There's a whole new world under that rock.
The James Beard Awards are the Grammys of the American culinary industry, a peak career achievement for chefs and restauranteurs. There are five Washington-area finalist nominations this year, among them two up-and-coming chefs: Kwame Onwuachi and Tom Cunanan.
Onwuachi and Cunanan have taken different paths to leading D.C. restaurants. In his memoir “Notes From A Young Black Chef,” Onwuachi recounts how he came of age in the Bronx and Nigeria, developed his craft in Louisiana and on a Deepwater Horizon cleanup ship, and experienced subtle and not-so-subtle racism in the in New York and D.C. fine-dining scenes. After his fine-dining restaurant Shaw Bijou fizzled months after opening, he’s now the executive chef and creator of Afro-Caribbean restaurant Kith/Kin.
Philippines-born Tom Cunanan moved with his family to Maryland when he was three years old and began working in the local culinary scene at 16. He’s the chef behind D.C.’s Bad Saint, a Filipino restaurant that has earned national acclaim for balancing traditional flavors with local ingredients.
We talk with Onwuachi and Cunanan about sharing stories through food and navigating the culinary industry as chefs of color. And we look at how the District’s food landscape has changed over the years, and where it has room to grow.
Produced by Cydney Grannan
KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. The James Beard Awards are seen as the Oscars of the food world. This year, DC-area chefs and restaurants earned five finalist nominations. Today, I'm sitting down with two of these chefs to talk about their journeys through kitchens, their thoughts on the District's culinary scene, and how they paint their self-portraits through food. Joining me in studio is Kwame Onwuachi. He is the executive chef and creator of Kith and Kin, also owner of Philly Wing Fry, and the author of the book "Notes From a Young Black Chef." Kwame Onwuachi, welcome. Thank you for joining us.
KWAME ONWUACHIThank you. It's a pleasure to be back here.
NNAMDIAlso in studio with us is Tom Cunanan. He is the executive chef of Bad Saint, a Filipino restaurant in Columbia Heights. Tom Cunanan, thank you for joining us.
TOM CUNANANThank you so much. I'm glad to be here.
NNAMDITom, this is your third year as a finalist for the James Beard Award for best chef, mid-Atlantic. All three of these years, you've been at Bad Saint, a Filipino restaurant, here in Northwest. How did you first get started in the culinary industry?
CUNANANSo, I started when I was 16 years old. You know, I'm from Hyattsville, Maryland. I went to Northwestern High School. And I was in the Boys and Girls Club, and one of the teachers got me a gig to work at a French restaurant downtown on 36th (sounds like) and K, called Corduroy. And I started off as a dishwasher on the weekends and a bar-back on weekdays.
NNAMDIThat's how you first got started?
CUNANANThat's how I first--yeah. (laugh)
NNAMDIWhen did you first start cooking Filipino food, and what are the hallmarks of that cuisine?
CUNANANWell, you know, obviously, I was born in the Philippines, and my mom, she was a phenomenal cook. She had a garden. So, just whenever she had downtime, she would, you know, just make a whole spread of, like, Filipino food. And five years ago, she was a -- I'm sorry, like, seven years ago, she was diagnosed with cancer. And so, she, like, passed down her notes to me, and she was, like, why not, you know, take it, you know, use it and see where it goes? And here we are today. (laugh) I'm on “The Kojo Show.” (laugh)
NNAMDIWow. (laugh) And how did your Filipino cooking lead you to become the chef at Bad Saint?
CUNANANSo, my mom had a garden when we used to live in Brentwood, Maryland. And she would always, like, grow bitter melon, squash, fruits, like strawberries. So, she was, like, really into Filipino vegetarian food. And so when I met Genevieve Villamora and Nick Pimentel, you know, we talked about doing a tasting for my food. And so I made a bitter melon stir-fry called Ampalaya. And Genevieve was, like, oh, my God. This is what we were looking for. You know, usually, Filipino food is so heavy. It's, like, oxtail. It's, like, a lot of pork, a lot of rice that's involved. And, you know, this is what a lot of people would associate Filipino food with, you know.
