sometimes come in his lunge. Or it might be in the middle of a bicep curl, or it might be when he’s sweating profusely while doing gymnastics. But inspiration might strike when chef Kwame Onwuachi does an hour-long, five-time-a-week workout in the gym of his Manhattan apartment complex. It doesn’t happen often, but man, when does it happen? It’s amazing.
A few months ago, the 33-year-old chef was known for bold dishes that drew flavors from his multicultural heritage, including the American South, the Caribbean and Nigeria. His new restaurant, Tatiana, which opened last November at Lincoln Center in New York City, is a crowd-pleaser. “Suddenly, I had the idea of a salmon dish with gumbo — like its skin — with Creole sauce and crispy gumbo,” recalls Onwuachi, with a happy face memories. “I did it, it was really cool!” He laughed. “Hey, inspiration comes in many forms. When I work out, I try to tune out and forget about life, but sometimes you have a great idea.”
Onwuachi has a lot of great ideas in his life, which has taken him on a flavor journey from Long Island, where he was born, to Nigeria, Louisiana, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and now back to New York. He stopped selling candy and made money opening several restaurants on the subway, including the award-winning Kith/Kin.pit stop top chef 2015 helped boost his public profile.
He takes his workouts very seriously, both to keep his fitness in check and to advance professionally. “I do feel like exercising makes me smarter and healthier, which is good for my career and my health,” Onwuachi said. “When I start my day with a two-mile run, I find myself more efficient and motivated to take advantage of each day. I like to run at 6:00 or 7:00 in the morning, and then once you’re done, you can start gone.”
Onwuachi’s workouts are a mix of modalities, usually starting with 15 minutes of cardio — running, box jumping or walking lunges (or, in the summer, playing basketball with friends). Then he lifts weights. He says he focuses on one part of his body each day, telling himself to clear away any work-related worries. He likes to do dips and bench presses—at a recent workout, I saw him sweating out 200-pound reps. He usually ends with some soothing and meditative yoga. “I’ve learned that working out doesn’t fully wake me up, but it reduces work stress, and I can take some of the frustration out by lifting weights,” he says. “Now with my restaurant education — the trial by fire — I’m able to work things out and not get as frustrated with certain things as I used to be.”
He has only been exercising seriously for a few years. Shortly before the pandemic hit, Onwuachi was shocked when his longtime friend Nigel Quiroz entered a bodybuilding competition. “I saw him doing it and I was like, ‘How the hell did you do that? It’s crazy!'” he recalls. “He told me he just started cardio in the morning and weight training in the evening, but mostly watching everything he ate. So I started taking his advice.”
Onwuachi credits exercise for helping him maintain a healthy lifestyle, which he admits is difficult because running a restaurant is not the easiest thing to do. It helps keep your body in shape as you run around the stove and greet customers at their tables all night. “The goal of my business is to have fun, and I like to have fun,” he says with a laugh. “But exercise helps keep me in check. If I feel like having a drink or two, I think, why am I wasting my workout today? Helped me a lot.”
Onwuachi has a different training schedule than most. He said he would do long workouts for three months straight, and then he would take a month or so off to relax and have a good time. “I’ll take a break and then I find myself missing it,” he said. “When I know I’m going to be on TV, I get ready and work out a lot. We all like to look good on TV.”
Short term fitness
When the chef is on the go, he does this simple exercise in his hotel room.
Biceps Curls with Strength Bands
Easy to use in hotel room. He did 3 sets of 12 reps to keep his arms in good shape.
Do 4 times for 30 to 60 seconds. Brace your core and breathe deeply.
Do 15 push-ups, 15 deep lunges, and 30 squats on each side. Do 4 rounds.
A version of this story originally appeared in the March 2023 issue of Men’s Health with the headline “6 a.m….King of Flavors.”
Michael J. Lewis is a veteran journalist, former sports writer for newspapers and magazines, and currently a New York-based freelance writer and book editor.