This week's Special Sauce guest, chef-restaurateur (Kith/Kin in Washington, DC) and memoirist (Notes From a Young Black Chef) Kwame Onwuachi, has led an interesting life, to say the least. How interesting? By the time he was 21, the now-29-year-old had already started a catering business and cooked on a ship cleaning up oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico- all after discarding a previous life that included membership in a gang and selling "nutcrackers," or homemade alcoholic punch, on the streets in the Bronx.
Early on, Onwuachi discovered the satisfaction he could derive from cooking for other people, by helping his mom with her catering business: "Yes, serving food to actual paying customers...there's a certain high about it. You know, like being in the weeds, you know, prepping, putting stuff together, and then reaching that finish-line moment when you're serving it to the guests, and all is well. They're happy...and you can see the genuine joy that they get when eating the food. I love that moment, and I got addicted to it."
The entrepreneurial spirit he inherited from his mother had a way of colliding with some of his more destructive adolescent impulses. He would bounce back and forth between cooking gigs and less savory endeavors, including selling drugs, until he found himself at a crossroads around the time of Obama's first inauguration: "Obama is walking across the stage accepting his presidency. At that moment, for some reason, it clicked for me. Because...I went out and I voted for him, but I was like, 'There's no way we're gonna get a black president. There's no way this is gonna happen. No way.' And when he walked across the stage, I was like, 'What am I doing? This man defied the odds. Fifty-five years ago, we weren't even allowed to eat in restaurants; like, that was [when] the last restaurant was desegregated. Now this man is walking across the stage. That's huge. And I'm sitting here selling drugs?'"
After that realization, Onwuachi ended up starting a catering company called Coterie, for which he raised the start-up capital by selling candy in the subway- yes, you read that right. His most popular item: peanut M&Ms (take that, plain-M&M advocates).
All of this, of course, was before Onwuachi began his restaurant career-cooking at Per Se and Eleven Madison Park, moving on to a seriously upscale restaurant in DC (which closed within three months), and, this year, being named a Best New Chef by Food & Wine for his current restaurant, Kith/Kin. But his pre-fine dining life was so eventful, we had to save all that for the second part of our interview. Rest assured, there's plenty here to chew on and listen to.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/2019/04/special-sauce-kwame-onwuachi-part-1.html