News & Politics

The Quarantine Questionnaire: Chef Kwame Onwuachi of Kith and Kin and Philly Wing Fry

The celebrity chef is all about his bench press these days. And sweeping.

What’s the best thing you’ve streamed? Most useful thing in your freezer? Dream day when this is all over? In search of inspiration—and, let’s be honest, a bit of voyeurism—we’re asking Washingtonians (current and recently former) how they’re passing the time and getting through quarantine. Here’s Kwame Onwuachi, the chef behind Kith and Kin and Philly Wing Fry, and author of Notes From a Young Black Chef, a memoir that was just nominated for a James Beard Award. Onwuachi has spent part of quarantine cooking for people in need in the Bronx, where he grew up; he’s also working with the newly formed Independent Restaurant Coalition. The group is pushing Congress to fund a relief program specifically for independent bars and restaurants, after many were shut out of previous small-business loan programs.   

Quarantine selfie. Photograph courtesy of Kwame Onwuachi.

Best thing I’ve streamed: Tiger King. Twice! Once by myself and once with my fiancée. It was so interesting and ridiculous. 

Best virtual event I’ve attended: A chat with Quest Love. I did a talk with him checking in on each other on Zoom. It was about staying creative during this time and being ok with not knowing what’s happening next. I thought that was really cool and impactful. He’s so creative at such a high level that I aspire to. Seeing how he’s holding up was helpful.

Song/album on repeat: Friends by the Carters

Most useful thing in the freezer: Butter. It’s generic, the red and blue one, maybe Land o’ Lakes? Unsalted. My fiancée [Mya Allen] is a serial baker. Whenever she takes the butter out to temper, I know it’s going to be a great day. 

How much butter we’ve gone through: A lot. I would say 30 lbs. She makes everything—carrot cake, cinnamon rolls, brioche, brown butter snickerdoodles, brown butter chocolate chip cookies…  

Least useful thing in the freezer: Ground turkey meat. I was on a workout regimen and an eating plan. It’s 99 percent lean. So it’s like a dense f—ing puck of meat that’s not fun to eat at all. Whenever I see it in the freezer I’m like, ‘Aaaah, man.’ 

Surprisingly useful household item: A broom. I have dogs. So I sweep like two times a day and I find joy in collecting this pile of dog hair for some reason. It’s the strangest thing, but I like it. It’s the first thing I do in the morning, usually, when I’m on my calls. 

Best purchase: Bench press. It was very cheap [this one], like $300, and it came with everything. I call it the Fisher Price bench press. It came in one day. I try to work out every day. I was on a serious workout regimen before this whole thing started. I’d do 45 minutes of cardio in the morning, weight lifting at night, then like 1,000 crunches before I went to sleep. I’m not that intense anymore. It’s different doing it in your house all the time—it gets boring.  

Favorite takeout: Chinese, from Asian American II. My order is chicken wings and pork fried rice, extra mumbo sauce.  

Favorite comfort food to make at home: Bacon cheeseburger. I love bacon cheeseburgers. American cheese. Kraft singles. Ketchup. I make a ketchup-mayonnaise mixture and I put some ketchup on the side. 

Go-to at-home cocktail: Whiskey neat

Weight gain or loss: Weight loss

Worst day so far: The day the restaurant closed. I don’t remember the date. The night before or the day after, I remember ordering sushi takeout to the dining room, alone, and just, like, crying. Sitting there and talking to my staff was just—I wasn’t prepared to sit down and talk with everybody. The wave of realization of it all came over me [when I was alone]. It was horrible. We have 70 employees. It was definitely a difficult decision to close. I think it was a necessary one. I have employees who are at risk, who don’t live close to the restaurant, who have to travel. I like to think optimistically. But I don’t know how long this thing is going to drag out. And we don’t know what the new normal is going look like—that’s more scary than the coronavirus itself. Will we be able to have full capacity? Some other countries are saying they’ll reduce capacity to 50 percent. We can’t operate  on that. It would be even worse re-opening and then realizing we can’t sustain the business. 

Most memorable quarantine fail: Trying not to drink. Before this, I hadn’t drank in two months. I was trying to quit drinking. I think the restaurant industry has impacted me in that way, where I became very comfortable with drinking alcohol. I wasn’t in the best relationship with it. I was trying to curb that entirely, and I was doing pretty good. This hit and my bar cart started to get a little more sparse each day. 

Best coping mechanism: Working out helps me for sure, Netflix is good, and FaceTiming with my family, which I’m doing a lot more of than before. 

Dream day once this all ends: Yesterday.

Kristen Hinman
Articles Editor

Kristen Hinman has been editing Washingtonian’s features since 2014. She joined the magazine after editing politics & policy coverage for Bloomberg Businessweek and working as a staff writer for Voice Media Group/Riverfront Times.