Chef Kwame Onwuachi Reflects on the Many Ways That Food Builds Connections
During his star-studded career as a Top Chef contestant and judge, 2019 James Beard Rising Star Chef of the Year, restaurateur, and author of the memoir Notes From a Young Black Chef ($22.49, amazon.com), chef Kwame Onwuachi has learned just how important food is to him. He explains, "It is such a huge factor of my life. It shows my cultural identity, but you're [also] able to do so much with food. You can really get to know people's culture. Food is something that has taken me across the globe for advocacy work as well as just work in general."
Not only is food essential to life, but it has the ability to make life as we know it extra special. Onwuachi knows that a simple meal has the power to communicate love, and he wants to share that fact with the entire world. At his inaugural Family Reunion event, held in August at the Salamander Resort and Spa in Virginia, Onwuachi curated a heavenly gathering that celebrated food, family, and ultimately fun, for a weekend that attendees surely hated to leave. As we say goodbye to summer and welcome the arrival of fall—and then the holidays and even more opportunities to host those we hold nearest and dearest—Onwuachi reflected on the joy of feasting with family and friends.
At just over 30, Onwuachi has achieved a level of success that many seek and that has helped pave the way for other chefs of color dreaming of success in the competitive world of the culinary arts. He says that the Family Reunion event was inspired by things that he cares deeply about, including experiencing the joy of coming together around food. "I wanted a place where we could get together, let loose and be free. I wanted a place that, you know, it wasn't just one or two token Black people for a food event, but it was something that celebrates that. And I wanted something that was cool, something that was fun. Something to do at every turn. Dancing, music, things that I enjoy at events in general, sprinkled with delicious food."
Family Reunion had all of the fine food you might imagine enjoying at a traditional family reunion, along with healthy helpings of fun moments that the best memories are made of—be it a surprise appearance by comedian and close personal friend of Onwuachi, comedian Dave Chappelle, fellow celebrity chef and cookbook author Carla Hall cutting it up on the dance floor with fellow guests, or singer Estelle rocking the mic and blessing anyone she could reach with a jovial drink top-off as everyone reveled in the musical merriment. Onwuachi says he intends to turn the successful event into an annual affair where folks can come as friends, and leave feeling like family.
Fellow celebrity chefs, including his Top Chef co-star Padma Lakshmi and famed show alumnae-turned-successful restaurateur and TV personality Tiffany Derry, not only fed Family Reunion guests, but they also offered food for thought with engaging and informative candid conversations. Onwuachi says that they all feel like close family to him so it was a no-brainer that he share the spotlight and the love with this special group of restaurateurs who have had similar experiences in their journeys as chefs of color, and who like him want to reach back to uplift and inspire. "I think when you work in a restaurant, it's kind of like a family in general. We all take care of each other. We eat together, we spend so much time together—that's really rooted within the industry already. In terms of events, I think when you can get together and experience it as a family, you start to see some similar faces, some familiar faces, you're starting to get to know people, you can network. That's what our food events should be like."
As for what he wanted the result to be? "You're not just walking away with your liver and belly full, you're walking away with your mind [and] your heart full," he says. Onwuachi reveals that at the end of [Family Reunion], "I did say, I feel full—full of appreciation, full of inspiration, full of happiness, full of joy, full of life." Needless to say, creating magical memories with loved ones around food brings Onwuachi, who is of African and Caribbean descent and comes from a family of professional foodies (he recalls that his mom, sister and grandmother had a restaurant, as well as his grandfather), tremendous joy, and he understands the power that food has to bring people together in a uniquely special way. What is his favorite meal to share with family? "My mom makes gumbo and the family gets together. It's the only time you can get [us] to be quiet."
With the holiday season approaching and families already starting to think about how to make this year's festivities special, Onwuachi's advice is to keep it simple. "Just sit down and try to eat together. You know, all as one, whenever you're together as a family, I know there's a lot going on, people on their phones, people have meetings, you know, there's side conversations going on, but if you can get together and be, I think it brings the family together," offers Onwuachi.
Making sure that his family and friends enjoy the bliss that being able to break bread together is a top priority for this "top chef" who has dedicated himself to making sure that not just his loved ones, but also to children who belong to families that struggle to put food on the table, have access to the food they need to thrive through his work with No Kid Hungry, an organization that works year-round to eliminate child hunger. Onwuachi shares, "No Kid Hungry is something that's really, really important to me because they work at shattering hunger in America and there shouldn't be any kids that go hungry. So, you know, any chance that I get to give back, I try to with their foundation." Proceeds from the Family Reunion were donated to No Kid Hungry.
About spending time with family and friends this holiday season, Onwuachi says there is sure to be some tried-and-true holiday staples, served with a healthy side of love. "Cornbread, stuffing, mac and cheese, collard greens, chitlins, curry goat—all of that," he beams.