clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The Curious Case of the Shaw Bijou

‘Top Chef’ alum Kwame Onwuachi, one of the most exciting young chefs in America, opened a high-end restaurant in the hottest dining city in America. Less than three months later, it was closed. What happened?

Kwame Onwuachi (Getty Images)
Kwame Onwuachi (Getty Images)

Kwame Onwuachi was devastated. In January, the 27-year-old Top Chef alum learned that his much-hyped first restaurant would be closing after only two-and-a-half months of operation. The Shaw Bijou, a swanky Washington, D.C., venue, was supposed to be Onwuachi’s pièce de résistance — an ambitious, highly anticipated addition to the city’s newly burgeoning fine dining scene.

But (largely negative) reviews had come in quickly, most of them focused chiefly on the restaurant’s inaccessible price tag. At $185 for a tasting menu base price, the Shaw Bijou would run most diners nearly $500 a person after drinks, tax, and tip were added. For The Washington Post’s Tom Sietsema, “Dinner at the Shaw Bijou feels more like extended hors d’oeuvres.” The Washingtonian’s Corby Kummer noted that it’s “impossible not to apply special scrutiny to a colossally expensive experience.”

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

The restaurant, with its high prices, online ticketing system for its 32 seats, multiroom-dinner-party-style setup, and Icelandic sheep wool–covered seats, was sinking under the weight of its own hype. Onwuachi needed to change something, and he needed to do it quickly.

“It hurts — you put a lot of energy into something, and then someone can come along and say that they just don’t think it’s good or needs work,” Onwuachi said when we spoke recently. “But it’s part of the game. It’s part of being in the industry — getting judged.

“You’re gonna have to deal with it and adapt, or — I mean, there is no ‘or,’ that’s all you can do really.”

For Onwuachi, adaptation meant tweaking the original $185 tasting menu and offering a $95, seven-course menu instead. In a December press release, Onwuachi said humility “creeps up on you when least expected, and the opening of this restaurant has taught us just that. This being our first restaurant, and for some a first business venture, we had a substantial amount of learning and adjusting to do.”

But no major review ran after the restaurant’s switch to the more modest price, and within weeks, the Shaw Bijou had closed.

Before the Shaw Bijou, Onwuachi’s love of cooking had already taken him on quickly evolving journeys. The young chef went from waiting tables and cleaning kitchens in New York to starting his own catering company at 20. He eventually spent time as a line cook at the city’s famed Eleven Madison Park. By the time he was 25, he was competing on Top Chef (he finished sixth in his season) and securing initial investments in the Shaw Bijou after winning a competition through a company called Brenner Labs. The entire process felt like a blitz to Onwuachi, who “always wanted to open a restaurant but never knew it would happen that fast.”

Moving quickly and with a tenacious desire to learn, Onwuachi, the Bronx-raised son of a Creole mother and Nigerian and Jamaican father, has made adaptation of both business strategy and food itself a hallmark of his stacked early career. His emphasis on fluidity of culture and culinary influence finds its roots in the techniques he learned and enthusiasm he inherited from his mother, who operated a catering company from her home.

Onwuachi grew up “at her feet,” watching her pull from a variety of culinary influences as she prepared meals. She later moved to Baton Rouge and then New Orleans, and Onwuachi followed along. While studying business administration at the University of Bridgeport (“pretty much just to please her”), Onwuachi told his mom he wanted to pursue cooking. “She was very excited,” he said. And when the time came to open his first place, the Shaw Bijou took its name from both the D.C. neighborhood where it was housed and the French translation of Onwuachi’s mother’s name, Jewel.

“She inspires me to this day,” Onwuachi said of his mother, whose influence is woven throughout his meals. Among the most notable of her specific dishes was a fisherman’s pie, made from lobster, shrimp, and crab meat and a Parmesan bechamel with pommes purée, which Onwuachi reimagined as “a caramelized lobster bechamel with a crispy potato crumble and a coal-roasted Japanese sea green.”

That same inventive approach to cooking informed Onwuachi’s approach to the Shaw Bijou. Even the decision to offer a tasting menu was intended to offer guests a wide range of different flavors and origins. Sometimes billed as a Nigerian-inspired restaurant, the Shaw Bijou offered dishes that tracked Onwuachi’s travels: to Nigeria, yes, but also to Thailand, India, and all around the U.S. Onwuachi is hesitant to label his cooking in any specific cultural style, though he does incorporate flavors from his own backgrounds (think celery egusi) and from around the African continent (like Ethiopian-inspired tibs wot ravioli). “I’m so interested in all different types, it just happens naturally,” Onwuachi says of his cross-cultural cooking. Before the Shaw Bijou, those influences were often executed in conversation with specific clients of his catering company.

“I specialized in menu creations, so I would just say, ‘Tell me what you want,’ and [a client would respond with something like] ‘Well, I’m Jewish and he’s Puerto Rican, and we want to do this wedding,’’’ he said. “So then I would research both cuisines and try and fuse them together, so I was always intrigued by all different types of culture.”

