After first competing on season 13 of Top Chef, Kwame Onwuachi has become a force in the culinary world, cooking for the likes of Beyonce and JAY-Z, being recognized by Food & Wine magazine and the James Beard Foundation, and publishing his memoir, Notes From a Young Black Chef. Now he’s back on the Bravo reality competition -- but this time as part of a rotating panel of judges on the Portland, Oregon-set season 18.
Onwuachi’s return to Top Chef has been a welcomed one for longtime fans of the series, as he, Gregory Gourdet, Melissa King and others have brought much needed diversity and inclusion as well as a fresh take on the critiques led by Padma Lakshmi, Tom Colicchio and Gail Simmons.
And for the chef, it has been “one zillion times better than being on the other side of the table,” Onwuachi tells ET. “I was able to lead with a little more empathy because I’ve been in their shoes. I think that’s one of the reasons why they brought us back -- was to have that diversity, but also that understanding of being a contestant.”
When it comes to the diversity of the rotating judges, he says it should come as no surprise. “I think it’s a reflection of the culinary landscape -- and it's not monolithic and it’s not set in stone. There’s so many different cultures and cuisines and people that add to the fabric of the food industry. And I think it just needed to be represented on the judges’ table.”
Helping to expand that representation, Onwuachi, along with Gourdet, also led the season’s most standout episode, “Pan African Portland,” which finally brought focus to West African cuisine and its larger influence on the culinary world. “It was great to give a platform to those restaurants that may not have had it. It was also great to have a platform for West African cuisine and Caribbean cuisine,” he says.
Whether or not it marks a shift in direction for the series, Onwuachi is unsure -- but he’s hopeful. “It seems like a start,” he says. “And I’m more optimistic than I’m pessimistic, so it’s a step in the right direction.”
Also making Onwuachi’s return to Top Chef notable is his fashion. No longer confined to a messy chef’s jacket, he’s been flaunting some standout looks. “I’ve always been into fashion and it was really cool to have fun with it in this season and be a little more playful,” he says, adding that he wanted to represent for the chefs “because we were used to wearing functional fashion, you know, clothes that make sense for our job.”
The chef has also been rocking black nail polish, which not only accentuates his playful sense of fashion but for him, “it’s the coolest thing,” he says, noting that “more men should wear nail polish. It’s fun. And it also gives you nail care.”
Outside of the series, Onwuachi’s brand continues to grow. Over the past few years, Dave Chappelle has championed his work, while one of the most standout moments was cooking at the White House for Barack and Michelle Obama. “It was an out-of-body experience for sure,” he says. “Praise to the living legend, Obama. That’s the pinch me moment. Period, end of discussion.”
In addition to serving as an executive producer at Food & Wine, Onwuachi has also become a staunch activist, advocating for food policy reform and relief for the restaurant industry, which was devastated by the coronavirus pandemic.
Currently, he’s preparing to make his film debut in the adaptation of his memoir, which will star Oscar nominee LaKeith Stanfield. “I’m taking it very seriously. I’ve got all my one line memorized and I’m going to kill it,” he quips, before adding that he’s so excited to have Stanfield portray him onscreen. “He’s the greatest actor in the world… so, it’s a huge honor.”
To help the Judas and the Black Messiah actor prepare, Onwuachi has cooked for him and talked to him about his story. “I think he’s pretty excited to be able to bring this role to life,” he says.
And when it comes to telling his story, Onwuachi admits he didn’t know how it was going to happen, but he always thought he would. “I think you have to manifest certain things. You’ve got to believe in yourself. So, I had an inkling that something like this would happen to me,” he says, adding, “I've always wanted to tell my story and just put myself out there… and I’m grateful for that opportunity.”