CUNANANSo, I did mine with just like a -- I just did a lot of vegetables, and they're just, like, (snaps finger) that's it. You know, you're the one. You're the guy. (laugh)
NNAMDIAnd we now have Bad Saint. So, how now are you incorporating local ingredients into your Filipino cooking at Bad Saint?
CUNANANSo, you know, we just, like, have local radishes on the menu that we get from the farmers market, or like farmers from Maryland, Pennsylvania, you know. And the menu changes pretty often. Like, we will switch out vegetables for our Ginisang Gulay, which is like our vegetable stir-fry that's on a wok. And, you know, we just like switch out, like, vegetables. You know, if it's fall, we use a lot of squash. If it's, like, this summer, a lot of spring onions, a lot of ramps. So, yeah, it's just like, you know, we're just going according to what season -- you know, what the season holds.
NNAMDIKwame Onwuachi, you're a finalist for the James Beard Rising Star Chef of the Year Award, which recognizes a chef age 30 or younger who displays exceptional talent, character and leadership ability, and who's likely to make a significant impact in years to come. You've done a lot to make such a huge mark fairly early in your career. Let's start with what you're doing now at your restaurant Kith and Kin. What type of restaurant is it, and what type of experience are you trying to create there?
ONWUACHISo, Kith and Kin is an Afro-Caribbean restaurant on the wharf at the Intercontinental Hotel. You know, we have, like, four pillars that we really try to hone in on. So, it's Trinidadian, Nigerian, Jamaican and Creole from Louisiana. And that's where my family's from. So, I joke with my guests a lot that this menu is just Thanksgiving for me, you know. We have all our family. We come together. You'll see jollof rice. You'll see oxtail. You'll see curry goat. And we just, you know -- I just do it through the lens that I have from my experience. But, yeah, it's...
NNAMDI(overlapping) Glad you mentioned from your experience...
ONWUACHI...from my ancestors.
NNAMDI...because you published a memoir last month called "Notes From a Young Black Chef," where you share your path from childhood through when you open the fine dining restaurant in the District a few years ago. In it, you outline an upbringing that spans New York, Nigeria, Louisiana. How did your growing up and the cuisines that you were exposed to growing up influence Kith and Kin?
ONWUACHIIt highly influenced Kith and Kin. When I was doing research and development for the menu, I just went through things that I grew up eating. And it was a lot more fluid than any other time that I've opened a restaurant. Because I could call my mom and say, hey, remember when you made this, like, what did you put in that? Or my grandmother, you know. So, it was a great, cathartic experience that I cherish to this day, that opening menu.
NNAMDIOn your menu, you incorporate dishes from your childhood, some from Nigeria, like jollof rice and suya. Can you explain what those dishes are and how you make them?
ONWUACHIYeah, absolutely. So, suya is kind of like Nigerian barbecue, you know, to kind of, like, break it down. So, we take meat and we season it very heavily with the suya spice, which has ground nuts, grains of paradise or alligator pepper, ginger, cayenne, paprika, garlic. And then we just grill the meats, and then we serve it with tomatoes and onions. It's served in a newspaper, and you can get it all across Nigeria -- all across West Africa, really.
NNAMDIWell, you weren't born in Nigeria. You didn't exactly grow up in Nigeria, but at one point, you were, well, behaving badly, (laugh) and your mother decided...
ONWUACHIThat's a good way to put it.
NNAMDI...your mother decided that you needed to go spend some time with your grandfather. And I'll just cut to the chase, right here. Once of the reasons I'm really excited to meet you for the second time today is because by reading this book, I realize that I knew your grandfather, Chike Onwuachi, who, when I came here to Washington in 1969, was in the African Studies Department at Howard University, and who I and a lot of people who were interested in pan-Africanism at the time, got to know pretty well. But in 1973, he moved back to Nigeria. And then you got sent to live with him many years later. What was that like for you?
ONWUACHIIt was a culture shock, you know, as cliché as that is. I went from playing PlayStation to doing my homework by kerosene lamp, you know. I went from going to Popeye's and getting, you know, chicken buckets to raising my own chickens. So, it taught me a lot, you know, and it definitely correlated to my professional life later on down the line, because I learned the importance of knowing where your food comes from, but also what goes into making that food.
NNAMDIYeah, because you were enjoying that food, living in New York in your mother's kitchen.
