Outside of winning, it's hard to see how Kwame Onwuachi's time on Top Chef could have gone any better: He acquitted himself well in the kitchen, earning raves from respected chefs like head judge Tom Colicchio; his likable personality came through in the editing process (not always a guarantee); and he got tons of publicity for his yet-to-open Shaw Bijou (still three to four months away from opening). Still, it wasn't a cakewalk, by any stretch. "I think the cooking was the easy part," he says. "The hardest part was just getting out of your head."
Indeed, his elimination last week was from a conceptual mistake, not a cooking one. Tasked with developing a fast casual concept and serving a dish from the hypothetical menu, Onwuachi chose to use frozen waffles instead of made-to-order ones and got dinged for it by the judges. His elimination leaves only Ripple's Marjorie Meek-Bradley from the trio of D.C. chefs selected for this season, which continues tonight at 9 p.m. on Bravo.
Kwame talked to the City Paper about his season, how a chef with just five years of experience approached the competition, and how he made Colicchio nearly cry when he left.
Let’s talk about the timing of the season. You’re working on opening a restaurant and success on the show has been great publicity. How much of that factored in to doing Top Chef?
It wasn’t really a calculated move. It kinda just happened. We were pushed back because of permits so I was able to do the show. Had permits gone through, I wouldn’t have been able to go on the show.
Did you get approached or did you answer an open call?
Yeah, I got a phone call. It was right before I was about to go to Asia on a trip. I got a phone call asking me if I wanted to go on the show. I said yes and a week later I was in L.A. doing a little interview and shortly after that they were like “pack your bags.”
Who did you talk to beforehand? I know a bunch of chefs who have done it immediately seek out others who have gone on Top Chef.
I didn’t. There’s like this contract you have to sign that’s a million dollar contract with confidentiality [clauses] that I didn’t even reach out to people I knew had been on the show. So, I kind of just tried to watch the show and it just made my stomach hurt. I’ve never even watched a full season. I was so scared. Every challenge, I was like, "What the hell am I going to do? They put a vending machine here [for ingredients]?" All that stuff just scared me so I did not watch the show. I just wished for the best and went out there with my own life experiences and hoped that they would carry me through.
From your first job in a kitchen to now is about, what, five years?
As a professional. I’ve been in kitchens since I was eight, but as a professional, on the line, like five years.
There were people on the show who have been doing it a LOT longer. Was that intimidating?
Of course! I’d be a fool if I said I wasn’t scared. Especially the first episode, that’s the scariest thing, walking in, there’s a part they don’t show where we’re all introducing ourselves and where we came from and what our accolades are. And everyone’s like “James Beard semifinalist,” “Food & Wine Best New Chef,” and “Zagat’s 30 under 30.” I was like “shit, what am I doing here, I made a mistake.” But you get through the challenges and show everybody what you’re working with, and you get your confidence back. Luckily, that happened for me early, and I was able to have some success, pick my head up and perform to best of my ability.
It seemed like you had success early and then had a tougher time as the season went along. Is that accurate? Not accurate?
I don’t think that’s entirely accurate.
Is that just an edit?
No, there were 11 episodes that I was on. I definitely won a couple challenges, but throughout it I was in the top. I was one of the chefs on the top the most, regardless of being on the bottom in a couple. I don’t think I was weaker toward the end. I started strong. It’s a challenging competition.
What did you learn out of it?
I definitely learned a little humility. You cook for some of the best chefs in the country and they told you whether your food was good or bad. I took a lot away from that. Watching the show, it’s like the first time that you see yourself and it’s an out of body experience. You see how you react in tough situations. It was good for me to see that. And it also gives you confidence at the same time.
Any challenge you want back?
No. I don’t think I’d change anything. The challenge I went out on for frozen waffles, it still tasted good. It would have sucked if they said that it was disgusting and it’s frozen. It was a fast casual concept and, in my mind, I’m thinking fast casual/fast food, everything is not made from scratch. That’s just impossible to do. That was just my thought process. I know it probably wasn’t the best thing in a cooking competition [laughs]. But I don’t think I’d take back anything, honestly. I cooked my heart out. I showed well, and I think I showed America who I am. I’ve got no regrets.
How do you think you came out in the final cut? There’s so much that happens and a day gets distilled down to 15 minutes of time.
I think my personality shined through. I was very supportive of the other chefs and very humble. Very respectful. That’s just who I am day-to-day. I think it came through. I do know how to have a lot of fun outside of the kitchen, but in the kitchen, I’m very professional.
I thought it was a really interesting moment when you went out, talking with Tom Colicchio, and he seemed to get a little choked up after telling him that you wanted to be a chef after working as a server in one of his restaurants. You don’t see people stop him like that very much.
I had a number of the producers come up to me afterwards and say that Tom had never been choked up like that or teared up for a contestant. And I think it’s just a testament to my character and how I carried myself on the show. Whenever I was on the bottom, I never argued and said I shouldn’t be there. I tell everyone about the show that if you don’t want to go home, don’t cook a bad dish, because the bottom three? Those were bad dishes. Now did the person who went home cook the worst dish? Maybe not, but that’s subjective. Taste buds vary from person to person. But you can say the dish was bad. I never argued about being on the bottom.
What’s something that I might not notice from watching on TV?
Maybe the length of judges table. It’s longer. They definitely take their time and they go through everyone’s dish and tell you whether you’re on the bottom or the top. They tell you what was wrong with your dish and they give you time to have a rebuttal and explain yourself. For us, you have a fair chance at explaining why you did something or them telling you why you’re going home. That’s one of the things I wish they could extend. Sometimes, it lasted three hours.
Who did you walk away from the show thinking “I didn’t know that I was going to like this person”?
Probably two people. Karen [Akunowicz], for one. I didn’t think I was going to like her, and she’s like one of my best friends. We really bonded and were kind of like a crutch for each other. Jeremy [Ford], he’s such a bro. He’s such a California surfer bro, and I didn’t think I was going to like him, but we became roommates and hit it off.
Is he as big of a bro as on the show? Because he definitely got the “bro” edit.
Oh, my God. [laughs] They can’t even capture it all on the edit.
Anything that you got from being on the show that’s going to help you open the restaurant?
I cooked against the best of them on the show, and I was one of the frontrunners the whole season. That, and the experience of cooking for these awesome chefs. All of those things help you. Having that support system. I can call Amar [Santana] at any time with a question about BTUs [for a stove], and he’s opened a bunch of restaurants so he can give me advice. I think those relationships and that boost of confidence are definitely helping.