Kwame Onwuachi with his grandmother Cassie Phillips. All photos Laura Hayes.

To understand what Chef Kwame Onwuachi is bringing to the table at his new restaurant Kith and Kin, consider his rendition of West African jollof rice. Onwuachi cooks down tomato sauce with shrimp powder, habanero pepper, ginger, garlic, red onion, and red pepper to make a paste that turns the rice the vibrant shade of a harvest moon.

“There’s a running debate between Nigerians and Ghanaians about who makes it the best,” Onwuachi says. Nigerians fold the sauce in after the rice is cooked, while Ghanaians add the paste in from the start, cooking it more like paella. Onwuachi, who lived in Nigeria between the ages of 10 and 12, fuses the techniques by cooking the rice with the seasoning, then piping a few dots of the piquant paste onto the finished dish to ensure diners continue to taste the explosive flavor.  

He also adds whipped ricotta for a cooling effect. Spring onion confit, pickled pearl onion petals, and marinated tomatoes all add tartness and tang.  While Onwuachi calls the base of his jollof rice “pretty textbook,” the garnishes make the time-honored dish fancy enough to appear on the menu in his refined dining room inside the InterContinental Washington D.C.—The Wharf hotel, set to open on Oct. 12. 

Jollof rice

If you’ve never tried jollof rice, you’ve probably had one of its cousins. It inspired many of the rice-based dishes in Creole cuisine, including jambalaya. West Africans, who came to the South as slaves, brought their recipes with them and they evolved over time. 

“My family has a direct lineage of the Afro-Caribbean and transatlantic slave trade where it started in West Africa, went down to the Caribbean, and all the way to the American South,” Onwuachi says. “I grew up eating jollof rice and jambalaya. I just want to cook the food I cook for my family and my friends.” 

That’s what he’ll do at Kith and Kin, which translates to friends and family in Old English. “When the InterContinental first contacted me to do this hotel, I didn’t know what direction to go in,” Onwuachi says. At first he thought he would stick to new American cuisine. “Then I did this event with Questlove. I made beef patties with yellow pepper hot sauce and José Andrés was drinking the sauce.” After that, he says, people implored him to “cook like this all the time.”

Kith and Kin is Onwuachi’s second restaurant in D.C. The first, The Shaw Bijou, closed three months after opening earlier this year. The tasting menu was one of the city’s most expensive, costing $185 before tax, tip, and drinks. It featured luxe dishes like king crab roasted in garlic butter with uni bottarga but garnered unfavorable reviews from critics. With his new restaurant, the 27-year-old chef will leverage his greatest asset—his family’s rich history and culinary traditions. 

Most chefs embark on a period of research and development when opening a restaurant. They might take a trip to immerse themselves in the cultures whose cuisines they hope to emulate or perhaps they study old recipe books. For Onwuachi, research called for traveling down memory lane.

They say to know someone is to know their family, so earlier this month, City Paper joined Onwuachi for a late lunch at the Navy Yard apartment he shares with his fiancée, Mya Allen. The chef’s mother, Jewel Robinson, was up from New Orleans and his grandparents Cassie and Winston Phillips drove from Yorktown, Virginia. Each relative contributed to the rainbow-colored spread.

The biggest pot contained Robinson’s gumbo, dark, murky, and still bubbling. “This is the shit right here,” Onwuachi says. “I would drink this. My mother used to make this growing up all the time. We’d take turns stirring the roux.”

Roux, a mixture of flour and butter cooked into a paste, is used to thicken sauces. Onwuachi calls it “black gold.” Robinson brought a sheet pan of it with her from New Orleans. Security stopped her for additional screening. “They tested that roux four times,” she says. “They didn’t know what it was. I was like, ‘Dude, we’re in New Orleans, I’m going to D.C.,  and I have to make gumbo.’”

Gumbo is a deeply personal dish. Some make chicken and sausage gumbo or seafood gumbo, but Robinson combines them. “I grew up with gumbo with sausage, chicken, crabmeat, crab, and shrimp,” she says. Her mother, Cassie, is from Mamou, Louisiana. “It’s a place where they say gumbo was born,” Robinson says.

