A little tradition can go a long way. In the case of Chef Kwame Onwuachi, it takes the form of a dish that he’s carried with him for the better part of his career, and re-invented as his own: fisherman’s pie.
From his childhood home in the Bronx, the dish has found its way onto the menu of Onwuachi’s debut restaurant, The Shaw Bijou. While his version of the meal is almost unrecognizable in form to the version he enjoyed as a birthday treat during his childhood, it is clearly related in feeling. Though he has swapped out cooked shrimp, whipped potatoes, and parmesan béchamel for delicate tranches of charred Japanese Madai snapper with lobster foam and spinach purée, elements of the dish his mother used to cook for him once a year still resonate with Onwuachi.
“Our version of the fisherman’s pie really embodies what we’re trying to do here, taking different types of cuisine and food memories, and altering it to the way I view food today,” Onwuachi says, with a wistful smile.
As a sous chef runs out with a pristine baking tray, Onwuachi continues, slowly layering each of the principal ingredients in his effort to replicate his mother’s version of the dish.
“She ran a catering company out of our house in the Bronx. I could only get one special thing each year, and I would always choose fisherman’s pie, though I never knew what it really was, or its origin.”
Onwuachi is Executive Chef and owner of The Shaw Bijou, the latest addition to Washington, D.C.’s fine dining scene. This is the former Top Chef contestant’s first venture at the helm of a high-end restaurant, and expectations are high. This is natural, considering the hype behind his experience — with stops at New York City luminaries Eleven Madison Park and Per Se, and the price point — $185 for the tasting menu, before drinks, tax, or tip. It suffices to say that the young Chef has his work cut out for him. He’s up for the challenge.
“We talk to our guests about fine dining with soul,” Onwuachi says, enthusiastically and with heavy emphasis on the last word.
It’s a Friday afternoon in early November, and by some stroke of coincidence, it happens to be the young Chef’s 27th birthday.
Onwuachi stands in the main dining room of his week-old restaurant and surveys the house he has built. With a few hours until that evening’s first seating, front of the house staff is busy at work polishing silverware, hand-writing menus, arranging centerpieces. The walls are painted slate gray, with long stretches of exposed brick, and light pouring in through the big windows. The furniture is elegant and minimalist, transmitting a sense of solidity without ever grabbing your attention. The custom-made Cloud Terre plates are delicate and gorgeous. The message here is clear: everyone is happy to let the food do the heavy lifting in terms of color and pop.
He grabs a culinary torch from a nearby countertop and begins to methodically apply heat to the layer of parmesan, slowly forming a bubbling, brûléed crust. We let the dish sit for a few minutes, and Onwuachi summons the ingredients for his modern twist, usually served about mid way through the tasting menu.
“We want to make sure that our cuisine has a lot of soul and flavor, but maintains that level of precision and technique that you expect from a high end restaurant. That’s what we are aiming for here.”
In the kitchen, a cadre of sous-chefs and line cooks are putting the finishing touches on prep work, the team echoing their boss in terms of age and energy.
His cuisine is “modern American” in the same way that Flying Lotus’ music is contemporary jazz – you can recognize the major motifs and rhythms of their forebears, but the resulting creation is something decidedly different, absorbing elements from all the influences within reach to stand on its own.
While his mother’s version of the fisherman’s pie was a Cajun twist on a British coastal staple, Onwuachi’s dish is decidedly more cosmopolitan. A portable wood burning oven is placed on a table, with two small logs of Japanese binchōtan charcoal beautifully smoking. Onwuachi marinates a piece of Japanese Madai snapper in jalapeño vinaigrette and lays it across the wood. As the fish slowly cooks, he scoops a dollop of garlic and spinach purée into the base of the bone-white Cloud Terre bowl.
“You always have to respect where a dish comes from. I looked exactly at the traditional version of the fisherman’s pie, and it has spinach and a white flakey fish – no lobster and crab or shrimp,” Onwuachi explains, as he turns the piece of Madai over. “I think my mom made that because of her New Orleans background, and she used a lot of cajun spices. This is why we’re adding some Korean chili flake – to emulate that kind of heat.”
As we wait, the Chef puts the finishing touches on a fennel salad, and uses tweezers to pluck strands of an herb for plating. Slum Village’s “Fall In Love” plays in the background, floating in and out of focus. All of these efforts are keeping in line with Onwuachi’s dedication and attention to detail.
“I thought this was a perfect example to share with you guys today – a dish I grew up eating – but with my twist on it. And it’s delicious.”
A minute or so later, Onwuachi gently nestles the piece of fish in between the spinach and fennel salad, adds a couple of spoonfuls of toasted potato crumbs, a dash of fleur de sel, a pinch more of chili flake. He produces house-made foamed caramelized lobster béchamel from a stainless steel canister, creamy, rich, and full of depth-forward umami. He places the two dishes side by side, and begins plating servings of each version of the dish for us to try.
“Every night we’re throwing a big house party; that’s what we want it to feel like. With dry aged wagyu and caviar, of course,” he adds, laughing.
Onwuachi pauses to flash a big, wolfish grin, hamming up faux-cockiness that might have a kernel of truth. “Because that’s how my house parties are. That’s how we ball.”