NNAMDIAnd you go to Nigeria, and you find out exactly where it came from. That's a fascinating story. Kith and Kin isn't the first time you've shared your story through food. In 2016, you opened Shaw Bijou, which closed relatively soon after opening, but we'll get to that in a second. First, tell us about Shaw Bijou. What experience did you create there?
ONWUACHII created a beautiful experience. It was a culmination of, you know, years and years of hard work and bootstrapping, and especially the Shaw Bijou itself. You know, I build that restaurant with my hands. You know, we tiled the floors. We put up drywall.
NNAMDIYeah, because I know that building before you guys got in there. (laugh)
ONWUACHIYeah, exactly, you know. And it was an old row house that, you know, the four of us, we put a lot of work into. And it's unfortunate how it panned out. But, you know, we curated the experience. You know, you walked in, you sat at the bar, you got a custom cocktail. You got a bite to accompany that. We built a staircase that went into the kitchen, and you had your next course. And then you went into the dining room, and then came back into the kitchen halfway through your meal.
ONWUACHIAnd then we would curate it, too, you know, based off of your likes and your preferences. So, it was a beautiful culmination of years of hard work, as well as, you know, just a different dining experience that I think was unique at the time.
NNAMDII lived in Shaw for 20 years, and I knew that house, and I knew it had to take a lot of work to convert that house into what it was.
NNAMDIBut, Tom, it's my understanding that you dined at Shaw Bijou.
NNAMDIHow did you enjoy it? Tell us about your experience there.
CUNANANIt was awesome. I had steak and eggs that Kwame brought out, and it was the best steak and eggs I ever had. (laugh)
CUNANANYeah, the steak was cooked perfectly. I mean, the food was great.
CUNANANAnd, you know, we're just hang out at the bar and, you know, it was just a really fun time.
NNAMDIShaw Bijous closed about three months after opening. What happened? From reading the book, you obviously felt that if it had been given more time, it would've met the expectations of all of the customers and potential customers. What happened?
ONWUACHII'd say with any business, you know, you ran out of money. You know, why do businesses close? Because there's a lack of capital, you know. The book goes into a more detailed reasoning why, but, you know, when people ask me, why did it close, we ran out of money. If we had more money, we would still be opened today.
NNAMDI(overlapping) One of your partners, in particular, ran out of money, and you talk about that...
NNAMDI...at some length...
NNAMDI...in the book. But in your memoir, there's a striking moment when a TV producer tells you, quoting here, that "America isn't ready for a black chef who makes fine dining food." What did you think, A., about that remark, and two, do you think that DC wasn't ready for the same thing?
ONWUACHIYou know, I go back and forth with that remark quite often throughout my career, to be quite honest with you. At that moment, I don't think she had mal intent when she was saying that. She was relaying what America was asking for as a food producer.
NNAMDI(overlapping) Yeah, she said what America wanted to see was a black chef cooking black food.
ONWUACHIBlack food. And, you know, all the food that I cook is black food. I'm black, you know. And that's what I wanted to scream at her at the time. But also, I wasn't going to compromise who I am -- and I've never done that in my career -- to fit the mold that people think that I should be in, whether it's my age, whether it's my quote-unquote "experience." I'm going to be who I am, no matter what, because it's my life that I have to live. So, yeah.
NNAMDIHere is Mohammad, in DC. Mohammad, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MOHAMMADThank you so much, Kojo. A big fan. I have a question for the chefs here. I mean, I think DC is an incredible place to open a restaurant, because you have people from every state in the nation, every corner of the world, because of the embassies. And I'm wondering if that diversity, is that a challenge? Does that make you raise your game, because people have, you know, higher expectations and they already know your food? Or is that sort of, you know, a disappointment? Because you're not really bringing anything new if people are familiar with a lot of these flavors and a lot of these profiles already. How does the diversity of the city change your approach to cooking?
NNAMDITom, you've got people living here from the Philippines. Tourists coming here from the Philippines. (laugh) How do they review Bad Saint?
CUNANANI mean, for me, it's, like, what I want for Bad Saint is I want it to be a regional cuisine. Not just, like, representing DC, but representing a nation and representing all these, like, 7,000 islands. And so what I do, when I went back home...
