Top Chef favourite brings taste of the Caribbean and Creole to Test Kitchen
Kwame Onwuachi, who has cooked at the White House for Barack Obama, revisits Hong Kong for a pop-up where guests can enjoy his dishes that recall his Nigerian, Trinidadian and Jamaican roots
Chef Kwame Onwuachi is happy to be back in Hong Kong, ready to cook a taste of home for diners on his second visit as guest chef at Test Kitchen from February 7-11.
The last time the 28-year-old Bronx native was here, in March 2015, he was getting ready to open his restaurant Shaw Bijou in Washington DC.
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But just before he did that Onwuachi, who previously worked at places like Eleven Madison Park and Per Se, was a contestant on Top Chef season 13, and quickly became a fan favourite because of his story of spending part of his childhood in Nigeria and opened his own catering company at 20.
“I never really watched the show so I didn’t know what to expect. It looks easier than it is,” he recalls. “I was the youngest on the show and everyone had way more experience than me. I was a line cook competing against executive chefs.”
Onwuachi kept his head down and was very pleased to finish a semi-finalist. This led to a cooking demo at the White House for then US President Barack Obama, and opening his restaurant in August 2016.
“It was a great feeling because it was on paper for so long. We were in the space envisioning what it would look like for two years, so when it finally opened it was surreal,” he says.
His mother operated Jewels, a catering company from their flat in the Bronx, and she nurtured Onwuachi’s love of cooking. He named his restaurant Shaw Bijou, in a nod to her.
However, the numerous delays in opening the restaurant and the high price – US$185 for a 18-course set menu – without drinks – gave plenty of ammunition for food critics to shoot down Shaw Bijou, and in three months it closed.
“It was tough being critiqued, but you have to take it with a grain of salt,” he says. The prices were set according to food costs, and the investors didn’t have enough money to keep the restaurant going.
“When you open a restaurant, it’s like having a child. You want to see it grow up, and to see it close like that – it was like a death in the family. There was disbelief,” he says. “I was sad,angry that it was over, then I remembered the good things.”
What was his takeaway from that roller-coaster ride? “Never give up, never let anything keep you down,” he replies. “I put so much into it … do you look at it as two years down the drain, or two years’ experience towards the next project?”
Six months later, he opened Kith/Kin in Washington. The Afro-Caribbean restaurant located in the InterContinental Hotel, harks back to his family roots in Nigeria, Trinidad and Jamaica, cooking Creole dishes on a ship off of Louisiana.
“The dishes on the Kith and Kin menu are what I grew up with, and you’ll be tasting some of them at Test Kitchen in Hong Kong,” he explains.
These include king crab curry with plantain granola and coriander, braised oxtail, marinated in jerk spices and curry powder, then braised in stock, and whole fried Caribbean red snapper fried and glazed with a ginger and garlic purée and tomato.
“When I was creating the menu for Kith and Kin, I was testing dishes from my childhood. I was cooking from memory and I would call my mother and grandma [to ask] how they cooked the dishes then I would make them my own.”
Kwame Onuwachi’s dinner HK$980 per person, with an additional HK$300 for the wine and cocktail pairing. Only Sunday February 11 is still available. Inquiries: testkitchen.com.hk.
Test Kitchen, shop 3158A Connaught Road West, Sai Ying Pun.