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Chef Kwame Onwuachi leaves restaurant, pens emotional note about enslaved people

The award-winning chef and author says it's "the right time" to move forward.
Getty Images/Instagram/TODAY
/ Source: TODAY

On Monday, executive chef and author Kwame Onwuachi announced his departure from Kith and Kin (stylized as Kith/Kin), Washington D.C.'s celebrated hub for Afro-Caribbean cuisine and culture.

In October 2017, Kith and Kin opened its doors at the Intercontinental Washington D.C. - The Wharf, which sits on the Potomac River. Onwuachi's role as executive chef was instrumental in the Michelin-starred restaurant's development and success. He named the restaurant (the phrase "kith and kin" refers to one's friends, family and community), designed its logo and developed its menu, including signature dishes like jerk chicken and Trinidadian goat curry.

In 2019, Onwuachi was a Forbes "30 Under 30" honoree and named Esquire's Chef of the Year. That same year, he earned a James Beard Award for Rising Star Chef of the Year, and during his acceptance speech, he called himself “my ancestors’ wildest dreams.” These accolades came after the chef competed on Bravo's "Top Chef" in 2015 at just 25 years old.

But Onwuachi's position at Kith and Kin was executive chef — not owner — which Onwuachi told TODAY Food was part of the employment agreement from the get-go. But after nearly three years of accelerated growth, he is ready for more.

"It’s a transition that most chefs have. You need room to grow to become better and this was just the space I needed to continue to grow and create spaces that are reflective of who I am," Onwuachi told TODAY. "I'm looking to do something that's my own."

Onwuachi made his resignation official earlier this week with an emotional tribute to Kith and Kin on his personal Instagram. In the caption, he referred to the restaurant as both a tribute to the Black and Indigenous people in America who came before him and a symbol of hope for Black and Indigenous folks in this country today.

"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."

Onwuachi hasn't yet set a timeline or location to open his own restaurant and told TODAY it will depend on the pandemic. Still, he says, "you never know." He does, however, know what he wants to do with it.

"I'm taking time to put a plan together of the type of restaurant that really takes care of the community around them — whether that’s giving back monetarily or just through food. Food insecurity is still very present, especially among our youth," Onwuachi said.

While Kith and Kin was closed from March until June, Onwuachi returned to his hometown, New York City's South Bronx, to work with World Central Kitchen, which is celebrity chef Jose Andres' non-profit organization that provides free meals to people during natural disasters. For a month, Onwuachi worked at Mott Haven Bar and Grill, cooking and serving hot food to local college students, nurses, first responders, fire fighters and whoever needed a meal.

The experience made Onwuachi want to show people that restaurants can be more than just places to eat — they can be community centers.

"It's definitely a new ingredient for my next chapter: how I want my next restaurant to look like," Onwuachi said, adding how the menu will reference African, Caribbean, Creole and Southern cuisine.

Of the many places Onwuachi has lived, he said he's been influenced most by his upbringing in the Bronx and his two years in Nigeria, where he raised his own livestock, grew his own vegetables and learned how to "respect his ingredients."

Shifting away from his position as executive chef at Kith and Kin, which, he said, centered on Black culture and profited off of "Black and Brown dollars," Onwuachi is eager to open a restaurant that taps into "cultural exploration" helmed by a Black man.

"It was bound to happen. But right now it feels right, you know. You can conjoin that with the movement that’s happening now or not," he said when asked about the timing of his venture with heightened awareness of racism in America as a result of the Black Lives Matter movement. "Either way, it's time for this to happen and time to be in control of our own narrative."