the grub street diet

Chef Kwame Onwuachi Is Cooking to Cope

“We had a fajita night for dinner. I made it just to bring some joy.”

Kwame Onwuachi and his cheesesteak. Photo: Margalit Cutler

Kwame Onwuachi has gone from spending his days thinking about cooking to thinking about how to get his employees back to cooking. The chef of Washington, D.C.’s Kith/Kin — who last year won the James Beard Foundation’s Rising Star Award and got his memoir optioned by A24 — has been working with other industry leaders to get some relief for independent restaurants. He’s been in New York over the last week, staying with a friend, as he tries to get a coronavirus test so he can see his grandparents. Read his Grub Street Diet below.

Saturday, March 21
I was back in New York after being down in D.C., staying at my friend’s place in Hudson Yards. I came up here trying to get a test for COVID-19 because it’s easier to get one here than in D.C., in case you were wondering, Why are you here where there’s the highest number of cases of the coronavirus? It was so I could see my grandparents. My grandfather has a blood disease from cancer; he has to get a blood transfusion every week. I had to do a phone consultation first with the doctor. That was at 10 p.m. today, so more on that later.

At 10 a.m., I went on a run with my fiancé and two dogs because all the gyms were closed. We went to 42nd Street to check out the emptiness. It was nuts, man. You know what it reminded me of? The blackout of 2003. Obviously, Times Square was empty then, because the screens were down and everything was down. But it wasn’t as empty as it is now. There was literally nobody there. I ran down to the Meatpacking District, too — no one there. It was very eerie.

Along the way, we stopped at Ess-a-Bagel to show support. We were just walking past it. We bought everything bagels, because of course. I got a couple of bagels for my friend, as well as a whole wheat one for myself. When we got back to the place, I drank ten ounces of egg whites for pure protein, and soft scrambled eggs to go with a half of my bagel.

I’m eating really healthy right now. I don’t want to call it a diet, but I’ve just rearranged the way that I think about food. In terms of fat content, how long it stays in my body, how my body burns off calories. I’ve been on this for about two months, lost 27 pounds, and toned up a lot. I’ve been working out three times a day.

Around noon, I had a lunch smoothie with spinach, kale, apple, mango, flaxseeds, oat milk, and protein powder.

I was feeling kind of hopeful today. Like, Oh, we’ll be back in two weeks because D.C.’s mayor had said April 1. Then, Mayor Bowser announced that she’d rescinded her dates, and that restaurants couldn’t reopen until April 27. My heart dropped, I didn’t even know what to tell my staff. It’s a crazy time.

I just felt extreme sadness. I was worried about what my staff was going to do. You know, a lot of people work paycheck to paycheck, and even if you don’t, maybe you have kids who are home from school now, whom you have to feed three times a day. That’s pretty significant. If billion-dollar corporations don’t have enough money to get through two weeks of no income, what makes anyone think the average American does?

That was a tough afternoon, and it’s been really tough lately. So we had a fajita night for dinner. I made it just to bring some joy. I made roasted peppers and onions, refried beans, this charred scallion-cashew-and-hazelnut salsa, salmon and chorizo hash, and roasted garlic-rubbed flank steak. My fiancé made pico de gallo. We had corn tortillas, of course. It was pretty tasty.

Around 10 p.m., I did that phone consultation with my health-care provider. Afterward they were like, “Yeah, even if you have it, we’re not going to test you because you’re young.” So just stay at home for 14 days and take some Tylenol. I told them I wanted to see my grandfather, and they said, “That’s probably not a good idea unless you get tested.” I said, “Well, you’re not testing me.” And they told me, essentially, “Well, we don’t have enough tests, so hope they make it.”

We played Mexican dominoes with our friends until 2 a.m. Loser had to either drink or do 100 crunches. By the time we went to bed I was up to 1,200.

Sunday, March 22
Had breakfast at 11 a.m. Two soft scrambled eggs with mushroom brown rice. We watched Love Is Blind, which is hilariously sad.

I spent my day calling a lot of my people and seeing how unemployment was going. Some of them were having trouble with the system for filing for unemployment; for some of them it was very easy. It depended on what time they called. Eventually they all figured it out, but it wasn’t a smooth process.

I ate a few things through the afternoon into the evening. I had my smoothie for lunch. This one was kale, strawberry, kiwi, oat milk, and flaxseed.

Around 6 p.m., I had the Thai red curry that my fiancé made — she works in the industry, too — over arugula and avocado. And for dinner, I made a brown-rice bowl with seared salmon belly, marinated peppers, and romaine with lime.

