront. So why is he now selling cheesesteaks that top out at $16? Onwuachi simply says, “I like doing it,” and points out the transformative potential of the project. “I think it’s another step for me,” he says. “I feel like I started fairly young. I don’t want to say I’m too young anymore. I want to try something different. That’s how I continue to grow.”
Onwuachi’s cheesesteaks sound special — they’re made from 50-day dry-aged Roseda Farm beef, packed with smoked provolone, and and tucked into toasted rolls slathered with garlic mayo along with fat and juices rendered from the bones and trimmings. But he refuses to brand them as superior to what’s typically sold on the streets of Philadelphia. “We’re not making it any better. ... It’s just different. It’s just the one I like to eat,” he says.
He won’t label the chicken wings — cooked in their own fat for three hours before being fried and glazed with a sweet, sour and spicy tamarind-chile sauce — as Caribbean-style. They’re just his own.
Asked if there’s a goal to build Philly Wing Fry into a national brand, like, say the Shake Shack set up in the Major League Baseball stadium just down the road, Onwuachi parries with a game, “Who knows? That’s always the goal, right?”
One thing that has changed along the way, he says, is his ability to surrender some control. Philly Wing Fry served samples to 300 neighborhood residents earlier this week. Onwuachi says he came into the first test for his new kitchen knowing that things would go wrong, and he’d adjust on the fly.
Although Onwuachi says he plans to split time between Philly Wing Fry and Kith and Kin, he has a team he trusts to help him manage the load. The new shop’s director of operations, Mya Allen, is also his fiancée. Executive chef David Paz-Grusin helped him launch Kith and Kin and the ill-fated Shaw Bijou. Both Paz-Grusin and culinary director Steve Kim were in cooking school at the Culinary Institute of America with Onwuachi.
Back in September, Eater national critic Bill Addison wrote Onwuachi had reached his creative peak at Kith and Kin, praising the restaurant’s “synergistic, autobiographical cuisine.” Yesterday,Washington Post critic Tom Sietsema released a positive review of Kith and Kin about a year after writing the restaurant fell short of its promise. Two years earlier, Sietsema’s write-up of Onwuachi’s debut restaurant, the Shaw Bijou, described an overly ambitious project full of hubris. After a meal that amounted to $500 per person, Sietsema called dinner at the Bijou “merely pleasant” and twisted the knife by saying his party wanted to go out for pizza after the opulent meal. The Bijou closed after about three months.
Onwuachi, though, insists he hasn’t made any monumental change after emerging from the rubble of the Bijou and early hiccups at Kith and Kin. He says he’s jkust continued to grow, like any young person, and bristles at the notion that there was a grand truth to be learned. “I didn’t commit murder,” Onwuachi says, “When people are like, ‘Did you learn your lesson with your first restaurant?’ I’m like, ‘No,’ because I still created a business and created jobs for so many people.”
- Chef Kwame Onwuachi’s Next Venture Involves Cheesesteaks [EDC]
- Review: Kwame Onwuachi’s Thrilling Next Chapter [E]
- At Kith and Kin, chef Kwame Onwuachi tells his story — and hits his stride [WaPo]
- Kith and Kin falls short of its promise [WaPo]
- Shaw Bijou serves a few delights and several duds. Is that worth $500 a head? [WaPo]
- What Happened at the Shaw Bijou? [E]