With exciting pop-up dinners to look forward to in Hong Kong every month, one of the most highly anticipated events of the fall is undoubtedly the return of Washington, D.C.-based chef Kwame Onwuachi, who earlier this year accepted the prestigious James Beard Rising Star Chef of the Year award. Onwuachi’s story is one that’s resonated with chefs, restaurateurs and industry people all over the world, a rags-to-riches tale that’s detailed in his new memoir, Notes From a Young Black Chef.
In the highly acclaimed book, Onwuachi gives an inspiring account of his journey, one that touches on themes including racism, ambition, cutthroat kitchens and the concept of young chefs ‘paying their dues’, often while sustaining systemic kitchen abuse. Onwuachi’s tale is one of overcoming adversity, from growing up in a struggling family in the Bronx, to a stint dealing drugs in a gang, to eventually self-funding his own catering business by peddling candy on the subway. After graduating from culinary school, he was able to work his way up at acclaimed New York City restaurants Per Se and Eleven Madison Park.
The young chef first shot to widespread culinary fame as a semi-finalist on season 13 of Top Chef; feeding off the large fan base from the show, he opened Shaw Bijou, an expensive tasting menu counter whose rapid demise (the restaurant closed just 11 weeks after opening) represented yet another unexpected plot twist in the rollercoaster ride of his young career. Picking up the pieces, Onwuachi found his stride away from fine dining at Kith and Kin, a homey restaurant serving Afro-Caribbean cuisine at the InterContinental Hotel in D.C.; his thought-provoking menu there helped him pick up the accolade as one of Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs for 2019. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was announced this summer that Onwuachi’s book is to be made into a full-length feature film, starring actor Lakeith Stanfield.
These days, Onwuachi is a firmly established culinary superstar, having been called “the most important chef in America” by the San Francisco Chronicle. At Kith and Kin, he explores the flavours of the African food diaspora with dishes that range from jollof rice to curried goat and tamarind jerk chicken. Returning to Test Kitchen (he’s previously made two appearances, in 2015 and 2018), Onwuachi is set to present his most spectacular menu yet, including exclusive never-before-seen dishes from his next restaurant project, from octopus with Veracruz compote, scallop masa and puffed amaranth; to ‘Moi Moi Chawanmushi’, a black-eyed pea custard with uni and confit chicken.
Below, we grab 5 minutes with the chef to discuss his new menu, memoir, and what we can expect from his anticipated return.
In one sentence, how would you describe your culinary philosophy?
For me, when a dish tells a story, a dish has a soul. I try to tell stories through my food.
What are you most looking forward to trying on this return visit to Hong Kong?
I love Hong Kong so much, I come here almost every year. I love all of the restaurants, especially Kam’s Roast Goose.
Tell us what’s different about this upcoming Test Kitchen pop-up compared to previous ones?
We’ll be putting together something that I suspect Hong Kong hasn’t seen before; diners can get a glimpse into a modern interpretation of the African diaspora. One of the dishes I’m most excited about is the octopus Veracruz with scallop and masa espuma. Moi moi chawanmushi with confit chicken and uni is also at the top of my list and definitely features some ingredients that may be unique to Hong Kong.
What would you like diners to learn from your Afro-Caribbean menu?
I want people to walk away from their meal having experienced great food and also having developed a deeper understanding of the cuisine. I understand that it’s still relatively new for most people, and I want to help change that.
What’s it like to come back to Test Kitchen and reunite with founder, Vincent Mui?
Vincent is like my brother and hosting Test Kitchen’s first pop-up was a fantastic experience. It’s always great to get back together and feed people. I will definitely be back!
You’ve had to adapt to a lot throughout your career. What keeps you persevering in the kitchen and beyond?
I always think just to keep going no matter what. We have one life to live and we need to keep pushing and trying to be a better version of ourselves every day.
What did you learn from the abrupt closing of Shaw Bijou, and how did that help prepare you for the creation of Kith and Kin?
I learned to pick better partners. Your team is the most important part of a restaurant project, and you are only as strong as your team.
You’ve shot to fame in a short period of time. What’s been the most surreal part of the journey?
It feels like a long road for me. I started cooking when I was 5, so it may seem like it was overnight but there was a long journey that got me to this point. The most surreal part of all of this is a movie being made about my life!
Give us your quick pitch for your book.
Memoirs from a Young Black Chef shows the trials and tribulations of a young man trying to make it in America. It follows my journey from a one-bedroom apartment in the Bronx to opening up restaurants and travelling the world. My story is about chasing dreams and I think that this resonates with a lot of people because everyone is living their own version of that journey, but perhaps the dream is still out of sight. I hope my book inspires people to keep going.
What’s the biggest takeaway?
That everyone has a story and that if you really put your mind to something, you can achieve it!
What was your reaction to finding out you won the James Beard Award and Food & Wine‘s Best New Chef?
It was so surreal! I cried and called my mom immediately.
Finally, any upcoming projects in the works?
I can’t get into details but I have some very exciting things on the horizon!
Test Kitchen x Kwame Onwuachi
When: 16–19 October, 7 & 8:15pm seatings; book here
Price: HK$1,480 per person for 8-course menu, plus HK$480 for wine pairing
Test Kitchen, Shop 3, 158A Connaught Road West, Sai Ying Pun, Hong Kong, +852 9032 7628