NNAMDIThere are 7,000 islands in the Philippines.
CUNANANMore than 7,000 islands, yeah. And I went back home two years ago, I noticed that the Philippines, it's so vast. Like, if you go up north, it's more Spanish and Chinese. And then if you're from down south, you're closer to Southeast Asia, and the food is -- you know, it's, like, goat-heavy. It's a lot of chilies, a lot of lemongrass. So, what I try to do here in DC is try to accommodate every part, every...
CUNANAN...every region, every sort of background, like from Chinese to Spanish, to Mexican to Southeast Asia. And you can find all of that in my menu.
NNAMDIWhat happens when somebody comes in from Trinidad and tastes your goat curry or somebody from Nigeria comes in and reviews your jollof rice?
ONWUACHIThey're usually very, very excited. For one, you know, I was talking to somebody before I came in here. I think I'm my ancestors' wildest dreams, and I think, you know, Tom is the same thing, as well. You know, for us to have a restaurant that we can celebrate our culture while still celebrating a special occasion is rare. It's for Filipino food. It's rare for, you know, African and Caribbean food. So, when people come in, you know, they have this jovial expression on their face. They're so excited just to be there. And then when the food comes out and it reminds them of home, it's an added bonus.
ONWUACHIBut it's like just having a platform or a soapbox to, like, scream from the mountaintops that our food needs to be represented, as well, is usually more than enough for people from my culture that come to dine at the restaurant.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. Do you think the Washington area is a bona fide food region? Why or why not? 800-433-8850. You can also send us a Tweet @kojoshow or email to firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking with two local chefs who are both finalists for the James Beard Award. Kwame Onwuachi is the executive chef and creator of Kith and Kin. He's the owner of Philly Wing Fry and author of the book "Notes From a Young Black Chef." Tom Cunanan is the executive chef of Bad Saint, a Filipino restaurant in Columbia Heights. Kwame, in your memoir, you detail quite a few instances of racism, sometimes blatant, sometimes less so. There was a particular incident at 11 Madison Park, a fine dining restaurant in New York where you approached the chef about a grater that servers used tableside. The brand name of the grater sounds the same as a racial slur that's in Italian. Can you explain what happened?
ONWUACHII mean, yeah. You know, so, I want to go into the backstory as to how I even knew that this was a racial slur.
NNAMDIRight, as explained in the book.
ONWUACHIYeah, so my friend, he got a job at an Italian tailor, and his name was Shumari. And he walked in, he was like, hey, my name is Shumari, and they thought he said Shamooli. (sounds like) And they were like, oh, my God, this is hilarious. Your name is Shamooli and they were laughing about him. And he came home and told me the story, and I was, like, oh let me look up the word moolie, and it was a derogatory word for an African American person, based off an eggplant.
ONWUACHISo, when I saw the word at the restaurant I just was like, you know, this is a restaurant that is known for its impeccable service. You know, I just want to be -- I want to help with that, you know, in case there's a person of color that dines there. And it just wasn't met with any tone of seriousness.
NNAMDIWhoa. Was that the only experience of racism you experienced, or are there others that stand out?
ONWUACHII'd be very lucky if that was the only (laugh) -- and I would have to live in a box if that was the only form of racism I've experienced. You know, I think the purpose of this book, you know, it's not for young black chefs. It's not for young chefs. It's for everyone, in general. And the moments that I talk about with racism transcends professions. It happens at the -- you know, as you get to the smaller and smaller rooms, you know, and you get higher and higher on the chain. It happens in there, because there's less and less people of color, normally. And it's unfortunate, but I think it's necessary to talk about. And when you talk about these things it brings awareness.
NNAMDII find you very frank about it in the book. I mean, you've named names of the people who were involved, and you talk in detail about the experiences. Tom, working up through kitchens in this DC region, did you experience racism?
CUNANANI mean, I've experienced racism all my life, I mean, since school. Since, like, I was eight, ten years old, you know, being from PG County Maryland, you know, I was one of the few Asians that lived in that area back in the '90s. So, you know, every day I had to, like, fight my way just to get, you know, through it. And same thing for me, it was like working at restaurants. I was already, like, used to it. Kind of not numb, but like I kind of, like, grew a skin for it. And for people like that, that, you know, who came to me was, hey, this and that. And it was one of those things where you have to sort of defend yourself.
