His rock star career started with very unglamorous beginnings: child labor in his mom’s kitchen. But peeling shrimp and veggies as a tot sparked something special and tasty for chef Kwame Onwuachi, who is my guest this week on “Renaissance Man.”
“My mom, she was an accountant, and she switched careers and started a catering company out of the house,” he told me. “And very much against the law, she put me and my sister to work. I was 5 years old. My sister was about 10, and she threw us an apron. And then we had to do whatever it takes to keep the lights on. You know, we lived in The Bronx in this one-bedroom apartment, and I was doing everything from like peeling shrimp to packing up for her events to-go. And you know, that chore turned into a hobby, and a hobby turned into a passion, and that passion turned into a career. So that’s the beginnings of my career.”
What a career it’s been for Chef Kwame who is only 31. When most folks are just getting started, he’s already got a résumé packed with starry accomplishments. The James Beard Award-winning chef has been a contestant on “Top Chef,” where he is now a judge. He started two big restaurants in Washington, DC, one of which, Kith/Kin, brought his elevated Afro-Caribbean food to a wider culinary world. He’s working on his third book (an earlier memoir is being made into a movie starring LaKeith Stanfield) and is now an executive producer at Food & Wine Magazine. I was excited to interview him because my language is food. Every day of the week I tend to do an around the world trip through my stomach having a different cultural cuisine every day.
But during our talk, he proved to have more ingredients in his personal recipe for success than I expected. He has incredible wisdom and depth for someone so young. And he dished out some restaurant etiquette that I won’t ever forget.
Speaking about pitching in at a young age, Kwame said: “It wasn’t some menial tasks it was having to do just because or teaching us a lesson. It was really ‘we’re all in this together.’ You know what it’s like to be on a team. You know, everyone’s got to show up.”
It instilled in him, a spirit of entrepreneurship.
However, it wasn’t always a smooth path from his mom’s Bronx kitchen to a professional one. Like many children, he went through a tough time in adolescence and needed a little extra discipline. His mother, Jewel, sent him to Nigeria to live with family when he was 10. And the trip was very different than advertised.
“I was veering off on the wrong path, which is pretty easy to do in the South Bronx. And my mom wanted to nip that in the bud. And she told me I was going on a two-week vacation to Nigeria, and I quickly realized it was not a vacation at all and it was not going to be weeks,” he said. “Two years passed before she let me come back, after I learned respect.”
As an avowed Mama’s boy, it’s a move I admire. She showed a lot of strength in sending her boy away and trusting her instinct that it would make him a better person. In addition to discipline, he walked away with a few other sentiments: gratitude and bravery.
“And after I learned to really appreciate what I have here in America down to like running water, electricity, conditioned air, you know, things that we take for granted every single day. If our A/C went out, we’d be really upset right now. Right? Most of the world is like that,” he told me. “So once I realized that we have a leg up when we wake up, the possibilities are endless. You just got to really take that leap of faith and go for whatever you want.”
Nowadays, chefs are considered rock stars. They have cool tattoos, big social media presences, books and shows. They are celebrated and idolized. In fact, Guy Fieri just signed an $80 million contract? He is making pro sports kind of dough. Back in the day, it wasn’t champagne and magazine spreads. It was a blue collar job and a trade. At my school, the Jalen Rose Leadership Academy, we require kids to study at least two trades because college isn’t for everyone. So I wanted to know how to make cooking more appealing to young people and, in particular, young black kids. He sorta blew my mind with his answer, and I realized there was a lot more to that question.
“We fought so hard to get out of kitchens and now we’re fighting to get back and get what we deserve,” he said of African Americans. He said that it’s up to the older generation to provide meaningful mentorship and for kids to see that working in the culinary world doesn’t always mean sweating behind a line for the rest of your life. You can own a restaurant, be a writer, a critic or some other part of the widening food universe.
Chef Kwame is helping to change the imagery of this profession for kids of color, and I believe he will be changing the way I cook jerk chicken. He said it’s his favorite thing to put on the grill. And he promised to send me his recipe. He also made me want to book his mother as a guest to interview. I think we could all use some Jewel wisdom and strength in our world.
But most of all, he left me with this piece of dining out wisdom. Besides leaving a bad tip, I asked what is the worst thing a diner can do at a restaurant? Kwame said that if you aren’t going to make your reservation, you should always call to cancel. Never just ghost the host because that’s a lot of money lost for the owner.
“We can’t make that money back and we already have razor thin margins. So it’s, I guess, more disrespectful to not just be like, ‘free that table up, we’re not coming.’ You gotta let them know,” he said.
So remember, leave a good tip, always call to cancel if you can’t make it, try new flavors, be brave. And don’t misbehave around Kwame’s mother. She isn’t playing. She’ll send you to another continent.
Detroit native Jalen Rose is a member of the University of Michigan’s iconoclastic Fab Five, who shook up the college hoops world in the early ’90s. He played 13 seasons in the NBA, before transitioning into a media personality. Rose is currently an analyst for “NBA Countdown” and “Get Up,” and co-host of “Jalen & Jacoby.” He executive produced “The Fab Five” for ESPN’s “30 for 30” series, is the author of the best-selling book, “Got To Give the People What They Want,” a fashion tastemaker, and co-founded the Jalen Rose Leadership Academy, a public charter school in his hometown.