If you happened to catch Kwame Onwuachi on Top Chef Season 13, you got a glimpse of his imaginative, fearless way of weaving ingredients, memories and flair into dishes that are unlike any his peers send out of the kitchen—and saw him getting raved about and panned along the way. But if you didn't see the show, then Onwuachi's new restaurant, The Shaw Bijou, will let you discover his one-of-a-kind style on your own terms, and encounter him in an environment where he's freed from the stunts of a reality-TV cooking competition. And chances are you will actually see Onwuachi when you eat there, since he often visits the dining room; guests are welcome to pop into the kitchen too. If you do go behind the scenes, keep an eye out for the heaps of luxe ingredients Onwuachi and his staff are working with—from king crab to Wagyu beef, caviar, truffles, uni, hamachi and stunning local produce—on a tasting menu that ranks as one of the priciest of its kind.
Kwame Onwuachi. Photo credit: Kevin Carroll.
Speaking of which: When you open a restaurant that charges $185 for a tasting menu and you ask diners to buy tickets in advance (and where dinner can reach $500 a head, all in), you're setting yourself up for pushback. When The Shaw Bijou opened this fall, it instantly turned into one of D.C.'s places to be. And that spotlight means one thing: The restaurant's triumphs and flaws are getting plenty of airtime. Luckily, Onwuachi is no stranger to risk-taking, or to airtime: Top Chef is nothing if not excellent training in the concept of "if you can't stand the heat...."
His pre-Top Chef cooking background too has made him nimble, and hungry for challenge: The Bronx-born Onwuachi, whose mother worked as a catering chef, grew up mostly in his grandfather's house in Nigeria; after attending the Culinary Institute of America he worked at restaurants from New Orleans to New York City, most notably at Manhattan's Eleven Madison Park and Per Se. He also spent time selling candy in NYC subway stations as a kid. It was years later, while traveling around the world doing pop-up restaurants after cooking school, that he got tapped for a slot on Top Chef.
The Feast gave Onwuachi a few minutes' break from his restaurant duties, and pulled him aside to chat about what he's up to at The Shaw Bijou.
Photo credit: Kevin Carroll.
How he describes his eclectic cuisine:
"It's modern American with global inspiration, from the Caribbean, France, Italy, Ethiopia. But I want to say that I'm not taking from them and bastardizing them. I'm drawing inspiration from different cuisines. [For example on the current tasting menu] I'll season Wagyu with berbere and serve it with sauce soubise and fermented parsnips. I'm respecting the culture, and taking different ingredients from different places."
Standout ingredients he's into right now:
"I love this wild Alaskan king crab that I’m working with. I take uni bottarga and I put that over the king crab." Below: His Norwegian king crab with roasted garlic, beurre monté and uni bottarga.
Photo credit: Aaron Lyle.
A favorite nostalgia-inspired dish on his current menu:
"I pay homage to the classic Fisherman's Pie from England, a dish my mom used to make when I was growing up. She would always make a casserole of lobster and shrimp with a parmesan béchamel and whipped potatoes and brulée that in the oven. I make a garlic and spinach puree, and I take madai and roast that on binchotan coals. I serve that with caramelized lobster béchamel, crispy fish skins and fennel."
The chefs who've most inspired him:
"Thomas Keller was a big influence, and Leah Chase in New Orleans."
What's on his much-talked-about charcuterie plate:
"The charcuterie course sets the tone of the meal: Right now we're doing jerk duck prosciutto; chicken and nduja pate; croustilllant filled with hazelnut La Tour cheese; pineapple curd; membrillo dice; and pesto powder."
On the custom dishes he creates for diners on the spot:
"Every now and then I’ll do a special dish for a diner based on a conversation. Sometimes I create something for someone on the spot. A couple told me they loved Dat Dog in New Orleans. I had lobster in the kitchen and shrimp heads, and I made lobster creole with shrimp heads and tomato sauce. I spiced it heavily. We had really nice ingredients to do it with. I get inspired on the fly. It happens about twice a night."
Photo credit: Kevin Carroll.
Why dinner at The Shaw Bijou is different from eating nearly anywhere else:
"The restaurant has been a home for about 200 years, and we’ve taken it over and don’t want to lose that feeling. You start at the bar, you go into the kitchen for a bite to eat, then go back to the dining room. We do some tableside stuff. It’s not like, 'Sit here, the bathroom is over there, I'll bring you food.' No."
How a chef who doesn't have a sweet tooth deals with dessert:
"The dessert menu [by pastry chef Gisell Paula] is very well-thought out. It draws from story and inspiration. For instance we're doing a play on red velvet cake, the only thing I liked to eat as a kid. I didn’t really like desserts. It's a buttermilk cake with salted malt ice cream, beet cheesecake puree, honey brittle and sorrel."
How Top Chef influenced his cooking:
"I was able to cook for so many renowned chefs and get their feedback on how I cook, so that made me think about how I develop flavors. It definitely changed the way I cook. In the last episode after getting kicked off, I told Tom Colicchio that I used to work for him [at Craft in New York City], and that’s what inspired me to pursue the culinary arts for a living."
This week on The Feast, we’re celebrating all the inspiring, mind-blowing, over-the-top—and most of all, delicious—things that are catching our attention in the food and drink world. Stay tuned for must-watch videos, features on the chefs and innovators we love, tips on the most incredible Instagram accounts you should be following, and polls that let you vote on your favorites.
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