Chef Kwame Onwuachi sits down with Yahoo Finance Live to talk about his latest cookbook, experiences traveling the U.S., how people connect through food, managing a restaurant, and the outlook of the industry amid the continued pandemic.
RACHELLE AKUFFO: Welcome back. Running a successful restaurant is hard enough, but the pandemic led to more than 10% closing permanently, according to Datassential, and leaving staff scrambling. But that’s not always where the story ends, as our next guest well knows. We’re joined by Chef Kwame Onwuachi, James Beard Award winning chef and author of “My America, Recipes from a Young Black Chef.”
A pleasure to have you on. I was always a big Kith and Kin restaurant lover, so really great to have you on. I wanted you to have– you talk about this journey, though, from having that restaurant closing to, now, this book tour that you’re on. What has that journey been like, especially as you’ll be coming back to DC, May 18?
KWAME ONWUACHI: Well, it’s a journey. I think the journey is the reward. You know, when the restaurant closed, it was in the midst of the pandemic. And I think everyone, whether you’re in the food industry or any craft, you’re figuring out what to do. And that’s all that I was doing, was trying to, like, chase happiness. And in that point of time, I started massaging other realms of things that I’m really interested in, whether it was writing, acting, doing creative direction. And that’s how this book came about.
DAVE BRIGGS: So, tell us, in your journey around the country, as you’re discovering different foods and preparing this book, did you learn as much about food as you did about people? We see so much divisiveness out there in the news and even the shooting over the weekend. But do you learn that food is one of the great unifiers?
KWAME ONWUACHI: Yeah, I think you can really get to know somebody by sitting down and having a meal with them. You can really get to know someone’s culture by tasting their cuisine. You can travel an ocean on a plate. And food is normally the epicenter of every single thing that we do, whether we’re celebrating, whether we’re mourning, whether we’re meeting people for the first time. So definitely, I’ve met a lot of people along the way by cooking, but also by sitting down and sharing a meal with them. And that’s what, “My America,” is about. It’s about bringing everyone together and talking about what cuisine means to me in America.
SEANA SMITH: Kwame, what are some of the trends or some of the habits that you’ve noticed amongst consumers? Because I’m sure they have evolved. I’m sure they have changed as a result of the pandemic. But what are you seeing firsthand?
KWAME ONWUACHI: People love to consume. I would say that people are just– they’re ready to go outside, and they’re ready to enjoy themselves and be around people. I think we’re social beings at the end of the day. So being locked up for so long, I think it’s bred us wanting to go out and celebrate and really connect with people. And that’s what I’m seeing, whether it’s fine dining or a mom and pop shop. It’s all the same. People want to get out there and break bread.
RACHELLE AKUFFO: And you’ve been very busy in terms of partnerships with Spotify, the Salamander Resort, ORLY Nail Polish, OXO, Cardi B, just to name a few. How many hats do you feel like a restauranteur has to wear these days to really try and withstand some of these economic shocks like a pandemic or supply chain issues?
KWAME ONWUACHI: I think I don’t think it’s just with the food industry. I think it’s just people in general need to be able to diversify their avenues of income and also their avenues of creative expression. I don’t like to be labeled. You know, I don’t like the label celebrity chef. I like to just chase happiness and then do things with intention. So I think as a people, this pandemic has made us, like, look within and say, like, am I really happy at this job that I’m at? And if not, what can I do to make myself happy while also providing for myself and my family?
DAVE BRIGGS: Kwame, to Rachelle’s point, I mean, hundreds of thousands of restaurants shut down during the pandemic. Is there a lesson or a couple of lessons that those that have survived– and I know some that have even thrived through those tough times– and are there lessons that they ought to have learned, moving forward?
KWAME ONWUACHI: Yeah, well, everything’s a lesson. The pandemic, it hit our restaurant industry extremely, extremely hard. I think the most valuable thing that we can take away from this is making sure that we’re taking care of our workers and our bottom line at the same time. The restaurant industry is not a passion project. It is a business, and it should be treated as such. And it shows that within this time, that I don’t think it was valued a lot. We were first responders. We were out there cooking for everybody.
So at the end of the day, we need to take better care of house and make sure that we’re better prepared for emergencies and things like that, so we can take care of our workers and everyone included.
SEANA SMITH: Kwame, this might be a bit of a loaded question, but what’s next for you? You’re releasing this book. You’ve done so much in the past, so much to be proud of, so much that you have accomplished. So what’s the next big thing that you’re looking forward to?
KWAME ONWUACHI: I’m just looking forward to this book. You know, I’m on this book tour right now. I want everybody to go out and get “My America.” It’s something that I’ve been working on for a while. It is my version of American cuisine. When you’re a kid and you’re growing up in America and someone puts food down in front of you, you’re not asking what nationality is this dish. You’re just saying thank you, you know? So this is my thank you letter to America.
RACHELLE AKUFFO: And I want to say, obviously, a lot of people having a tough time trying to afford groceries. I mean, we’re seeing all these long lines at food banks. For people who are trying to make a tasty meal on a budget, perhaps even if it’s something from your book, something affordable that people could still enjoy and share that sense of enjoying a meal, what would you recommend?
KWAME ONWUACHI: Oh, man, I would say start with a starch that can really stretch. You know, I think meat does not have to be the main star of a dish, especially if you’re on a budget. So try stretching a starch and seasoning it immaculately. And that’s what this book really talks about, is, making sure you have your marinades, which are very, very low cost, your spice blends, and making sure you’re seasoning things properly. So I would say just cook like you’re cooking for a loved one, and you’ll be fine.
DAVE BRIGGS: You managed to do that for the Obamas, for Jay-Z and Beyoncé, for Oprah, Dave Chappelle, just to mention a few. What have those experiences mean to you? What did you learn from that? And who’s that one person you really want to cook for?
KWAME ONWUACHI: I think it’s all been a beautiful journey. Cooking for anybody, it makes me extremely happy. But when you get to cook for your heroes, it’s definitely very, very special. But that person that I want to cook for, I’d say LeBron James. Like, bring it on. Like, where are you at, man? You know, I know you need to eat. Let’s do it.
RACHELLE AKUFFO: Well, he certainly heard you there, so we’ll see if he responds. Thank you so much for joining us today. Chef Kwame Onwuachi there, James Beard Award winning chef and “My America, Recipes from a Young Black Chef” author, thank you so much.