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National Restaurant Association - Top Chef’s Kwame Onwuachi is on top of the world

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Top Chef’s Kwame Onwuachi is on top of the world

He didn’t win season 13’s “Top Chef” competition, but Kwame Onwuachi is definitely at the top of his game. He recently shared his story with National Restaurant Association staff as part of its “Not Just Chefs” series.

“Not Just Chefs” was created to help Association staff members learn about the latest innovations in foodservice. Kwame, whose new restaurant, The Shaw Bijou, opens later this summer, was the first guest speaker in the series.

If you didn’t catch him on the Bravo TV series, here’s the 411: From apprenticing at his mother’s catering business in Baton Rouge, La., to waiting tables at some of the finest restaurants in the country, this 26-year-old culinary whiz kid will open his new restaurant in Washington, D.C.

Who he is: The Bronx, N.Y., native and son of a former accountant-turned-caterer found his bliss in the kitchen after some youthful mishaps at age 10 and a two-year detour to Nigeria (arranged by his mother). While there, he lived in a remote village with his paternal grandfather. When he returned to the United States at age 12, he realized how much he loved America and cooking. “My mother wanted me to stay in Nigeria until I learned respect, until I knew what I had here in America. I came back with a newfound appreciation for life.”

Where he’s been: Onwuachi continued his schooling and briefly studied business administration in college. Feeling uninspired, he quit and moved to be with his mother in Baton Rouge. At 19, he became head chef for a boatload of contractors hired to clean up the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. After that, he moved to New York and enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America in 2012. He graduated as a classically trained chef. He then worked at renowned restaurants Per Se and Eleven Madison Park in Manhattan. But Kwame, who believes that “food is love,” wanted to create meals, not serve them. He worked odd jobs to make money to fund his own catering company and also joined the now closed, New York-based Dinner Lab, which matched undiscovered chefs with diners seeking something other than a traditional dining experience. Then came Top Chef, where he lasted for 12 episodes before being eliminated from the competition in February 2016.

What’s next: Kwame has secured $1.5 million from an investor and will open the 8-table Shaw Bijou in Washington, D.C.’s Shaw neighborhood in August. It is one of the new wave of ticketed restaurants: Guests buy tickets for entry, pick a time slot, let the staff know how many guests will be attending and pay in advance. Cost to dine? $150 to $250 per person, but diners will sup on at least 17 courses. “This way we know exactly how much to prep, don’t waste food and can focus on the guests’ needs,” he says.

His mantra in life: The young chef makes decisions based on whether something will make him happy or make him better at what he does. “If it’s not doing one of those two things, I don’t do it,” he says.

Why creating great food is so important: “Each dish tells a story,” he says. “When the dish tells its story, it has a soul.”

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