NNAMDIAnd that's something you grew up doing.
CUNANANYeah, that's something I grew up doing. I mean, all my life. I mean, people would call me the C word, or they would call me something, you know, like yellow, whatever. And I had to do something about it to gain that respect. So, for me, like, in kitchens, what I needed to do to gain respect was be better than the line cook.
NNAMDI(overlapping) And you're very competitive.
CUNANANCompetitive, yeah. And so, like, you know, I wanted to be better, faster, you know, like just outdo that guy every time, every time, to get them to finally respect me and, you know, and look up to me.
NNAMDIAnd that apparently is something you accomplished. Kwame, you indicated this already, if you want to expand on it some more: do you think this racism has to do with the lack of diversity in the culinary industry, generally?
ONWUACHIYeah. I mean, I think racism always comes from a point of uncomfortability, or it's a subconscious way to display your uncomfortability. And because there's a lack of diversity, there's a lack of camaraderie for people of color, you know. If I walk into a room and there's not many people that look like me, I stand out, you know. And that's when uncomfortable jokes come about, because they don't know how to communicate effectively.
ONWUACHIBut that inhibits me from doing my job well. And, yes, I'm right there with Tom. I need to work harder. And normally I have to work twice as hard to even get to where other people are. But not everyone is built like us, you know. And it stops a lot of people that are passionate about this craft to continue going.
NNAMDIIn your memoir, you also detailed the criticism you received about your young age. People thought that you hadn't paid your dues before opening up Shaw Bijou. After it closed, you felt that the media and others in the food industry framed it as, well, he was a young kid who needed to learn his lesson. But when I read the book, or when I read the book, I realize now -- which I didn't realize then -- what your experiences were, and how you felt about the whole notion that you hadn't paid your dues. Talk a little bit about that.
ONWUACHII think dues are relative. You know, I think one has to hone their craft. That's an important thing in any field, any profession. But it's not up to anyone to tell you what dues you should be paying, or when you are ready to do something. You don't live my life. I don't live your life. And as long as I'm not doing anything that's, one, out of character, or something to hurt somebody.
ONWUACHIYou know, I opened a business. It didn't work out. I didn't (laugh) -- I don't think there's a hard-learned lesson that I need to learn. And it's that thing where it's racism covered by other words, I feel, in some ways. Like, you need to humble yourself, stay in your lane. You know, don't step into this territory. And I think it's, for a lack of better words, you know, yes.
NNAMDI(overlapping) I think Chike Onwuachi and others would've said that people did not understand the dues your ancestors paid so that you could get to that position today. But, Tom, what are your thoughts on this idea of needing to pay your dues in the kitchen before you can lead your own restaurant?
CUNANANI mean, for me, it was, like, I worked at a lot of restaurants in DC, for 20 years. And was a particular skill that I wanted to learn. You know, I wanted to learn how to break down whole animals or filet 300 types of species of fish, you know. And once I gained that ability, I left. I didn't have people tell me, hey, you got to stay here and learn this. No, I don't want to learn that. No, I'll go somewhere else and learn that. So, for me, it was just, like, I was just getting ability, rather than having to have someone tell me to pay my dues, you know.
ONWUACHIAnd, like I said, these are relative. I broke down whole goats in a little village in Nigeria when I was younger. You know what I mean?
ONWUACHISo, I don't think we need to, like, always put down on paper every single thing we've done for then someone to say like, okay, now you're ready to do this.
NNAMDIWell, both of you are now prominent chefs, running your own kitchen. What are you doing differently than the chefs you -- or some of the chefs you used to work for?
ONWUACHII think it's being aware of the way that, you know, we're treating people is the most important thing. You know, I would never say that I'm perfect. You know, I think, you know, there are tough times in a restaurant, where you sometimes can lose who you are in the moment. But as long as you can recognize that, I think that's the first step to change.