While Onwuachi has gussied up gumbo for private dinners in the past, even adding caviar beads that burst in your mouth, he’ll put his mother’s more traditional gumbo on the menu at Kith and Kin once his restaurant gets its sea legs. Gumbo requires more steps than some other dishes, and it takes time. 

Onwuachi’s grandfather Winston is Trinidadian. He prepared buljol, a traditional dish from the island. He shredded salted codfish, then added onions, tomatoes, avocado, and dressing made from his secret pepper sauce and fresh lime juice. Goat curry and roti also appeared on the table. Curries are common in Trinidad, which draws the lion’s share of its culinary influence from India. While Onwuachi prepared it for this lunch, it’s Winston’s recipe.

“This one you start with green seasoning, which is a purée of celery, ginger, garlic, culantro, and habanero ferment,” Onwuachi says. “You marinate the meat in that, then sear the meat and braise it slow.” The curry already packs heat, but if you’re the type who likes to sweat, try Winston’s hot sauce. “It’ll blow your face away,” Onwuachi warns. At Kith and Kin, Onwuachi will serve goat roti, and he’s making his own hot sauce—a jalapeño ferment—that customers will be able to purchase to take home.

Cassie made a warm and comforting stewed chicken dish. Stews are so common where his family is from that Onwuachi acts out a scene to explain it. “This,” he says, pointing to the pot, “is ‘Hey what’s that animal over there?’ ‘I don’t know. Shoot it and let’s boil some rice.’”

Onwuachi also made the style of jollof rice he’ll serve at Kith and Kin. In Nigeria, Onwuachi says villagers would eat jollof rice with whatever they last killed. Borrowing from this tradition, Onwuachi will top Kith and Kin’s jollof rice with a diner’s choice of beef or goat sprinkled with suya, stewed chicken in red sauce, or torched mackerel. Suya is an addictive Nigerian spice blend. Onwuachi’s version combines ginger, peanut, garlic, chili, onion, alligator pepper, and dehydrated beef powder.

Mya Allen, Kwame Onwuachi, Jewel Robinson, Cassie Phillips, Winston Phillips

When any family gathers around a single table for a meal, it’s natural to reminisce. More specifically, it’s easy to embarrass the man of the hour with stories from his childhood.  Robinson, for example, discussed what her son ate growing up. 

“Kwame ate everything,” she says. “He would order the craziest thing on the menu just so he could try it. It would take forever. We’d all be waiting there for him to make his decision.” Once he insisted on liver and onions because he had just seen Silence of the Lambs.

Onwuachi developed an interest in cooking while helping his mom with her catering company and also from his favorite TV show, Iron Chef. “I used to run around the house with no shirt on, biting bell peppers as a little kid,” he admits. “What an embarrassing ‘mom story.’” 

Peeling shrimp next to his mother and eating food made with love seems like an idyllic upbringing, but Onwuachi has hit some rough patches. As the servers used to tell diners at The Shaw Bijou, he once resorted to selling candy on the New York subway to support himself. He also cooked in the galleys of ships floating off Louisiana while workers dealt with the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

“They were there for me throughout all of the rough times,” he says looking around. “I haven’t always been this polished Kwame. For me to be here right now, having my own businesses, doing something that I love, is something I can’t really put into words ” 

Winston’s eyes crinkle with pride when he talks about his grandson. “You have a young black man that really knows what he wants,” he says. “What I admire most is that if he’s not satisfied with the way things are supposed to go, he’ll choose something and let it go his way.” The room tears up when he talks about how far Onwuachi had to come. 

“The restaurant industry is not an easy business, there’s a high rate of failure,” Winston continues. “I can cook for six people, but I cannot cook for 10. So much goes into cooking that the average person doesn’t know.” 

Cassie is optimistic about Kith and Kin’s success. “This particular kind of restaurant, I think it’s going to go through the roof,” she says. “I think it’s going to be something that D.C. hasn’t seen.” She’s right. “We’re excited that he keeps on going no matter what, that he has the stamina to go forth.”

Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to lhayes@washingtoncitypaper.com.

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