Monday, March 23
I had some protein powder early in the morning, and worked out. I had a trainer who was seeing me, so he’s been sending me workouts through this app. Leg routines I can do at home, ab workouts, high-intensity interval training. I’ll do 15 push-ups, knee raises, bicycle crunches, ten squats, in succession. Stuff like that.

Later in the morning, I had my egg whites and a smoothie with kale, romaine, strawberry, and mango. I had that while I got on a call with a fellow chef about a plan to reopen restaurants around the country as community kitchens. He wants to do this at ten restaurants per major city, with 20 people per restaurant, so it gets some of the workforce back on. That’s the idea he has, so we’re just talking it through and figuring out how we would be able to do that.

Around 2 p.m., I had seared chicken breast with marinated peppers and lemon. I called one of my cooks, Tyrone, to see how he was doing and how it was going with filing for unemployment. I got him an interview with the New York Times about Easter, and how this is all affecting African-Americans because that’s a holiday we celebrate and we can’t get together right now. I was talking to him about that whole process, how he was feeling, and the restaurant and his growth since he started there.

I checked in on my grandparents. It’s hard thinking about the fact that my grandfather has this blood disease, and I can’t even go and see him. For obvious reasons, he’s at risk. But it’s because they don’t have enough tests. It’s tough. We talked about that.

That night, I made my fiancé Xiang-style noodles with pork and shrimp, and made myself poached shrimp in a scallion-fish-sauce broth and charred broccoli. Later on in the night, I made myself dinner: seared, plant-based Italian sausages with cherry peppers I cooked until they were jammy; spinach; and a spicy tomato broth I made with red pepper flakes and a little bit of chicken broth.

Tuesday, March 24
At 8:30 a.m., I woke up and did 400 crunches and a HIIT workout. Then I had my ten ounces of egg whites, a kale, flaxseed, and mango smoothie. I drank that while on a phone conference for the Independent Restaurant Coalition, a group that’s kind of like the Avengers of chefs. Danny Meyer, Tom Colicchio, Andrew Zimmern, Will Guidara, Marcus Samuelsson, Andrew Carmellini, Naomi Pomeroy, and many more — all these people coming together along with a lot of support from the James Beard Foundation. So, we get together at 8:30 a.m. and also 5:30 p.m. and talk about what we’re working toward: Who in Congress are we talking to? What progress have we made? How can we represent the restaurant industry in totality? Ultimately, we were trying to get the restaurant industry included in the stimulus plan. So using our collective contacts to make sure that happens. So yeah, that’s taken up a lot of my time as well: quote, unquote, “lobbying” for small restaurants. Just making sure we’re not forgotten.

For lunch, I made Trinidadian curried chicken with charred cauliflower over arugula. My family is from Trinidad, so it’s something I eat all the time. I have a curry powder I got down there called Chief and there’s green seasoning in there as well, a culantro purée. You marinate the chicken in that and cook it.

I got ready for my Instagram Live, and did more crunches. For lunch, I had another smoothie. This one was kale, pineapple, and protein powder.

On Instagram, I’ve started doing a cooking show called Eating Clean While Quarantined. I put the recipe out the day before so people can go shopping, and every recipe takes only 20 minutes or less. So I did a chorizo-white-bean stew with shrimp.

For dinner, my fiancé made za’atar-rubbed chicken with broccoli and cauliflower, plus a white-bean purée.

Around 11 p.m., I had two scoops of “nice cream.” It’s whipped bananas with vanilla and cinnamon. It has the texture of ice cream. It’s really sweet, and it kind of hits that craving. It’s a lot better for you than ice cream, but ice cream is my favorite food, so it helps curb that urge.

I was still at my friend’s house then, and my grandparents called me. They said, “We didn’t want to tell you, but what’s happening with your grandfather, it’s getting serious.” I thought again about how the doctor said I can’t even go and see him until I get tested. I was sitting there bawling my eyes out. But I had to get ready because I had to be on Fox News with the chef Naomi Pomeroy, who’d just written an op-ed for the Washington Post, to talk about the restaurant industry.

It’s something that’s extremely important to me because the well-being of my staff equates to the well-being of this industry that I work so hard to make into something. I want to make sure that it’s still there when this is all said and done. I try to stay optimistic about things, because without optimism, there’s no one taking a chance on anything, right? You can’t go into anything that you’re trying to change or make something happen with a negative connotation.

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