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Kwame Onwuachi doesn't want to be known as a celebrity chef

The new “Top Chef” guest judge spoke to TODAY about using his platform to speak up on issues that matter — and his next steps in the culinary world.
/ Source: TODAY

Chef Kwame Onwuachi is well-known online and on TV, but don't call him a celebrity chef.

As he sat down with TODAY Food via Zoom earlier this year, he explained why he's not a fan of the term.

"I dislike the term celebrity chef," he said with an easy laugh, pointing out that you don't have celebrity nurses — they're just people who are good at their jobs. When you say celebrity chef, you're grouping people who are celebrities who know about food with chefs who are visible on TV, he explained.

The James Beard Award winner would prefer you just call him by his first name, Kwame. He definitely falls into the latter category as a chef who is very visible on television.

Onwuachi seated behind a counter in smart glasses appears to explain something with hand gestures
Onwuachi appears on episode 1802 of "Top Chef."David Moir / Bravo

He's a guest judge on the current season of "Top Chef" — which he originally appeared on as a contestant in late 2015-early 2016 — and he's enjoying the role reversal. "Every contestant's dream is to not run around trying making a taco in 15 minutes ever again," he said, noting that he's judging from a place of "empathy and understanding."

He's also written book, "Notes from a Young Black Chef," and that book is being made into a movie he says will start filming this summer starring LaKeith Stanfield. He's also working on his second book — a cookbook this time.

"The rise into more visibility, as I like to say, it's been interesting," he said. "It's been a balance. I think you have to understand that there's a platform that you have with that. There's a responsibility that you have to you know advocate for something as well and use that to use that for good."

Onwuachi explained that he's always believed in using his platform to speak up on issues that matter to him, but this past June during the Black Lives Matter protests, it continued to weigh heavily on his heart and mind.

"it was tough in many ways because I've always been outspoken and then everyone was looking at me like, 'OK, now you got to say something,'" he said. "And I was like, 'The f---? I've been saying something this whole time!'"

"This isn't a new issue that's happened, you know, this isn't the first time it's been documented ... it's just being widely spread more because of social media."

He posted several times on social media about it.

"We must end this violence," he wrote in an Instagram post. "We must end dehumanizing black people. We must end these attacks."

In the caption, he simply wrote, "tired."

craig melvin and onwuachi stand on the set of the TODAY Show with food in front of them, cooking.
Onwuachi cooks with TODAY's Craig Melvin on April 19, 2019.Nathan Congleton / NBC

Around the same time, Onwuachi decided to leave his Washington D.C. restaurant, Kith and Kin (stylized as Kith/Kin) that sits along the Potomac River. In July, he penned a long tribute to the Black and Indigenous people in America who came before him.

"Opening Kith/Kin was a dream, for me and for many. It was a dream for the 272 slaves from Georgetown that sailed down the Potomac, leaving from right in front of where Kith/Kin stands, not knowing where they’d end up. For the 77 slaves in 1848 that were trying to achieve freedom by commandeering a ship from the wharf with the goal of equality. A dream for the Native Americans and Africans who met here, where these buildings stand, trading ideas and practices in order to survive," Onwuachi wrote. "This place was for dreamers, least notably me, but dreamers who maintained faith that one day their culture would be accepted as equal and significant."

Now, the Bronx native says he is spending much of his time in Los Angeles. In an interview with Food and Wine, where he was recently named a contributing executive producer, he explained that while his brand expands, he also "just wanted a change of scenery."

"I think it's always great to shift gears in different parts of your life. I just needed to gain more inspiration and to have a space to spread my wings a little bit," he told the magazine.

That's not to say Onwuachi doesn't miss life in a restaurant kitchen. "There's nothing like being in a restaurant that's firing on all cylinders — it's like it's a symphony. It's a beautiful thing so I can't wait," he told TODAY.

Try Kwame Onwuachi's recipes:

Saltfish Salad (Buljol)

Saltfish Salad (Buljol)

Suya-Spiced Short Ribs with Shito Honey

Suya-Spiced Short Ribs with Shito Honey