When we last left chef and memoirist Kwame Onwuachi, he had dived back into his catering business in New York City. Business was decent, but he’d begun to see holes in his game. "The food tasted good, but was it completely hot when it hit the table? I would roast the meat perfectly, but by the time I got to the table it'd be a little overcooked. The sauce that I thought would be really good, when I reduced it down, it was a little bitter. It was like these little things I didn't know what was going wrong, and I needed to get to the bottom of it. I needed to scratch that itch, and education was the next step for me."
Onwuachi went to the CIA to hone his craft and then went on to extern and work at fine dining institutions like Per Se and Eleven Madison Park. But he ultimately found his own cooking identity through the now-defunct pop-up dinner company, Dinner Lab. "I cooked a dinner for it. It was a culmination of my life story. It was labeled Candy Bars to Michelin Stars. I cooked everything from the cheesecake [his sister's recipe] that I made to…the Butterfingers I sold on the subway (we did those as mignardise)…It was an anecdotal tale through the food of my life."
Eventually, Onwuachi opened the high-end restaurant Shaw Bijou in Washington, DC. His inexperienced restaurateur partners told him money was no object; that, in fact, they didn't care about making money. Onwuachi naively believed them. "Yeah, it was like adding gas to a locomotive. I mean, we were adding coal. It was just like, keep going, keep going, we're powering the engine. I was so deep in it, there was so much going on. It was the first time dealing with a lot of press, and I was really, really young. I came from the South Bronx and I'm catapulted into the stratosphere of the dining culture across the country, and I was trying to just do anything to stay afloat really."
The restaurant failed after less than six months, its demise hastened by a less-than-stellar review in The Washington Post. "It was soul-crushing to read that," Onwuachi said. "I remember reading it in the back alley, and it was not a good review, but it also pushed me, you know? It pushed me to change some things up, switch some things around, get everybody excited again, and keep going. It wasn't like, ‘Okay, now we need to close.’ I was like, ‘Okay, we're gonna fix this. This is the first bite.’" But they couldn't fix it in time, because, as he put it, "We ran out of capital. That's why businesses close. That's the short answer."
The last chapter of Onwuachi’s book, Notes From a Young Black Chef, is called "The Lesson." Why? "The lesson that I learned (from Shaw Bijou) is to keep going," he told me. "Just keep going. Not to stop, no matter what obstacles get in your way. If you have your mindset and you have goals in place, stick with those goals, figure out how to adapt, how to pivot, and continue moving."
Kwame Onwuachi’s tale is as inspirational as it is cautionary. Catch it all in this week’s episode of Special Sauce.
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-2.html