By Sucheta Rawal
Zagat Stories presents Restaurants 21/22, a collection of interviews with leading voices in dining, hospitality, food, tech, politics and more. Each story takes the turning of the calendar as an inflection point to consider what happened in 2021, or what’s likely to happen in 2022, in the world of restaurants and food. See all stories here. And feel free to check out last year’s collection as well.
Kwame Onwuachi is a chef, author, and TV personality. After closing his last restaurant, Kith/Kin in Washington DC, the James Beard Award-winning chef is judging Food Network’s Top Chef and Chopped, producing Food & Wine magazine and a film based on his memoir, and releasing his third book. Onwuachi co-chairs a National Advisory Committee on Food Insecurity and is on a mission to end food insecurity in the Bronx.
Growing up in the Bronx, I experienced food insecurity firsthand. Often, my only meal of the day was the free lunch provided at school. As a child, I worried about where I would eat when I was not at school. In the summer, we, as a family, were able to eat at a free lunch program offered by a public school that helped feed individuals like us. People don’t understand … a lot of kids eat only at the school, and I was one of those kids.
I am tired of people thinking of food as a luxury. It is a basic right for everyone. While growing up, my mother made just enough money to be ineligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), while she struggled to put food on the table. We utilized the free meal program in the Bronx, but we still need more programs like that.
Since 2015, I have been giving my time and raising money to the nonprofit No Kid Hungry. Recently, I hosted The Family Reunion, a first-of-its-kind food festival to celebrate Black and Brown excellence in the hospitality industry, at the Salamander Hotels and Resorts in Virginia. Proceeds from the event were donated to No Kid Hungry.
I have always been giving out food, and I wanted to get involved with food insecurity in the Bronx. The Bronx is one of the most insecure places in the country, against a backdrop of one of the biggest financial and economic powers. This issue is not new here, and this year has been no different. In fact, the challenges our society is facing with food insecurity have become more serious. We’re in the midst of an economic crisis that is hitting low-income families the hardest.
Access to food has become a bigger problem since COVID. Restaurant staff—including chefs, delivery drivers, and dishwashers—are first responders facing uncertainties and health complications. They can’t get food on the table and often have to take handouts. There should be a way a person can get a plate of food regardless of their financial status, and not have to feel like they are asking for charity. How we can get there is something I am figuring out myself. I don’t have all the answers, but what I can do is use my platform to amplify the need to address this issue.
Cooking is all I really know, so it was scary to see restaurants closing last year. But the industry quickly came together to help the community. My friend, Elias Alcantara, who worked for the former Obama administration, asked me if I could help with the relief efforts at World Central Kitchen and Lehman College. I was familiar with both the entities already and really wanted to make a difference in the Bronx. When I started my culinary career, I did one of my first live cooking demos on BronxNet Community Television at Lehman College. It was a full circle.
At the onset of the pandemic, I worked with José Andrés’ World Central Kitchen to feed people in the Bronx. I helped Rosa Garcia at Mott Haven Bar and Grill cook meals and fed over two thousand first responders and whoever else needed food, every single day. It changed my vision of cooking in general. It was the first time, in a long time, people were eating my food and just saying, “Thank you.” They were not picking out the nuances in my curry chicken not having enough anise seeds. It felt like I was returning to address the basic human needs of subsistence and nutrition.
In June, I joined as co-chair of National Advisory Committee on Food Security, with Alice Waters of Chez Panisse, to help develop a curriculum on the 37-acre college campus to create edible gardens, optimize food preparation, and to act as an advocate for food insecurity for college students so they don’t have to choose between paying tuition and eating.
Currently, I am involved with the Herbert H. Lehman Food Security and Sustainability Initiative. I closely work with the students to inspire them through my own life journey of growing up in a modest Bronx apartment to working at some of the best restaurants in the world. I want to help these students get into restaurants as well. I want to show them the different avenues of food and cuisine, and what impact they can have in their area—whether it is through a local mom-and-pop or a fine dining restaurant.
It means a lot to start the conversation on food insecurity in my hometown. You don’t know where you’re going unless you know where you came from. I started working with Lehman College because a lot of kids—as many as 55%—go to bed hungry there, as they do at many campuses around the country. Research shows that kids who are food-insecure struggle academically.
We utilize the Herbert H. Lehman Food Bank’s pantry on campus to distribute food to the students. We talk about healthy eating habits, so students can make more nutritious choices. Lehman College’s Herbert H. Lehman Food Bank, the College’s Student Government Association, and Montefiore Health System gave out 900 bags of produce and Thanksgiving staples to cook a traditional Thanksgiving dinner. I personally hosted a cooking demonstration at the “Buen Provecho with All the Fixin’s” annual Thanksgiving meal giveaway, where I prepared jerk broccoli with cornbread pudding and pickled chow-chow for 200 students. My goal is to raise public awareness about food justice and insecurity and implement sustainable practices on the Bronx campus, as well as influence relevant policies.
Is there a long-term solution to food insecurity? I am still figuring out what it might be. In the meantime, I hope to inspire people to use their talents, finances, and time to do more in their own communities. It is more important now to look within yourself to see what you can do. And I say that for restaurateurs, chefs, colleges, organizations, and legislatures.
Planting the seeds in students is the first step. I created the Kwame Onwuachi ’13 Scholarship Fund at the Culinary Institute of America this year. One of the students receiving the scholarship came to the event at Lehman College with me and got to see the work we are doing firsthand. There is a lot of work to be done, and we are just getting started, but I also hope that my initiative becomes a platform for others to speak up on the issue. We have to inspire the next generation to do more, and to do better.
Photo: Storm Santos.