But at the Shaw Bijou, dishes were tied into stories about Onwuachi’s life and travels, what Washington City Paper food editor Laura Hayes called “an edible biography.” Chocolates served at the end of the meal, for example, were meant to be a nod to harder times during which Onwuachi sold chocolates on the subway. Hayes wrote about her trip to the Shaw Bijou in November, a week after the restaurant’s opening. Though she insists she’s not a critic and the blog post was not a formal review, her observations tracked those of critics like the Washingtonian’s Kummer, for whom the emphasis on narrative felt distracting and sometimes inauthentic (“You get the uneasy sense that you’ve wandered into a cult when servers sincerely relate the story of the time Onwuachi discovered a dish of crabs prepared by a wise old Indian cook”).

“The price was a hard hurdle to stomach because I know how many people, including me, felt drawn to Onwuachi’s drive and personality on Top Chef and wanted to try his food,” Hayes said in an email. “I would have preferred more emphasis on the guest experience instead of the chef’s backstory.”

For chefs of color, especially those operating at a level as high as Onwuachi, a powerful backstory can be nearly impossible to separate from the overall dining experience. The high-end restaurant industry, especially in D.C., is overwhelmingly white. Onwuachi may be young, but he is also a black man whose life has taken him on extraordinary journeys that will manifest themselves on the plates he offers. Like Red Rooster’s Marcus Samuelsson, Onwuachi was and is compelling partly because of the speed and unlikeliness of his path. To shy away from the stories that created their dishes — and their ability to serve them — might also have felt inauthentic.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

But in the landscape of D.C.’s luxury restaurant industry, Onwuachi needed to prove himself several times over for those very reasons: his age, his race, and his status as a newcomer. With odds like those stacked against him, succeeding with a price so high was nearly impossible no matter how deftly he weaved his own story into diners’ experiences, Hayes said.

“The Shaw Bijou opened at the height of D.C.’s restaurant boom when everyone was riding high on being named Bon Appetit’s restaurant city of the year, landing the first ever D.C. Michelin guide, and other chest-bump-worthy national accolades,” she said. “It also arrived at the height of the tasting menu trend, when D.C. diners were really embracing trusting the chef to show off his or her best work.

“Here’s the catch. Most of the priciest restaurants in the city have a built-in way for customers to test-drive a chef’s cuisine before springing for a big-bucks meal. If you’re thinking about Métier, you can dine at Kinship, for example,” Hayes continued. “Starting with a more casual a la carte option before spring-boarding into a blockbuster restaurant could have worked for … Onwuachi (as it worked for Aaron Silverman, Eric Ziebold, Johnny Monis, and José Andrés). Especially because he has far less experience than these chefs.”

The Washingtonian’s Jessica Sidman, who later broke the news of the restaurant’s closing, agreed with Hayes in her December assessment of the restaurant’s turbulence: “Minibar, Métier, and Pineapple and Pearls, which also charge hundreds of dollars per person, continue to earn praise and fill seats. Even before they opened, though, they didn’t get the same kind of backlash — in large part because their chefs are known entities with proven reputations … If there’s any meaning to extract here, it’s that the fierce competition and proliferation of restaurants has made it harder than ever to succeed.”

“It just didn’t seem to be a viable business really. The concept was good, we just weren’t able to execute it,” co-owner and Immortal Beloved salon entrepreneur Kelly Gorsuch told Sidman. “It just became too costly with labor and the quality of the ingredients, and unfortunately, if you can’t cut those two things down, it’s usually the end of business.”

Today, Onwuachi insists guests who did trust the restaurant with their evenings (and their wallets) were the center of the Shaw Bijou experience. His interaction with them — the ability to create an evening that stood out, that people would be willing to save for — was among the most rewarding parts of having his own restaurant.

“When I lived in New York City and I was getting paid like $10 an hour as a line cook, I would save up my money to go to these expensive restaurants and see what they were doing,” Onwuachi said. He wanted to create something that felt entirely out of the ordinary, a “restaurant that people could come to and have a great time [especially on] special occasions.”

“People would write letters saying how great it was,” he said. “We would do special things for certain people. If we found they really liked, I don’t know, cheeseburgers, for example, this is something off the cuff … We would do something like dry-aged wagyu cheeseburger with a homemade bun. And we would specialize, like personalize, the menu for certain people. So it was a very unique experience, we made sure everyone had a good time.”

In the wake of the restaurant’s closing, Onwuachi is looking forward to opening another restaurant in the future, though he won’t say how soon. For now he’s “reviewing a lot of different options,” but whatever comes next is set to be more accessible, a “more relaxed environment” than the Shaw Bijou: “I don’t think I’m gonna do the Shaw Bijou again. I don’t think that’s the most wise thing to do,” he said with a laugh, “but I’m still gonna be true to myself and that’s pretty much all that I can take away from it.”

Many young chefs, especially chefs of color, aren’t afforded opportunities to aim high and continue to reinvent themselves in the face of a difficult loss. Investors can be fickle, and the industry shifts rapidly. That Onwuachi can look toward the future now — and anticipate support in his forthcoming endeavors — is an anomaly. But it’s one he plans to step into with a grounded spirit and a renewed commitment to what he loves most about cooking.

“When I have friends over, or when I’m cooking with other chefs, it’s more relaxed,” he said. “And it comes across in the food.

“I want to cook the way that I cook at home for people.”