The Real-Life Diet of Chef Kwame Onwuachi, Who Lets His Cravings Lead the Way
Kwame Onwuachi would prefer you not call him a celebrity chef. Still, it’s hard to not take note of the James Beard award-winner’s profile over the last few years. After a breakout run on Top Chef: California in 2015, he went on to open Kith/Kin in Washington, D.C. to rave reviews, write the bestselling autobiography Notes from a Young Black Chef, and return to television as part of Top Chef: Portland’s judging panel.
Most recently he’s partnered with ORLY to launch a line of nail polish and published a cookbook—a spiritual follow-up to his autobiography—titled My America: Recipes from a Young Black Chef. Despite the rise of this definitely-not-celebrity, Onwuachi wants you to know that he isn’t too good for Domino’s. GQ caught up with Onwuachi to talk how he eats in a busy restaurant kitchen, the signature cuisines of the cities he’s called home, and the best dish he’s ever eaten on Top Chef.
GQ: Longtime fans of Top Chef know that the evolution of you and your colleague Geoffrey Gourdet into the outfit gods of the culinary world is one of the long-term narratives of the show. When you’re on set these days, which cleaning products are you keeping on hand in case your Rick Owens catches a stray bit of sauce?
Kwame Onwuachi: I try to eat clean, man! I eat with intention, making sure I lean over the table and all that. I don’t have anything on hand, but there’s always someone on set with a Tide pen or something in case things get a little crazy. But I’ve never really gotten a mess going.
I think anyone who’s worked in food service in any capacity knows that there isn’t really an abundance of downtime, even when it comes to getting a meal in. You’re not currently working in a kitchen but in the times during which you are, how are you going about keeping yourself fed throughout the day?
Honestly, I’m eating throughout the shift. As executive chef I’m constantly tasting things just to maintain quality. That’s where I’m doing most of my eating. I’ll probably have one meal a day when I’m working as a chef. I also always try to instill a family meal in my restaurants where the staff gets the chance to eat something together. I wouldn’t say the days of just working straight through service are over, but I try to have a little bit of balance. It’s good to have a time where you just sit down with the team and eat something. That’s important.
What does that one meal a day tend to be?
It could be anything. Usually it’s what we’re serving. Family meal could be so many different things. We’ll usually give it a theme like Thai, Jamaican, Italian—something like that. I don’t want to eat the same things every day, you know? There’s too much good food.
That’s a good guiding principle.
Don’t get me wrong: I’ll diet and do the whole chicken breast, brown rice, broccoli thing if I’m getting ready to be on camera or something. But I’m in New York right now so this morning I had a bacon egg and cheese for breakfast. I hit Prince Street Pizza last night then got to do caviar with chips at a champagne bar. It’s all based on cravings for me. That’s how I try to live. And if I can’t buy it, I’ll just make it.
Let’s talk about your time on Top Chef a bit. Almost every season is set in a single city—except for your run, which saw the cast tour throughout California and stay in hotels. Given the change of setting, how was the food situation during your shoot?
It was horrible. We were just stuck eating catering when we were on set. We’d spend all day cooking these incredible, intricate meals and then have to go pick up food from crafty. It was trash. Or they’d have us order breakfast from Denny’s or something, so by the time the food is delivered to the hotel room it’s two sunny-side-up eggs (that are cold and congealed because they were cooked 45 minutes ago) and toast you can throw off the wall.
You’ve gotten a bit of a raw deal in that sense because the next time you were on the show was during Top Chef: Portland, on which you served as part of the judging panel. Given that the season was filmed in a quarantine bubble during the pandemic, was the food situation there better or worse than your first season?
We didn’t have to eat catering because we’d eat during the shoot, which was way better. Earlier in the season when there’s 14, 15 dishes per challenge, we’d be full when we got home. Later in the competition when there are fewer dishes to judge I could order takeout if I needed something else. Portland has an incredible food scene so I was ordering some really dope stuff. There was a great chicken and rice spot, a West African place, Jamaican, I could really go on. And I mean, other nights I’d just order Domino’s! 30 minutes or less, man.
Those early challenges really do look like a marathon for the judges. I know Padma Lakshmi has talked about how they can run up to 5,000 calories a day or more. Even later in the season when the numbers are lower the dishes are just so full of butter and fat.
You’ve really gotta take like, one bite of each dish. It’s hard, especially when you like something. You want to eat more but there are six, seven other dishes ahead.
Regardless of whether it was televised, what’s the best meal you’ve had throughout the entirety of your experience on the show?
There was this crab dish that Dawn did on Portland, an icy chili-citrus butter over a crab boil kind of deal. It was incredible.
You’ve branched out quite a bit from the kitchen over the last few years as an author, a TV personality, and activist. So what does an average day in your life look like in terms of food and routine?
Normally I’ll meditate in the morning and get all my thoughts out. Whether I’m anxious or excited about something, I’ll work through all those feelings in the first hour I’m awake. Then I’ll head downstairs and make a smoothie with a little bit of everything, broccoli, kale, bananas, all kinds of berries, and watermelon. They come in these little packs so I’ll just dump it in the blender with oat milk, or maybe green juice or apple juice. I’m an espresso guy, so I’ll have that, go for a walk, and then start connecting with my team and taking my meetings.
I’ll usually get lunch—uh, whenever I remember. I skip lunch a lot just because I’ll forget. And again, that’ll just be whatever I’m craving. I will say that at least once a week I crave Jamaican food. I need curry goat and oxtails, red snapper—all the classics. I’ll usually get it from a place called Wi Jammin in LA. Or I’ll order Korean barbecue raw and cook it at home. Maybe vegan Thai food, tacos. A cheeseburger once a week. I’ll try to balance it with plant-based stuff as well. I’ll do vegan food a fair amount of the time. And I love to go out and eat sushi.
You grew up in New York and now split your time between the city and Los Angeles, but you also ran a restaurant in Washington, D.C. for quite a while. What stands out about each of those cities in terms of the food they offer and how that interacts with their communities? Does each have a signature cuisine to you?
It’s hard to say. Obviously LA’s Mexican food is unmatched but so is their access to incredible ingredients year-round because of the growing seasons. DC’s Ethiopian cuisine is the best in the nation. And then New York’s variety and quality of your average restaurant is just higher than anywhere else. There’s so much competition in such a condensed space that it’s just necessary for survival. The volume is just unmatched, too. I think there’re probably more French restaurants in New York than there are in France.
But with New York it also depends on where you grew up. I grew up in the South Bronx so Dominican, Puerto Rican, Ethiopian, and Chinese takeout are king.
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