Chef Kwame Onwuachi is having a moment. Or perhaps a multi-year series of them. Since a Top Chef appearance in 2015 springboarded him into the mainstream eye, Onwuachi’s resume has expanded to include more and more roles. He’s a repeat author, multi-time restaurateur, creative director, and designer. In 2022, he even partnered with Orly Beauty to release a line of cooking-friendly fingernail polish.
He’s also built a bi-coastal reputation as a host and master of ceremonies for industry dinners, which often involve decadent courses and multiple Champagne toasts. A note to the reader, speaking from experience: Those are invites you never want to turn down.
Onwuachi is now leveraging that experience for more crossover work between food and beverage. In 2022, he partnered with G.H. Mumm for a creative campaign titled “Mark Your Own Journey,” which leans on pairing champagne with Nigerian-inspired meals honoring Onwuachi’s Nigerian heritage.
Drinkhacker recently caught up with Onwuachi to discuss finding inspiration in unexpected places, along with how he thinks the Champagne category can redefine its role in American hospitality.
Note: This interview has been edited for readability.
Drinkhacker: Let’s talk a little bit about how you first started appreciating the importance of pairing drinks with food?
Kwame Onwuachi: It started in my career out of misunderstanding food in general and the dining experience. I think that’s when pairings come into play: to create a true culinary experience, they go hand-in-hand together. I got a job at Craft as a wine apprentice, and I had a wine mentor who made me read all these books. I understood its importance, and also its relevance in creating a full experience.
Drinkhacker: Take us through your process. When you’re developing recipes that go with a particular drink, how are you building those recipes with the drink flavors in mind, and vice versa?
Kwame Onwuachi: It’s about balance when you’re pairing, the balance of acidity, balance of fat, and knowledge of what you’re pairing. Take champagne as an example. The classic GH Mumm goes really well with the hamachi, for example, but a rosé goes really well with panna cotta. It’s really about understanding the notes of whichever beverage you’re pairing the dish with. I don’t want to say it’s easy, but there are things that work and there are things that don’t, and even then, sometimes the things that don’t work sometimes work. So you try to follow your own guidelines, but there’s also a big element of trial and error.
Drinkhacker: What’s a more adventurous pairing you’ve tried that really you were able to pull off, perhaps one that surprised you?
Kwame Onwuachi: I had a wine director at one of my first restaurants, and he paired sherry with this honey nut squash velouté. It didn’t seem right on paper, but like when you enjoyed them together, it worked. So I would say that’s probably the most obscure thing.
Drinkhacker: What are some of the underestimated challenges in the restaurant business?
Kwame Onwuachi: Waking up and doing it every day! A lot of work goes into operating a restaurant, and there’s a lot of stuff behind the scenes, whether it’s staff call outs or things not coming in, people forget to order stuff, or fire alarms going off. How you deal with those challenges all influence a dining experience, and your customers aren’t seeing those. It’s kind of like being a swan, and your feet are kicking all the time underneath, but on the surface you look like you’re coasting.
Drinkhacker: It seems like as you focus as your career grown, you have the business aspect of Kwame and you have the creativity aspect of Kwame, and you have to hold them in balance. What are some things you’ve learned on your career to keep keep those two sides of the coin in harmony?
Kwame Onwuachi: I focus on my craft, and I do things with intentionality, and then the rest follows. Honestly. I also hire people to do things that I can’t do myself. I’m not just running around doing everything. So I’m able to continue to walk in my purpose and be an artist while still getting my business done. And that’s because I’ve just surrounded myself with really great people.
Drinkhacker: Are you still beverage directing at your own restaurants?
Kwame Onwuachi: No, I have a beverage director at my restaurants, but I always have influence and give ideas. I think it’s super important and it kind of bridges that gap from a dining room to the kitchen. If we’re more collaborative, we’re not wasting things, and we can put those in the cocktails.
Drinkhacker: Where do you look for inspiration these days? When it comes to what the recipes you’re building, the menus you’re building, the pairings you’re trying to create and make happen?
Kwame Onwuachi: I push myself forward! That’s it. I look to the past honestly, and I look at stories, I look for inspiration all around us. It could happen at the bodega, it could happen at a fine dining restaurant. It can happen when you go visit your family for the holidays, and that’s where I look for inspiration. I like to really connect a story to something. When something has a story, it has a soul, and you’re cooking to share something with someone. Like right now we’re working on a Hot Pocket dish at the restaurant and getting the microwavable sleeve around it.
Drinkhacker: Last question. When is a good time for Champagne?
Kwame Onwuachi: All the time! It’s not just a celebratory drink. You gotta treat yourself! Every day for me is Christmas. Every day is my birthday. Every day on this earth is so special. So drink more Champagne, pop that bottle, and enjoy life.