Standing at the dais at the James Beard Foundation awards Monday night in Chicago, Kwame Onwuachi accepted the award for Rising Star Chef of the Year by acknowledging his amazing personal journey and the history of African-American cooks at large.
Shortly after winning the first medal of the night, the Kith and Kin chef spoke about how just eight years ago, he was selling candy on a subway in New York to finance a dream of cooking professionally. Five decades earlier, he wouldn’t have been allowed to eat in many restaurants, let alone lead one. Now he crafts the cutting edge Afro-Caribbean menu at a restaurant inside the posh InterContinental hotel in Southwest D.C.
“54 years ago is when the last restaurant was integrated and Jim Crow was lifted, and here I am,” Onwuachi said, “my ancestors’ wildest dreams.”
The Beard foundation describes the Rising Star as “a chef age 30 or younger who displays an impressive talent and who is likely to make a significant impact on the industry in years to come.”
Since opening Kith and Kin in October of 2017, Onwuachi, 29, has drawn critical acclaim for his refined approach to jollof rice, oxtails, and curried goat. He’s also opened locations of fast-casual restaurant Philly Wing Fry — known for beef fat toasted rolls, 50-day dry-aged beef, and tamarind-chile chicken wings — inside a Capitol Hill Whole Foods and at Union Market.
Onwuachi, a Top Chef alum, recently published a memoir, Notes From a Young Black Chef, in which he describes the institutional challenges he faced while rising through the ranks of overwhelmingly white fine-dining kitchens.
Upon accepting his award, Onwuachi said that after fulfilling his dream, he knows he still has a job to do, along with everything else in the room: “We can include everyone in the conversation of cooking.”
To win the award, Onwuachi beat out Ana Castro of Coquette in New Orleans; Alisha Elenz of MFK in Chicago; Alexander Hong of Sorrel in San Francisco; Jesse Ito of Royal Izakaya in Philadelphia; and Jonathan Yao of Kato in Los Angeles.
Later in the evening, Tom Cunanan of Bad Saint in Columbia Heights accepted the award for Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic after being named a finalist for the third year in a row.
Cunanan, a former Ardeo/Bardeo sous chef who cooked at Vidalia, Zentan, and D.C. Coast, embraced his Filipino heritage when he helped open Bad Saint in 2015. Ever since, the tiny restaurant has commanded huge lines of loyals who queue up for the chef’s lechon, kinilaw, and crab floating in crab fat.
Bad Saint has notably been snubbed by Michelin’s D.C. guide, which may make the win feel even sweeter for the chef.
Cunanan’s win meant that Centrolina chef Amy Brandwein would finish as a finalist for the regional award for the third year running. The other nominees this year were Rich Landau of Vedge in Philadelphia; Cristina Martinez of South Philly Barbacoa; and Cindy Wolf of Charleston in Baltimore. For the Beard committee’s purposes, the Mid-Atlantic includes D.C., Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.
Another D.C.-based talent came up short in the category for Outstanding Pastry Chef. Pichet Ong, the man behind the towering, dome-shaped layer cakes at Brothers and Sisters in Adams Morgan, was part of a field that lost out to Kelly Fields of Willa Jean in New Orleans.
Jaleo, the Spanish cornerstone of José Andrés’s ThinkFoodGroup empire, was a finalist for Outstanding Restaurant, which ultimately went to Zahav in Philadelphia. The other nominees were Balthazar in New York City, FIG in Charleston, and Quince in San Francisco.
The Beard foundation previously announced two other D.C.-area standbys would be honored with awards. Inn at Little Washington chef and founder Patrick O’Connell won this year’s lifetime achievement award, and Annie’s Paramount Steakhouse was designated this year’s America’s Classic in the Mid-Atlantic region.
Last year, the only D.C. chef to leave the gala with a medal was Jeremiah Langhorne, who won Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic for his reverent regional cooking at the Dabney.
For the full list of 2019 winners, go here.
Disclosure: Some Vox Media staff members are part of the voting body for the James Beard Foundation Awards
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