Chef Kwame Onwuachi on His Influences and New NYC Restaurant
Kwame Onwuachi, who opened the restaurant Tatiana earlier this month.
Photo: DeSean McClinton-Holland
Lincoln Center is about two miles southwest of Blue Sky Deli, the bodega formerly known as Hajji’s, the spot considered the birthplace of the chopped cheese. That sandwich — made with sautéed ground beef, cheese slices, onions, peppers, and spices — has been a local staple for decades. At Lincoln Center’s newest restaurant, Tatiana, the chef Kwame Onwuachi is offering a version of his own. “I wanted to pay homage,” he says, “in a little steamed bun with dry-aged beef, smoked mozzarella, and black truffles.”
Tatiana is named for Onwuachi’s older sister, and the chef wanted its menu to reflect the food he grew up eating, a blend of Nigerian, Trinidadian, Jamaican, and Creole cooking — cuisines rarely acknowledged at top-rated American restaurants where the focus is still stubbornly Eurocentric. “It’s the food of immigrants,” Onwuachi says of his menu. “That’s what I love about my background. I’m able to tell a lot of stories of the Black experience around the globe.”
Lincoln Center was built on what had been known as San Juan Hill, a vibrant community of Black and brown residents who were removed for the development. At Tatiana, Onwuachi is showcasing ingredients and dishes that would naturally have been prepared in San Juan Hill households. “I’m just trying to tell a story that resonates with me,” he says. “It’s a story of my upbringing, which encapsulates all of those things. I’m trying to give a voice to the inaudible.”
Part of that effort involves offering dishes that are popular in their respective communities but not exactly championed by the culinary Establishment. For example, Onwuachi turns to the Caribbean for one appetizer: the patties, long a staple in the Jamaican community (and thus the larger West Indian and Black communities), are filled here with curried goat, another favorite of the island nation. There’s also a nod to Jamaica’s escovitch fish and its spicy-tart vegetable topping, as well as brown stew fish, made at Tatiana with snapper that is dense with seasoning. Sofrito roasted chicken and oxtails with rice and peas round out the Caribbean offerings before the Deep South comes into view. Salmon Creole (made with king crab, gumbo panade, and roasted okra) speaks to the bountiful seafood of the region and its connection to Africa, while an entrée called Mom Duke’s Shrimp conjures memories of his own mother’s Creole cooking. “She would make us peel-and-eat shrimp growing up, with Creole-spiced butter, garlic, and thyme,” Onwuachi recalls.
In fact, Onwuachi’s mom, a professional chef herself, introduced her son to a variety of cuisines in addition to those of her heritage. He recalls eating hummus often as a child and wanted to incorporate its cooling effect with his berbere-spiced lamb, which is complemented by m’semen flatbread.
“When I was younger, I worked at Hot Bread Kitchen, an incubator program for refugee women from different countries,” he says. “They would cook the bread of their culture, and one of the breads was m’semen from Morrocco. It’s something I always have on my menu in some way.”
There are tiers to African-food recognition: Ethiopian and North African cuisines with their Middle Eastern influences are somewhat more widely eaten and familiar in this country than West African food is. That region’s rich stews are heavy with spice combinations and local ingredients that can be unfamiliar to the western palate. Egusi soup, for example, a common Nigerian meal, is typically made from the seeds of bitter melon and has a creamy, nutty flavor. Onwuachi’s egusi soup dumplings offer a twist on the classic dish, which is traditionally eaten by hand with pounded yam. “I wanted to do something different,” he explains. “You can get everything in one bite with the dumpling. The egusi wrapper has the texture of fufu and then you have the stew at the bottom.”
Tatiana’s menu also nods to New York City — with such offerings as Take-out Mushrooms, a version of Peking mushrooms with scallion pancakes — and the décor makes specific local references, such as iridescent columns that resemble wet fire hydrants. A lattice of hanging gold links, Onwuachi says, reminds him “of hopping chain-link fences” as a kid.
“It makes me proud to cook the food that I want to cook in the style that I want to cook it,” Onwuachi says. “Hopefully, more opportunities like this will be given to a lot of different people after seeing the success of this place.” Although David Geffen Hall may not at first seem like a natural destination for this kind of cooking, it’s fitting that Tatiana is located where immigrants — West Indians, Puerto Ricans, and African Americans, many of whom came north during the Great Migration — were once displaced and whose dishes are now finally, proudly being offered to a more welcoming public. In its own way, Tatiana is doing its part to revive the legacy of the neighborhood, its cuisines, and its cultures.