Tonight on the Southwest waterfront, Kwame Onwuachi will shuttle party bowls of tomato-tinted jollof rice and beef suya skewers out of the kitchen at Kith/Kin while Afrobeats bump from speakers, party-goers browse T-shirts with Nigerian designs, and big-name D.C. chefs who typically cook Korean, Filipino, and hyper-local Mid-Atlantic dishes plate up new creations full of West African ingredients.
Onwuachi, the James Beard award winner, memoirist, and subject of an upcoming biopic, is turning his Afro-Caribbean restaurant in the Wharf development into a late-night African market for the evening. Onwuachi is celebrating Kith/Kin’s second anniversary, and he’s hoping the friends he’s recruited to cook out of their comfort zones will help draw a crowd that might not know much about egusi stew.
“We have a lot of food events around the city. We don’t have a lot dedicated to African food or the celebration of it,” Onwuachi says. “I wanted to bring that to the forefront.”
For the past few weeks, Onwuachi has acted as sounding board for a crop of local chefs who will bring their own followings to the party tonight (tickets have already sold out).
There will cooks representing Asian cuisines, including Danny Lee and Scott Drewno of Chiko and Anju; Erik Bruner-Yang of Maketto, Brothers and Sisters, and Spoken English; and Javier Fernandez of Kuya Ja’s Lechon Belly up in Rockville. Jerome Grant (Sweet Home Cafe) and JR Robinson (Kitchen Cray) are representing soul food and American dishes. Peter Prime (Cane) is cooking food from Trinidad these days. Opie Crooks (A Rake’s Progress) is in charge of Spike Gjerde’s local American kitchen at the Line. Centrolina executive pastry chef Caitlin Dysart will be collaborating with Kith/Kin’s Paola Velez.
When Lee reached out about how to replace the Korean chile flake in a bone stew, Onwuachi had a spice blend to recommend. When Bruner-Yang asked about cooking nkwobi, a dish typically made with cow skin or cow foot, Onwuachi recommended using chicken skin, which might be less challenging to American palates.
“I think sparking interest is really important,” Onwuachi says. “With interest comes search and discovery. The more someone sees something constantly, then it will be recognizable to them.”
Depending on how tonight’s party goes, Onwuachi says he’d like to host similar markets once every few months or as a more regular event during the summer. Finding ways to get chefs and diners familiar with African ingredients folds into his wider goal of championing the cuisine.
“My goal is to make West African food and Caribbean food as mainstream as sushi, because it is for me,” Onwuachi says. “When I’m in a city, I search out those types of cuisines. I would like it to be the same for everyone.”
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