Chef Kwame Onwuachi is a natural storyteller in many mediums. In his cuisine, he seamlessly combines the legacy of his family’s Jamaican roots with the influences of the kaleidoscopic food mecca that is his native Bronx. The results? Ingenious takes on his Afro-Caribbean origins that earned him a James Beard Award and helped win him accolades like a spot in Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs when he was at the helm of D.C.s Kith/Kin.
In conversation, he’s equally as eloquent and expansive as he is in the kitchen—chef Kwame has an omnivorous mind and knows that a great story, whether through food or dialogue, combines many complementary layers and the occasional refreshing twist. We caught up with him on the topic of the exclusive recipe he created for Freshly, Escovitch Steak.
Freshly: You’ve mentioned flavors being your first language. Makes sense: in the first three months of life, you can’t really see—but you can taste!
Kwame: I feel like everyone's first language is flavor. We gotta eat as soon as we get out of the womb. The first time I had curry goat and roti, that definitely threw me for a loop. I remember being in my mom's arms and my grandmother swiping this thin bread through some sauce and putting it in my mouth. And it was like fireworks went off. And, it's still one of my favorite dishes to this day.
Is that your very first food memory?
No. My first food memory is Egusi stew. It’s a West African stew with melon seeds and pumpkin leaves and dried crayfish powder and palm oil and aromatics, and it’s served with fufu, which is this pounded yam—not the yam that everyone knows! But this really starchy white yam. And it’s delicious.
Wow. Sounds amazing. Where have you had the best food of your life?
So how did you first get into the kitchen, anyway?
My family was very, very much integrated into the food system. My grandmother had a restaurant, my great-grandmother had a restaurant, and my mother started a catering company out of the house when I was about five years old, in the long tradition of Black families creating their own spaces for dining and entertainment out of necessity during Jim Crow; she also wanted to be able to spend more time with her children while working. So I was put to work. It beat doing laundry, and that chore turned into a hobby, and that hobby turned into a passion, and that passion turned into a career.
When and where were you happiest in your life?
Here. Today. (nods) I live in the present.
Introduce us to your dish!
Escovitch Steak is a twist on a classic Jamaican dish. It starts with juicy seared steak, sliced and saturated with a sweet, tart, and spicy sauce that combines brightness and spice. We’re serving it with three accompaniments: coconut rice, roasted mini sweet peppers, and broccoli transformed by a smoky-spicy jerk marinade. You make the jerk paste, which has 10+ different ingredients, and put that in a blender. You marinate the broccoli in the jerk paste, then roast it in the oven. This dish specifically is very layered. Jerk marinade is typically done on proteins, and here we’re using it on a vegetable.
Yeah, and then the caramelized onion coconut rice. And then the peppers are just simply marinated in red wine vinegar, some aromatics. The escabeche, or escovitch, is onions, peppers, and habaneros, julienned, and then cooked down in this caramelized carrot syrup essentially.
Wait...what IS escovitch?
Escovitch is an act of preservation. I’ll tell you a little of the history first: it comes from the Spanish influence in the Caribbean. Escovitch or escoveitch involves marinating the shellfish in a vinegar sauce—that acts as a preservative and incorporates natural or local ingredients they have there. And natives there use it on fish. I chose it for this dish because of the labor involved (not many people have the time to do this!) and the method really adds a lot of flavor. We went with a steak twist, and it adds this very specific flavor profile to the dish.
What have you enjoyed about developing this dish for Freshly?
Food has always been a constant. But I also don’t want to cook every day with my lifestyle. And I think that resonates with people. There have been a lot of shifts in priorities during the pandemic and what that’s done to job situations, the political movements that have really picked up speed that are important to give time to,
"People need and want to be spending their time doing other things than cooking. Freshly is a great solution to that: having meals delivered where they don’t need to think about anything, but there’s still a lot of love and passion. It’s sort of this modern version of coping with a busy life."
Also, this is a dish that has a lot of different flavor profiles that kind of blend together—there’s sweetness, there’s heat, there’s acidity. And you know there's a term in Jamaica, that says, "Out of Many Came One." So a lot of the flavors and ingredients came to the island from different places, but now they're one thing.
Soundtrack for this dish?
(Thoughtful pause) Steely Dan’s “Black Cow”.
Favorite celebrity sighting at your restaurant?
First dish you ever remember being sent back?
The first dish? I have no idea! You get so many dishes sent back. The one that hurt probably was... I created these lobster beignets, and I stuffed them with this lobster sauce, and I topped it with a remoulade, and people didn’t like it! And it hurt my feelings! (Laughs, then more seriously:) But I took it off the menu. Because I was wasting lobster’s lives. You cook them live, so you can’t be wasting their lives.
People who show up 10 minutes before closing time and order. Yea or nay?
I love it! This is a business. So if we say we’re open, and you come in, we are open. That’s it.
Go-to drink when you’re planning to have a crazy night?
Every night is a crazy night. So it could be water, or it could be a gin and tonic.
After that crazy night, let us in on what you like to whip up at 2am or 4am.
First of all (shakes his head) I am NOT cooking at 2am. I’m ordering out. And it’s ALWAYS chicken wings and pork fried rice from Chinese takeout. And if I’m in DC it’s with a side of mumbo sauce, if I’m in New York it’s with duck sauce. But chicken wings and pork fried rice is where it’s at.
"Also, to be very clear—no eating food in bed! There’s a place for that in your home. You don’t sleep in the kitchen, and you don’t eat food in bed. You don’t want crumbs rolling around in your ears!"
One dish your fans love that you would never eat.
Plantains. I don’t like sweet plantains at all. And they order it all the time. I’ve had it on the menus of my restaurants. But I like green plantains. I like more savory ones.
Last text you received, and 8th-to-last photo in your phone.
The last text I received says “I need one of those Go-Karts” from a restaurant designer (leans forward to show us part of the exchange, a video of Onwuachi zipping around a large, unbuilt space in a racer.) Here I’ll show you my eighth photo. It’s a covid tester! I’m pretty boring.
Not as juicy as we thought!
I’ll do another one. Here’s a little photo of my alarm reminding me to do laundry!
Most embarrassing kitchen moment?
So one time, I uh, had this event, it was on 11-11-11, which is also my birthday, and it was in 2011, it was on 14th street, I rented out a club, and I hired a PR company, and I was like “This is the making of chef Kwame, this is my debut” and it was only supposed to be 100, 150 people, and 300 hungry, highly demanding New Yorkers showed up. I didn’t even know how to get food out of the kitchen fast enough, everyone left, and I walked up into the dining room, and it was empty, and I started crying immediately, and I went to get my iPad from the hostess den, and it had been stolen. And I was like “At least I have a ride to go home!” and I went to get my car—it was towed (bursts out laughing).
Hungry yet? Discover chef Kwame’s limited-time Escovitch Steak