DC Has Magnetic Charm for a Reason

One of Washington DC's best chefs reflects on the enduring resilience of the city's restaurant industry.

Kwame Onwuachi
Photo: Scott Suchman; Illustration: Maitane Romagosa/Thrillist
Kwame Onwuachi | Photo: Scott Suchman; Illustration: Maitane Romagosa/Thrillist
Kwame Onwuachi is a James Beard award-winning chef of Kith/Kin. He’s also the author of the memoir, “Notes From a Young Black Chef.” As told to Helen Hollyman.

I’ve been trying to keep myself busy since we closed Kith/Kin. The restaurant industry is in trouble. We’ve always been in trouble. It’s a tough business, but now more than ever. I’m worried about my staff and the industry at large. I’m worried about the future and trying to keep anxiety levels down. We’re all in this together, since every industry is impacted by this situation. 

I have a lot of nostalgia associated with Washington, DC. My grandfather taught at Howard University and then moved to Nigeria in the 1970s. My aunt, his oldest child, lives in DC, so when he came back from Nigeria every summer, he’d say that we’d all have to congregate from all corners of the country to DC come see him. It has always represented family and togetherness to me, and now as an adult, it represents home. I’ve done pop-ups around the world, and a lot of people ask me, “Why did you choose DC?” but I feel like DC chose me. It has this magnetic charm to it and togetherness within all industries in the city, but especially the restaurant industry.

It’s small, it’s transient, so the restaurant industry is tight-knit. It definitely welcomed me with open arms, and I’m proud to be a part of it.

When I first got here, I was opening a restaurant for the first time so it was definitely challenging. There were a lot of people who were really supportive of me and reached out to different purveyors, because the way things operate around here, you need to know specific people. It was definitely a different experience than what I was used to—it wasn’t as cutthroat and more inviting than other cities I’ve worked in overall.

There are some amazing people that reached out and have been supportive of me from the beginning, from Debbie Shore from Share Our Strength and No Kid Hungry, Kathy Hollinger from the Restaurant Association, Erik Bruner-Yang, Danny Lee from CHIKO, and JR from KitchenCray, but there’s so many more. They’re all great friends to this day.

With the recent events around COVID-19, shit got real when they started canceling SXSW and the NBA season. That’s when I was like, “Oh wow… they know something we don’t know.” And then they started cutting large gatherings from over 1,000 to 500 to 50 to 20 and capacity in restaurants and the amount of tables we could seat and how far apart they had to be. I think the first sign of the alarm was SXSW getting canceled. I know that was a huge impact on the restaurant industry in Austin, but for me that was the “Oh wow, this is serious” moment.

We shut down the restaurant two weeks ago just after Mayor Bowser said restaurants could only operate as take-out. We just can’t survive on that business model. We have 60 employees and we were also considering shutting down anyways because of the seriousness of the virus. Our staff lives far away and has to commute. If they’re telling us to practice social distancing and to only come out when necessary, how responsible are we if we’re telling our staff to come in regardless?

My hope for our current circumstances and the restaurant community at large is that we can get through this. I hope that there aren’t restaurants that close because of it, but I know there will be because there already has been. I hope that the little guys don’t get forgotten, but everyone is struggling, even Danny Meyer restaurants. My sister is a chef at a small bar/restaurant in Louisiana that’s not trying to make any best restaurant lists but it’s someone's dream. They are definitely in fear of not opening again.

When I think about my own restaurant and the future possibility of getting back to work, I think about the magic of that space. There’s absolutely nothing like walking into your restaurant and hearing that hum of the hoods and the low boys going when no ones around; the staff trickling in one by one; taking fresh vegetables and proteins in their raw state, manipulating, puréeing and roasting or dehydrating them until it all comes together as one. I can only imagine the pre-shift before service of that day when I can walk back in there and sit with the entire staff in the dining room together as we get ready for service. And then the hum of the dining room when it’s completely full. It’s just an amazing thing. It’s hard to describe. A lot of people say that chefs or restaurant operators are crazy because it’s such a difficult business, but that’s one of the reasons we’re crazy, because of that feeling right there, operating the restaurant when it all comes together. It’s a beautiful thing.

I miss it dearly. I miss the staff joking and laughing throughout service. I miss the tight hugs from the regulars who stay until all the lights turn on. I miss the one-on-one walks with the team when it gets tough and people want to give up. I miss being there.

We have a pre-shift ritual every day where we talk about what happened the night before. We give shout outs to someone that’s done something that was particularly admirable and have words of wisdom or a quote of the day. Then we go into service all together. Break happens periodically throughout the day because we’re open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, so there’s no grand family meal that happens all at once like other restaurants.

My favorite quote is “Every day is day one.” Treat every day like it’s your first day. Come in with that same enthusiasm and energy that you had on your first day, because that's what it is for the guests that are coming in here for the first time. That way, you’ll stay inspired. 

Every day is day one.

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