Two DC Chefs Win Big at the 2019 James Beard Awards

Kith and Kin's Kwame Onwuachi and Tom Cunanan of Bad Saint were both honored.

Chef Kwame Onwuachi. Photo by Scott Suchman

Two DC chefs won major accolades on Monday night at the 2019 James Beard Awards: Kith and Kin‘s Kwame Onwuachi, who was honored with Rising Star Chef, and Tom Cunanan of Bad Saint who took home the title of Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic.

Cunanan, a three-time Best Chef nominee, beat out several local contenders in the competitive category. (It was won last year by The Dabney‘s Jeremiah Langhorne). Fellow finalists included Centrolina chef/owner Amy Brandwein and Cindy Wolfe of Charleston Restaurant in Baltimore. In his acceptance speech, Cunanan said “Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d be up here.” Still the Filipino-American chef, a first for the Mid-Atlantic category, is no stranger to accolades for his modern Filipino cooking. Cunanan worked his way up through DC kitchens like Vidalia and Ardeo Bardeo before opening Bad Saint in 2015, earning a number two Best New Restaurant in America from Bon Appetit.

Onwuachi was up first for an award at the Chicago ceremony when he was given the medal for Rising Star Chef, or as celebrity host Jesse Tyler Ferguson joked, the award that “goes to the chef that’s at such an early part of their career they still cook.” Onwuachi is the first-ever DC chef to win this category.

 “Rising star” is a bit of an understatement for the 29 year-old, who has competed on Top Chef, landed on prestigious lists like Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs 2019, and just released a widely acclaimed memoir, Notes from a Young Black Chef. In the book, he delves into his personal story of growing up in the Bronx and Nigeria, dealing drugs, selling candy on the subway, working his way up through fine dining kitchens like Per Se, and opening the ill-fated Shaw Bijou—all while confronting the issue of race and racism in the culinary world (read Washingtonian’s Q&A with  Onwuachi here).

Race and diversity is an issue the James Beard Foundation (JBF) has also openly grappled with. The theme this year,  “Good Food for Good,” was intended to reinforce the organization’s attention to diversity and inclusivity. Last year JBF announced it was changing its rules to make the awards more diverse, including modifying the makeup of its voting committees to reflect US Census Bureau demographics, and waving fees in certain categories to attract new talent.  Messages of inclusivity—and calls to action—were repeated often throughout the night. As Onwuachi said in his acceptant speech:

“We have choices. We can put out great food and great service or we can advocate for something, inspire a generation, and include everyone in the conversation of cooking. 54 years ago, the last restaurant was integrated and Jim Crow was lifted. And here I am, my ancestors’ wildest dreams.”

Cunanan and Onwuachi weren’t the only Washington talents to be recognized. In awards announced ahead of time, Annie’s Paramount Steakhouse—an inclusive fixture in Dupont Circle for DC’s gay community for 71 years—earned an America’s Classics Award (you can read writer David Hagedorn‘s touching tribute). And five-time James Beard Award winner Patrick O’Connell of The Inn at Little Washington is the recipient of the 2019 Lifetime Achievement award—an honor that resulted in host Tyler Ferguson and celebrity announcer Zooey Deschanel having a faux fan-girl moment (“I just want to be near him. I hear he smells like cardamom,” said Tyler Ferguson). For his part, O’Connell accepted the award like a true chef. 

I always thought you had to be knock-knock-knockin’ on heaven’s door to be considered for a lifetime achievement award, and I want you all to know I’m not going anywhere soon, except for back to my kitchen tomorrow night,” said O’Connell.

Here’s the James Beard Foundation’s full list of winners.

Food Editor

Anna Spiegel covers the dining and drinking scene in her native DC. Prior to joining Washingtonian in 2010, she attended the French Culinary Institute and Columbia University’s MFA program in New York, and held various cooking and writing positions in NYC and in St. John, US Virgin Islands.