How ‘Top Chef’ Kwame Onwuachi Went From Selling Candy On Subways To Running His Own Restaurants

Chef, Kwame Onwuachi, Forbes Under 30 Summit, Kith/Kin, restaurants
Tim Parnell/Forbes

Kwame Onwuachi, chef at Kith/Kin and author of the acclaimed memoir “Notes From a Young Black Chef,” wants to nudge the restaurant industry to diversify and create more opportunities for chefs like himself.

“A lot needs to be done. Diversifying the critic pool is very, very essential for the growth of restaurants that people aren’t familiar with,” he said at the Forbes Under 30 Summit in Detroit this morning. “I mentor by example.”

Onwuachi, 29, grew up in the South Bronx, in tough circumstances. His parents were divorced, and his family struggled. He misbehaved as a youth, and in response, his mother sent him to live with his father’s family in rural Nigeria. After his return, his life spiraled—he sold drugs, joined a gang and was expelled from college.

Then, in his 20s, he raised funds peddling candy on the subway–including reportedly $20,000 in just two months–to finance a catering business. After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America, he worked at elite Manhattan restaurants, Per Se and Eleven Madison Park, and competed on Top Chef.

By 2017, the year he made the Forbes 30 Under 30 list, he had raised $2 million to run his own restaurant, the Shaw Bijou in Washington, D.C. The venture received much advance acclaim, but failed—closing in just 11 weeks as Onwuachi clashed with investors and burned through cash. “They had $200,000 budget to open a restaurant, and it ended up costing $2 million,” he said. “It was soul-crushing, for sure.”

The rise was dramatic, the fall more so, as Onwuachi tells in his book (cowritten with Joshua David Stein). But after the book, he returned as a chef, a story that he told on stage at the Forbes Under 30 Summit in Detroit this morning. First, just one month after Shaw Bijou’s closure, he opened a restaurant serving Ethiopian food, doing it quietly so he wouldn’t face pressure from the press and his fans. “I just wanted to cook again,” he said.

Then he ditched the high-concept, high-priced food he’d offered at Shaw Bijou and returned with Kith/Kin, where he serves homey Afro-Carribean food. The two-year-old restaurant in Washington, D.C., pays homage to his family’s roots in Jamaica, Trinidad, Nigeria and Louisiana with entrees that include goat roti ($26) and jerk chicken ($34). He also opened a fast casual spot, Philly Wing Fry, that serves cheesesteaks and fried chicken.

With Kith/Kin, it’s clear that Onwuachi is back. Earlier this year, he won the James Beard Award for Rising Star Chef and was named one of America’s best new chefs by Food & Wine magazine—accolades that, as he has noted, rarely go to black chefs. In his memoir, he explored in depth what it’s like to be a black man in the rarefied world of fine dining where racism is all too common.

On stage in Detroit, he talked about his hopes for opening more restaurants, writing more books—and seeing his story come to life on screen starring Lakeith Stanfield. “So much goes on behind the scenes when you are the leader of a kitchen,” he said. “I’m still trying to figure out how to take care of myself.”




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Kwame Onwuachi, chef at Kith/Kin and author of the acclaimed memoir “Notes From a Young Black Chef,” wants to nudge the restaurant industry to diversify and create more opportunities for chefs like himself.

“A lot needs to be done. Diversifying the critic pool is very, very essential for the growth of restaurants that people aren’t familiar with,” he said at the Forbes Under 30 Summit in Detroit this morning. “I mentor by example.”

Onwuachi, 29, grew up in the South Bronx, in tough circumstances. His parents were divorced, and his family struggled. He misbehaved as a youth, and in response, his mother sent him to live with his father’s family in rural Nigeria. After his return, his life spiraled—he sold drugs, joined a gang and was expelled from college.

Then, in his 20s, he raised funds peddling candy on the subway–including reportedly $20,000 in just two months–to finance a catering business. After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America, he worked at elite Manhattan restaurants, Per Se and Eleven Madison Park, and competed on Top Chef.

By 2017, the year he made the Forbes 30 Under 30 list, he had raised $2 million to run his own restaurant, the Shaw Bijou in Washington, D.C. The venture received much advance acclaim, but failed—closing in just 11 weeks as Onwuachi clashed with investors and burned through cash. “They had $200,000 budget to open a restaurant, and it ended up costing $2 million,” he said. “It was soul-crushing, for sure.”

The rise was dramatic, the fall more so, as Onwuachi tells in his book (cowritten with Joshua David Stein). But after the book, he returned as a chef, a story that he told on stage at the Forbes Under 30 Summit in Detroit this morning. First, just one month after Shaw Bijou’s closure, he opened a restaurant serving Ethiopian food, doing it quietly so he wouldn’t face pressure from the press and his fans. “I just wanted to cook again,” he said.

Then he ditched the high-concept, high-priced food he’d offered at Shaw Bijou and returned with Kith/Kin, where he serves homey Afro-Carribean food. The two-year-old restaurant in Washington, D.C., pays homage to his family’s roots in Jamaica, Trinidad, Nigeria and Louisiana with entrees that include goat roti ($26) and jerk chicken ($34). He also opened a fast casual spot, Philly Wing Fry, that serves cheesesteaks and fried chicken.

With Kith/Kin, it’s clear that Onwuachi is back. Earlier this year, he won the James Beard Award for Rising Star Chef and was named one of America’s best new chefs by Food & Wine magazine—accolades that, as he has noted, rarely go to black chefs. In his memoir, he explored in depth what it’s like to be a black man in the rarefied world of fine dining where racism is all too common.

On stage in Detroit, he talked about his hopes for opening more restaurants, writing more books—and seeing his story come to life on screen starring Lakeith Stanfield. “So much goes on behind the scenes when you are the leader of a kitchen,” he said. “I’m still trying to figure out how to take care of myself.”




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I'm a senior editor at Forbes, where I cover manufacturing, industrial innovation and consumer products. I previously spent two years on the Forbes' Entrepreneurs team.

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