ONWUACHIAnd having a relationship with your staff is extremely important. Knowing what's going on with this person's personal life and why they're showing up late and what we can do to ensure that they can, one, get to work on time, but also taking care of their other business that happens outside of this work. Because they're working so hard for us, for us to be successful, also so they can gain some knowledge. But we need to be cognizant of that when we're dealing with someone that's, you know, working under us.
CUNANANFor me, it's just, like, constantly mentoring my line cooks. Teach them how to taste food better, how to have a better discipline within themselves. Just, like, trying to just really educating my staff and my guests about Filipino food.
NNAMDIHere's Daniel, in Baltimore. Daniel, you're turn.
DANIELHi, guys. This is a great show. I work with a lot of chefs in both DC and Baltimore and even beyond. I sell wild mushrooms and things like ramps. And I probably have worked with over 100 chefs in the last seven or eight years. And I have maybe two chefs that are African American, and one left the city. And then I have another who's a woman. And the rest are just white males. I mean, I love working with these guys, but it's just the lack of diversity in that sector is just stunning. And I was wondering if your guests had any ideas on how they can kind of encourage the youth to kind of pursue the culinary art because it's just a great pursuit. And I'll take my answer off the air.
NNAMDIAny thoughts, Kwame?
ONWUACHIYeah, I mean, I think that's great. Thank you so much for calling in. So, when I was coming up, I had Patrick Clark to look up to and Marcus Samuelsson, someone of color that that was really doing something, and Leah Chase, you know. I think the more of us, like me, you know, JJ Johnson, Eduardo Jordan, Nina Compton, Nyesha Arrington. You know, I have names I can rattle off right now.
ONWUACHIAnd the more -- it starts from the top. It starts from editorial staffs diversifying their staffs. So, when they're going out reviewing these, you know, lists for top restaurants, there's some diversity there. So, they're seeking out, you know, great, whether it's Filipino food or Caribbean food or African food. So, that gives chefs like us a chance, you know, to get into the spotlight. So, that's a loaded question, but I think the more opportunities we get as a people, it will inspire the next generation.
NNAMDIWell, we're running out of time, but I got to get Marie Ta in, because Marie Ta has a very specific question for Chef Onwuachi. Marie, go ahead, please.
MARIEHi. Thank you for your program. I want you to discuss (unintelligible) which is a favorite West African dish.
NNAMDIWhat's the name of it?
MARIEChebujen. (sounds like)
NNAMDIKebujen. (sounds like)
ONWUACHII'm not familiar with it.
MARIENo, chebujen C-i-e...
NNAMDINo, we're not familiar -- where did you have it?
MARIESenegal and Ivory Coast.
NNAMDISenegal and Ivory Coast. I guess it is not native to Nigeria, and therefore, Kwame, at this point, doesn't know a great deal about it. We got a Tweet from Angela, who says, best cheesecake at Philly Wing Fry. How do you...
NNAMDICheese steak, yes. How do you work that?
ONWUACHIWe just, you know, we get our bread from a local bakery, Leon Bakery. It's great. We dry-age our beef. We use smoked provolone cheese. We toast the bread in dried beef fat. We make our own spice blends in house. And we just, you know -- I put a little love into it, and eat it how I want to eat it. I used to serve it the Shaw Bijou, at the bar, funny enough.
NNAMDII'm afraid that's all the time we have. Kwame Onwuachi is the executive chef and creator of Kith and Kin, owner of Philly Wing Fry and the author of "Notes From a Young Black Chef." Good to see you.
NNAMDITom Cunanan is the executive chef of Bad Saint, the Filipino restaurant in Columbia Heights. Tom, thank you for joining us.
CUNANANThank you so much.
NNAMDIThey are both finalists for the James Beard Award, the Oscars of the culinary world. In 2010 the James Beard Award Foundation Award for best audio webcast or radio show went to “The Kojo Nnamdi Show,” honoring the show's focus on food and culinary-related treats. So, I wish both of you and all five finalists from the DC area the best of luck.
NNAMDIOur conversation with local chefs was produced by Cydney Grannan, and our show on pot tourism was produced by Mark Gunnery. Coming up tomorrow, we'll look into a group of white nationalists who protested an antiracist book event last weekend. Plus, we look at how Amazon's arrival in Washington will affect the local tech force. That all starts tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thanks for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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