The accolades and achievements are piling up at such a rapid clip for Kwame Onwuachi that the D.C.-based chef can’t fully digest them. Staring straight ahead with a blank face behind his circular glasses, he barely cracked a smile late last month as he reflected on his recent James Beard award for Rising Star Chef of the Year, his anointment from Food & Wine as a Best New Chef, and his status as the author of a recently published memoir. A few weeks later, Variety would report that Atlanta and Sorry to Bother You star Lakeith Stanfield, Onwuachi’s favorite actor, will play him in a movie adaptation of his book. How’s that for “celebrity chef” status?
“It’s hard to put it into words, you know?” Onwuachi says, referring specifically to the Beard award. “I’m still processing it.”
The overwhelming support for his work at Kith/Kin, his polished Afro-Caribbean restaurant at the InterContinental Hotel in D.C.’s waterfront Wharf development, has left Onwuachi incredulous, overjoyed, and determined not to slip.
Less than two years after opening Kith/Kin, the Top Chef alumnus doesn’t sound as if he’s let his ego balloon. The awards, the book deal, the movie deal — they’re all a stamp of approval for a restaurant that, as he puts it, tells “the story of the slave trade.” Representing African descendants is paramount to the young, black chef. As his celebrity rises, he’s looking to the past and the future at the same time.
Onwuachi specifically mentions wanting to honor Patrick Clark, Marcus Samuelsson, and Edouardo Jordan. The 29-year-old is walking among them now, and he feels a responsibility to do the kind of cooking that will maintain that status.
“It’s not only about me at this point,” he says. “I have to, one, make sure that I’m representing these institutions that gave me these awards. And then there’s a group of people that I feel are looking to me for inspiration — other young chefs of color, other young chefs in general.”
Onwuachi repeatedly says he needs to keep his “ships tight,” to stay present, to make sure he and his cooks are constantly tasting the food. He knows there will be mistakes and inconsistencies, but he wants to minimize them wherever possible. Onwuachi pulls from every corner of his personal heritage — he has grandparents from Nigeria, Jamaica, Trinidad, and the American South. His cooking is both modern and pre-American.
“I’m not honoring soul food or Southern food, which is part of the story, but I’m honoring food that came before the destruction of our culture,” Onwuachi says. “It’s important to remember that, that we have history before the disruption of our history.”
A few months ago, he decided to separate the layout of the menu at Kith/Kin. The Kith section, representing friends, is Onwuachi’s place to experiment with new dishes. The Kin section, representing family, is the place to nod to tradition with braised goat roti, jollof rice, and oxtails.
Here’s a look inside some of the newest dishes at Kith/Kin:
Uni escovitch (Sea urchin roe with pickled vegetables)
Peering into a small wooden box of sea urchin roe from Hokkaido, Japan, Onwuachi says he spent a considerable amount of time figuring out how to add uni, which boasts a rich, briny flavor he loves, to the menu. “I thought the best way to incorporate it was to think about the African dishes that have incorporated some sort of shellfish,” he explains. That led him to escovitch, a Jamaican interpretation of Spanish escabeche, which uses a pickled pepper sauce to marinate and preserve seafood. Onwuachi’s escovitch has fermented scotch bonnet peppers, carrots, bell pepper, onion, and ginger. It goes on top of the uni along with a salad of Maryland crab and Maine lobster and avocado mousse. As a crunchy base, Onwuachi uses fried shards of dhal puri roti, a Trinidadian flatbread brought to the Caribbean by indentured servants from India. Onwuachi pairs the snack with a glass of rosé.
At Kith/Kin, the traditional Italian appetizer of fried squid borrows ingredients from Spain, Mexico, and Nigeria. Onwuachi wanted to represent Veracruz, the coastal Mexican state that was one of the first places the Spanish settled — and a hub for enslaved Africans brought over from Cuba. Onwuachi tosses his calamari in “plantain spice,” a mix of his own Cajun spice and curry powder that’s used to season plantains at Kith and Kin. Onwuachi’s version of Veracruz salsa, traditionally a Mexican condiment that integrates Spanish ingredients like olives and capers, uses Nigerian red sauce instead of tomatoes. The red sauce, which goes into jollof rice and stews, is made out of reduced tomatoes, bell peppers, and fermented scotch bonnet chiles. Castelvetrano olives add a European touch. Micro cilantro and pearl onions pickled in beet juice and red wine vinegar are more Mexican. Onwuachi recommends pairing the dish with chenin blanc because a high degree of acidity in the white wine will balance out the spice.
Charred brassicas and scallops
Onwuachi wanted to add a vegetable-focused dish, so he came up with a plate of charred brassicas (cauliflower, broccoli, etc.) and pan-seared scallops. After roasting the cauliflower in a pan at 500 degrees, he puts them on the stove and douses them in flames after deglazing the pan with a toasted coconut syrup. The brassicas and scallops go into an African romesco made out of reduced Nigerian red sauce and marcona almonds.
The first time he sent a plate of egusi (melon seed) stew out of the kitchen at Kith/Kin, Onwuachi was overcome with emotion. “I actually cried,” he says. “... Here’s a dish that I grew up eating in a village in Nigeria. To see it coming into a dining room like this, that’s everything to me.” He especially loved seeing West African customers explain to neighboring tables how to use balls of fufu — a starchy dumpling made from yams — as an implement to scoop up the stew full of greens called bitter leaf. Onwuachi has previously had egusi stew on the menu, but it had a long absence because the base ingredients are still hard for him to find. He stockpiles 50-pound batches of egusi seeds, which get ground up and cooked for a long time. Onwuachi says he has Nigerian friends who sneak iru, or fermented locust beans, out of the country for him. Thankfully, he can find bouillon cubes of Maggi seasoning right in D.C. Instead of cured or smoked stockfish, Onwuachi serves the stew with roasted monkfish.
Arguably the most famous dish from Jamaica, jerk chicken has been on the menu at Kith/Kin from Day One. But Onwuachi says he and his staff are still tweaking a recipe that takes about four days to complete. It’s worth it — the dish is his top seller. The chicken takes a 48-hour stay in a jerk-spice brine and a 24-hour marinade in garlic paste before it’s smoked with imported pimento wood and basted in its own drippings. Then it’s fried to crisp up the skin and quickly grilled to pick up a little char. Herb oil is a finishing touch. The chicken comes with sides of jerk jam — a combination of jerk barbecue sauce and tamarind — rice made with freshly squeezed coconut milk, and cabbage braised with Red Stripe beer. “We switch it up a little bit,” Onwuachi says. “I think it just keeps getting better.”
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